Saints Row: The Third
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(originally published November 30, 2011)
". . .[Saints Row: The Third] a super-deformed, weaponized-speedball that knows the difference between good and evil."
There has been serendipitous fun in videogames for more than 25 years. Beating The Legend of Zelda in one sitting is serendipitous fun. Running through a grand prix cup in Super Mario Kart with the always-tiny cheat is serendipitous fun. Juggling a velociraptor with a quad rocket-launcher in Turok: Dinosaur Hunter is serendipitous fun. Doing backflips off the highway median in a stolen Yakuza sportscar in Grand Theft Auto III is madness and all-consuming and fun. These things are special because we discover them within a defined, but easily violated, set of rules that the videogame has laid out before us (. . .rules like gravity). This madness becomes ours and becomes true, golden escapism. Even if we are told somebody else discovered that exact same bar of gold, it's never theirs, it's ours. As far as we're concerned, dad invented speedruns when he accidentally beat Super Mario Bros. in 1989 in eight minutes.
Saints Row: The Third was probably made by a covenant of college students that spent a lot of time avoiding responsibility for their actions in Liberty City, probably the GTA3 version, and they learned where serendipitous fun came from, challenging us now with the question: "Why brew our game from anything that isn't instinct, projected?" That's freedom -- not being given the ability to do anything and told to find your fun, but rather anticipating what people will want to do with the dark materials given to them.
For example, Skyrim (Oblivion texture-mod out of 4) is a game that tells you to go anywhere and do anything but is honestly too nervous to admit it's 95% inventory-management, physics-breaking, menu-surfing, and loading screens draped in neat concept art. If you spend that much time scrolling through a fucking menu, Skyrim, maybe your game is missing direction and focus! The game is Zork and a Google image-search of Norway + "Game of Thrones." Skyrim is fantasy for somebody that's never stood on top of a mountain or actually ever drunk mead. It's made from honey.
Saints Row: The Third is a hyper-real, super-deformed, weaponized-speedball that knows the difference between good and evil.
It knows the barricades commonly set up inside videogames to keep us away from fun and it blows them up with gigantic gunpowder casks. SR3's interface ought to win a Nobel Prize for chemistry (between a human and a machine). Its menu-work extends as far as Summon → VTOL or Mission → Go. It is game-science and that science is too tight! It packs all the stickiest, ickiest, dankest fun into a bowl without a stick or stem in sight.
This game is kind of inside our brains, circa 2002. It's GameGenie: The Game. What was random is now a game. What was formerly secret to all but the inquisitive is now a game. What were formerly videogame war-stories usually reserved for hushed whispers at an arcade and shouted declarations in college dining halls are now part of a game, this game, Saints Row: The Third. Did you find rampaging around in a tank in Grand Theft Auto more fun than the missions? That is part of this game. Did you have fun playing with your corpse's ragdoll physics in Unreal Tournament? That is part of this game. Did you hate the elongated travel sections in Red Dead Redemption that seemed to bookend every mission and you were forced to repeat them if you fell off your horse? Those are not part of the game.
Saints Row: The Third has trimmed the fat. This is the leanest steak you've ever eaten. It's not the most tender and it doesn't have a fine hollandaise-sauce drizzle but it's served with mash potatoes and a red wine that's so good that it'll make you believe in God, so fuck you, here's your 14 oz. Porterhouse, if you wanted something else, you must be kidding yourself.
The gunplay is: SHMUP-perfect. The run-and-gun third-person shooter has resurfaced, reminding us of how much we loved Jet Force Gemini and Max Payne.
The driving is: Burnout on ice with studded caterpillar-treads. There's a strange clickity-clack friction when driving the really fast cars around the city and the acceleration is controller-grippening, so the moment you start to feel out of control, it's likely you'll crash. It won't really matter. You'll be back up to full-speed and crashing into a guardrail in the next 30 seconds.
The graphics are: A brand-new box of crayons, points still sharp, paper unpeeled. An entire village of tiny people worship the crayons and color inside the lines flawlessly, creating a milky, high-definintion utilitarian presentation with no loose threads.
The story is: Grand Theft Auto: The Animated Series. It airs at 11:30pm on Sundays on Cartoon Network. It starts with skydiving and ends with an assault on a helicarrier and never once does it wink at the camera.
