Saints Row and Variable Tone

The Saints Row series is available on Steam and across multiple XBox and Playstation platforms.

Back in the college days, Saints Row 2 was our vice of choice. It was basically the pinnacle of an open-world game for us: a huge range of activities spread across a broad-but-not-overwhelming map, a smorgasbord of customization options, and a tongue-in-cheek swagger that helped sell the sheer wackiness of much of its side activities (and a select few of the story missions). It was pretty much the default game that my then-roommate and I would play after classwork was done, despite the fact that my PC at the time could barely handle the lower-end settings of what was admittedly a poorly-optimized port.

Yet even with our inbuilt good faith in in the series, when the much-hyped sequel came out just in time to capitalize on our coming down off its many thrills, our interest waned much more quickly; I’ve barely spent a third of the time in Saints’ Row The Third as I have its predecessor.

Even now, I’ve still never touched any of the rest of the series.

So what happened here?

Looks like we’ve got another mystery to sol- whoops, wrong cartoon.

Well, the long and short of it is, Saints Row got too fun.

I’ve never played the first game in the series, and frankly I probably never will. It was apparently a pretty by-the-numbers city-sandbox playing off the blockbuster success of the trilogy of Grand Theft Auto trilogy, so there wasn’t much to set it apart. Some friends say it was pretty fun, though, so it was clearly doing something right.

Then the second game hit just the right point where it found a proper niche. There was still a standard – though properly dramatized – gangland drama for the bones of the story, but everything else about it seemed to operate on a keen awareness that it was part of a sandbox that was meant to be played in.

There were a whole range of proper dressy outfits, casual sports clothes, and trendy wardrobes to choose from, with a good handful of gag ideas thrown in for those wanting to run around in a hot dog suit.

You could drive the usual muscle cars and their ilk, or you could modify a school bus with spiked tires, gaudy gold trim, and bright neon undercarriage lights.

You could pull in income by fighting rival gangs for control over their neighborhoods, or you could throw yourself in front of a car just to make cash off an insurance fraud suit.

In everything, there was the expected way, and the pants-on-your-head way.

And this is before the mods came in to extend it into something even more ludicrous, with dual-wielding shotguns and breaking the limits on the character creation sliders. In fact, we modded the game so aggressively that my old save files no longer load correctly, so I couldn’t even take fresh screenshots the other day!

My character, cosplaying as Abe Lincoln while carrying a cane with a hidden shotgun, is a cool guy who doesn’t look at explosions. Apologies for the c. 2010 image quality.

And when Saints Row the Third  came around… the pants-on-head was was pretty much the only way. Yes, there was much more of it, but it was also constant, from the very first mission in the game to a final act that canonically involved a zombie horde followed by an alien invasion, if I’m remembering correctly.

They overshot their goal, and landed in a world that was just exhausting to deal with every second of the game.

Presumably Saints Row IV was more of the same, as it involved the protagonist simultaneously gaining superpowers and being the U.S. President.

And that’s a shame. A huge part of what made the second game work for me wasn’t only in the silliness of it all, but every bit as much in the juxtaposition that caused.

Yeah, they left shock paddles in you to shock citizens with, but you get them via missions ferrying people with increasingly-ludicrous injuries to a hospital. There’s a flying saucer to play with, but it’s only in via a cheat code (yeah! remember those?). And much of the fun with the physics engine is had by players getting creative and using far more explosives than are appropriate.

It wasn’t part and parcel of the main story missions, which are instead fueled by revenge and greed, feeding a destructive cycle of violence that your participatory in (which sounds only slightly more compelling that it actually is). It wasn’t in the form of a Johnson-shaped bat that the game gives you early in the first act; you definitely have to go out of your way to get anything close to that.

All of these things in the game, but hidden away and brought into the sandbox by the player’s own power. These goofy tools feel like they’re invading the otherwise-straight-faced Stilwater rather than inhabiting it naturally. There was this perverse giddiness to feeling like we’d done something that we ought not to have done, that we were breaking the world’s normal rules in some way. That’s what made the whole concept so ding-dang fun for us. And its’ something I don’t think Saints Row ever quite delivered on before or after the narrow window of its second game.

Then again, maybe I’m just a codger who needs to take breaks from all these loud noises and can’t handle the high-energy-all-the-time action of  the games you kids play nowadays.

Or maybe a sandbox isn’t quite as fun if you’re only allowed to throw the sand around and never to just sit and build with it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s