What I find interesting about the Saints Row series – which I will now refer to exclusively in the past tense, because by the end of Saints Row IV the story arc has been written into a corner so hard that it left an imprint of its face on both the walls – is that I went along with it completely. For Saints Row 2 I created a character, and for each subsequent Saints Row game I made the effort to recreate the same character as closely as possible, even visibly aging them a bit in each new instalment. Continuing the story as anyone else just didn’t feel ‘right’.
Let me tell you about him: In my mind, his name was Spider. Because he was very thin, and (obviously) used the Cockney voice that I think sounds equal parts devious and perverse. I’d make his eyes wide and starey, darkening the areas around them with make-up, and slightly turn up the sides of his mouth into a permanent half-smile. Spider decided during the course of Saints Row 2 to model himself on a Batman villain, and from that moment on would always take the earliest opportunity to dress up in a colour co-ordinated suit with matching bowler hat and domino mask. Not that he thought of himself as a villain. He just felt it was time someone reclaimed Riddler-chic.
Saints Row, I think, found the best possible middleground between having a customisable protagonist unique to each player and having a protagonist with meaningful characterisation. The trouble with games like your Dragon Age or your Skyrim is that you choose every action, every line of dialogue (this goes back to what I’ve been saying about dialogue trees of late), and every moral choice that your character makes, as well as their appearance. The end result being a character that feels like they don’t have any personality at all. It’s not you, the player, because they’re restricted to acting within a fairly small pool of abilities and responses, and it’s not a character of their own, either, because it has to double-check with you before it can lift a finger.
The point being, a character we control down to the ground is a character that cannot possibly surprise us. And being able to surprise us is what makes a character interesting. Mass Effect‘s Commander Shepard is customizable to a large degree and speaks through dialogue wheels, but it’s the moments when s/he takes his own initiative that gives him/her that bit of oomph. Like when we give him/her the vague instruction to do something renegade-y and s/he decks a journalist in the face.
Similarly, my boy Spider was always finding ways to surprise me throughout the course of Saints Row. Once you’ve created their look and style and picked a voice, their decisions and dialogue lines are out of your hands, so the games are full of great character moments. And because we, the player, created the protagonist, there’s a greater sense of investment and ownership of those moments, even if we have no control over them. The actions that the protagonist makes are always the same, but a lot of personality can be conveyed solely in appearance and voice. The same action performed by two wildly different characters can have different interpretations.
And it was also pleasant, while I was deliberately growing this character as the series went on, to see the games themselves grow and develop. They were gradually casting off the stigma of the first Saints Row basically just being one of many GTA clones. They moved more towards the outlandish end of the genre, the same area that GTA itself once occupied but gradually shunned, and eventually created its own identity. Which was fitting, because if you’ll indulge a little over-interpretation on my part, I think ‘identity’ could be considered one of the ongoing themes of the series.
In the first game you’re a new member of the Third Street Saints, and it was the only game in which your character could not speak. By lacking a voice, you lacked an identity. With the appearance customisation options, you were nobody, and at the same time, everybody. Consciously or not, could this represent how Saints Row as a whole thought of itself? It was entering the sandbox crime game genre while it was still dominated by Grand Theft Auto, a nondescript clamouring voice among a legion of pretenders.
But that changed with Saints Row 2, didn’t it? GTA 4 was out by then, and had abandoned its throne as king of the madcap irresponsible freedom crowd to go all brown and realistic on us. Suddenly, there was a niche. And Saints Row awoke from its dormancy to claim it. Appropriately, the game begins with the protagonist waking up from a coma, and immediately discovering that they now possess a voice. Saints Row now had an identity of its own: the one that GTA discarded. Our protagonist is free to take control of their own destiny, first by taking over the Saints, then by becoming the most powerful gang in the city. They build their identity one garment and tattoo at a time, and simultaneously, Saints Row the series is building its new identity, distinct from its cookie-cutter origins.
Saints Row 3 begins after the Saints have achieved their ultimate goal of becoming the most powerful gang in the city, and we see what form the reward took: celebrity super-stardom. And fame of course is the ultimate expression of identity; it is by definition the state of having your existence known of by ever-larger numbers of people. The villains in Saints Row 3 attempt to defeat the Saints by trapping them in a city where they are less well-known, but this backfires, as it only provides the Saints an opportunity to expand their profile ever further.
But the pursuit of fame is an insecure ambition. Remember that at any point in these games the main character can go to a plastic surgeon and completely change their appearance and voice; the identity that you hold so precious is and always has been as fragile as glass. You, frankly, could be anyone. Perhaps this psychotic pursuit of fame, power and violence is not some egotistical rampage but a desperate plea to be remembered? A plea by an individual who could be replaced at any moment by literally any other human being.
This comes to a logical culmination in Saints Row 4 when this person becomes the President of the United States. Every single child born into America is told that perhaps they could grow up to be President, and therefore, President is the ultimate everyman job. A fitting position for a person who is everyone and no-one at the same time, and with the ultimate generic ambition achieved, a fitting conclusion to the arc of the ultimate generic character.
I’m not sure what the aliens mean, in that case. It’s possible they just got bored at that point, kind of like I am now with this argument.
Yahtzee is a British-born, currently Australian-based writer and gamer with a sweet hat and a chip on his shoulder. When he isn’t talking very fast into a headset mic he also designs freeware adventure games. His personal site is www.fullyramblomatic.com.