Perhaps the most notable point for SR3 is the way the game changes if you play as a male or female character, or rather, no matter which you chose to play as, you don't really play as either. The character was written as a gender-neutral badass -- sassy and uncaring and invincible, a power-fantasy that talks and walks like a twenty-one year old with a bottomless bank account and every cheat code activated. Within all of this though, the character is genuine and downright friendly, like God on vacation. When you play as a guy, he's a goofball, and when you play as a girl, she's the same goofball. This is kind of jarring at first glance. It's so strange to watch because being a woman has no bearing whatsoever on the character's actions, which almost never occurs in a videogame. It's so far removed from how characters in any medium -- videogames or otherwise -- are created that we have to give it praise. Obviously, there was one script written for the main character that you play as, and there are seven different voice actors giving seven different readings of the script, which you can chose from when you customize that main character after the tutorial. There are three male, three female, and one zombie-voice. The readings differ only slightly but the lines have to always fit with the other characters' recorded dialog that they're speaking to and acting against, so by default, the character is defined by traits that have nothing to do with gender. When you're playing as a male, it's not as noticeable, because brash male leads that eat guitars, shoot off guns, and ignore all the ladies' fawning, like all us man-dudes do, are more common in games, and nobody comes up to him and say, "Shit, son, you are the human-male! I acknowledge your masculinity, for it is vibrant. Too much so, sometimes, brother. I miss your scent."
When you swap over to one of the female voices, it's a dramatic change. Your character becomes a woman that does not give any fucks about what she's doing and nobody ever acknowledges she's a she. She isn't entirely manly, but as we played and remembered back, we realized gradually that the male-version wasn't entirely manly either. They were both confident, well-adjusted, comfortable, and staggeringly balanced in how they carry themselves, credit to the writers and voice actors for delivering a character compatible with many faces. In the case of the women, it's a leap forward from the princesses, and the battle-hardened bad-girls, and the sopping piles of top-heavy softcore that the entertainment industry is blighted with.
For the female avatar in SR3, it isn't Girl Power, it's Person Power. She never goes into grandiose pontification about female-empowerment or male inadequacy, and that is empowerment in and of itself. There will be the occasional one-liner about chipping a nail during a gunfight, but that's not enough to derail the argument. This is a videogame character in what has eternally been a man's world -- in attitude, in practice, and almost exclusively in audience (but less-so recently, thank God) -- that does not mention the glass-ceiling she busted through to run a multi-national street gang. That's progress, folks! She isn't The Greatest Female Character In Games, but she is the best feminist icon in videogames since Alyx Vance in Half-Life 2. Outside of FemShep in the Mass Effect games, female characters in videogames are inherently FEMALE, meaning throughout the game, their symmetrical chromosomes will be commented on because they are not white Caucasian males. It's like whenever a Native American character shows up in games. He always sits cross-legged, and has a spirit guide, and a tomahawk, and a fringe-vest (T. Hawk, Turok, the guy from Prey, and Nightwolf, among others), and he is defined only by that building-block, Wikipedian-constriction.
The lady-lead in SR3 isn't defined by her femininity. She's defined by her leadership personality and her loyalty to her friends.
Certain publications have called out SR3 as the exact opposite to this. Edge-Online, in particular, a magazine that we respect a whole heckuva lot, particularly because they use the entire 1-10 scale (giving SR3 a 6 out of 10 in this case, which they defended with aplomb), reiterating in their review that the word "whore" is used ad-nauseum throughout the game, and thus, females are denigrated. In spite of this damnable, silly word, how does the protagonist -- for the sake of argument, female, in this case -- respond to these missions? Usually by blowing up helicopters, punching tigers, controlling the crisis, laughing at her enemies' disgusting insanity, and by being a leader that people know and respect because of her actions. She will defend her friends and conquer the city. She will run shit!
She feels no compulsion to prove anything, no compulsion to justify why she's a capable female-lead in an action game -- man's work. Nope, she doesn't verbalize, she just goes. Some might argue that calling a game female-empowerment because it's somewhat gender-blind is actually a bad thing. Wrong. Do people need any identity beyond anything but mere humanity to define themselves? Sometimes, kinda, yes, because we always need help from The Other to fill in the blanks about who we are as individuals -- we haven't quite gotten there in our videogame characters. Yet. SR3 is at least a step in the right direction though.
Do you remember in every action movie ever where a love-interest was shoehorned in because heavy-makeout is a base emotional reaction that people can identify with? Remember in Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, that sort-of-boring British navy movie that you expected to be Gladiator On A Boat, but was actually closer to Russell Crowe and Paul Bettany reenacting My Dinner With Andre in the Galapagos Islands, and you didn't realize there was only one woman (with no dialog) in the entire movie until your friend sat up straight and said just that?
"Dude! This boat's got more sausage than an Italian trireme! Where are all the wimmens at?!"
Suddenly, you realized that a wilting love-interest is an absolute waste in a lot of stories because all they do is reinforce gender stereotypes that "men are doctors" and "women are nurses," and that's just how shit is? A more advanced society would march on ahead of those draconian distinctions, indifferent to what superficially makes us different, gender, race, creed, and instead lets all people co-exist. The protagonist in SR3 can be a man or a woman, but s/he will always be a headstrong leader that doesn't wallow inside a macho-male compartment, or an overtly-feminine compartment, or a racial compartment, or nationality compartment -- all of which are options you can chose to create your avatar.
What began life as a cash-grab Grand Theft Auto clone has become one of the best feminist statements in videogames and in storytelling this year.
By ignoring restrictive tropes that normally weaken a person or a character, your mission is to kick ass in a city full of madmen. This game lets you summon a jet-bike to your side and fly around a city looking for boxes of inflatable sex-dolls. Whereas Grand Theft Auto has only hinted at these kinds of silly jokes in the past, SR3 is the cheat-sheet to videogames' evil that Rockstar (creators of GTA) coded into its games so your parents would see something that suspiciously looked like a bong, but was labeled as a "Hidden Package."
That piece of property you just bought in the Vice City slums looks an awful lot like a meth lab. No, man, it's a safehouse. No, in SR3, it's just a meth lab. It is. Don't fight it. We're passed apology and posturing and what a refreshing state it is. It's the revelation that the Wizard of Oz isn't a wizard, but he does have a vast network of shady contacts.
Why must we get out of the car to stand in the glowing circle to activate a mission? Because in GTA, we like to maintain some realism. There's a glowing fucking circle on the sidewalk, we abandoned realism about when we went on that 1000-person killing spree and didn't get the lethal injection. Ergo, in SR3, you don't have to stop your car, get out of your car, walk over to the glowing circle, and let the mission load.
This is A Game That Goes. That's the highest praise that we can give a game. A Game That Goes never leaves you lost or leaves you belaboring why it was "designed" in a particular way. The moment you step out of your own brain and into a developer's brain is the moment the game stops going. A game can go while having a plot that's standing still, as long as you, the player, are propelling things forward -- Uncharted 2's (* * * ½ out of 4) Tibetan village is a great example of A Game Going slowly. Batman: Arkham Asylum (* * * out of 4) is A Game That Goes. There's never a time where you sit there, staring at your map, wondering: "This seems silly. Do they really want me to burn 20 minutes walking all the way back across the world?" Games That Go usually have no loading screens. Metroid Prime (* * * * out of 4) and God of War (* * * * out of 4) are Games That Go, making you promise yourself that you'll stop playing at the next save point, we just want to see what's over this hill. For all the wrong reasons, Final Fantasy XIII (* * out of 4) is A Game That Goes, only because it's stupid-easy, impossible to die, and leaves you desperate for a good chapter to finally show up.
Saints Row: The Third is A Game That Goes. There's no load-time longer than 10 seconds. There's little to no slog or recovery time if you die. Getting around the city isn't a twenty-minute chore and it often earns you money and discovery. Upgrades are drip-fed to you like morphine and Red Bull, and the story is episodic and silly, holding you with sturdy talons as it approaches its mad-cap zenith, so if you giggled at the first skydiving sequence, you'll lose your shit when the soundtrack for the final mission kicks in.
Maybe the shock-value that the SR3 ad-campaign has been promoting has worn off on us -- we've been running around acting like maniacs in open-world games for a decade. Adding zany shit like floppy purple dildos, gimp-suits, furries, farts in a jar, Japanese game-show parodies, and a 3:1 ratio for citizens to attack-helicopters isn't validations, it's just the game catching up to gaming impulse. Those are such minor parts to the game that we feel icky about how the package is being misrepresented. The game is A Fool, shouting the truth, not for the rest of the players on stage, but for the audience's benefit. It knows everything, it has all the answers, it carries all the keys, and it exists in all worlds, digital or otherwise, doing The Dougie back and forth across The Line, and teaching it to anybody brave enough to ask.
We're back to even. Now get back to work and try to create a game that can make us cry. It's been almost twelve years since Final Fantasy IX.
-- @Alex Crumb (originally published 11/30/11)