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2013 in Review: Big Budget Games are a Joke, So Why is Saints Row IV the Only One Laughing?

Volition made its mark by casually skewering the medium's clichés.

By Jeremy Parish. Published 4 months ago

I made several hard choices this year, but few were as crucial, or difficult, as my decision to end world hunger.

You'd think that would have been an easy decision, right? Who wouldn't want to put an end to world hunger, given the opportunity? In this case, though, the choice came at the cost of curing cancer; it was an either/or proposition. That's a tough call; the scourge of cancer destroys lives, and I've lost several loved ones to it.

But in the end, I had to take the personal factor out of the equation and think in terms of the greater good. Cancer, for all its ills, can only affect people who live long enough to develop it. Hunger, on the other hand, affects billions of people around the world from the moment they're born, killing countless children in the cradle and dooming untold others to hardscrabble existences of pain and desperation. Ridding the world of hunger therefore seemed like striking a blow for the greater good, you know?

Part of what made the decision so difficult is that I had to make it in a split second. It was thrust into my face within the first few minutes of Saints Row IV -- wait, OK, no, I'm lying. What actually made the decision difficult is the fact that it was completely ridiculous, and I wanted to see which ludicrous outcome would result from both choices. Since the "cure cancer" selection was already over-the-top on its own (I was presented with a certificate that said, in bold blackletter calligraphy, "F--- CANCER") I decided to take the alternate option. Either way, though, I was fairly certain presidential adviser Keith David would approve of my choice, so it was pretty much a win-win situation.

Grand Theft Auto V's most talked-about scene involved torturing another human being to nearly the point of death. Saints Row IV's most talked-about scene involved a heartfelt discussion of Paula Abdul songs. The advantage should be obvious.

Yes, that's Keith David as in the voice actor Keith David, who has been a ubiquitous presence in video games ever since bringing Halo 2's Arbiter to life. He typically takes up the role of seasoned mentor, perhaps most iconically as Mass Effect's Captain Anderson (later galactic superboss Anderson). But the end result is usually the same: He plays a tough, reassuring voice of reason, a Morgan Freeman character with a James Earl Jones voice. He serves the same role in Saints Row IV, except that instead of bothering to come up with a thinly veiled identity for him, the script writers just said, "The hell with it. Let's just cast Keith as himself."

A bit on the nose, perhaps, but it works in the same way that stunt casting like this works in shows such as Arrested Development. Not that Saints Row IV is anywhere near as clever as Arrested Development (really, what is?), but it operates with the same modus operandi: To embrace its medium's conventions while mocking them.

Satire doesn't happen often in video games, and when it does it almost invariably falls flat. Comedy is hard, and meaningful comedy even harder. Saints Row IV manages to pull it off more often than not by never lingering overlong on its gags. The cancer/hunger decision comes up on you without warning in the midst of an Aaron Sorkin-style walk-and-talk into the Oval Office only moments after your character becomes the President of the United States of America by doing a Dr. Strangelove to prevent a nuclear weapon from detonating over the White House. You're not elected, you just land in the Oval Office, and years later your squatter's rights appear to be upheld. Saints Row IV's America operates on the premise that possession is nine-tenths of the law.

Alien invaders factor into the game somehow. Who cares? Before long you're leaping over buildings and earning street cred for driving on the wrong side of the street, which is why people play video games in the first place.

Which isn't to say the game doesn't try too hard at times. While you do your West Wing-esque stroll packed with Mass Effect clichés, you also see that your time in office has effectively turned the White House into a strip club. A stupid and pointless gag, yeah, but it ends up not mattering because moments later aliens invade the planet and pulverize 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. while you fight back with the secret rocket emplacement hidden under the South Lawn -- after which you're thrown into a computer simulation by those invaders and proceed to channel Neo from The Matrix by way of Crackdown.

Saints Row IV is the kid in the back of the classroom who spends less time applying his considerable intelligence to his schoolwork than he does making jokes at the expense of the cool kids. Whatever social envy Saints Row might once have possessed has long since vanished in the face of the realization that the "in crowd" prizes shallow conformity over creativity and individuality. It may never get the girl, but at least it feels good about itself. Basically, Saints Row IV is Ducky, and in case the point weren't clear on its own, your character wakes up in the computer simulator wearing a pair of dopey sunglasses and a thrift shop '50s outfit.

Shortly after that, you have a meaningful discussion about MC Skat Kat and "Opposites Attract."

Saints Row IV is a third-person, combat-heavy, open-world action game with a mission-based structure. Fundamentally, its action doesn't vary too much from the Grand Theft Auto series or other series like Sleeping Dogs; in fact, it began life as a blatant GTA-wannabe that attempted to stand out by being slightly more outlandish and slightly more obscene than its inspiration. Over time, its creators -- Volition, now Deep Silver -- began to realize that the most enjoyable thing about open-world games isn't the stories (which inevitably turn out to be flimsy excuses for violence occasionally masquerading as something more meaningful) or the missions (which tend to rely on gimmicks that developers continue to go back to the well for despite everyone universally hating them, such as chase sequences). People mostly play sandbox games to see how much they can get away with -- for the anarchy of it. So Volition began to play up the preposterousness of Saints Row to the point that the fourth game in the series abandons any pretense of realism in favor of a fictionalized setting that basically turns the game into Crackdown. Which is just as well, because Crackdown was vastly more fun than any GTA published this generation.

Even though Saints Row IV adopts the standardized language of mainstream modern video games, employing the same basic mechanics, iconography, controls, and interface conventions as practically every other action game released in 2013, it tells a different story with that vocabulary. Where everyone else is amateurishly mimicking Hollywood, Saints Row IV is rolling its eyes and saying, "Whatever -- just have fun."

Stupid? Yes. Funny? Also yes.

I've been playing video games for a long time, and I've grown tired of games patronizing me. So I really appreciate Saints Row IV being willing to admit that, yeah, games can be pretty dopey. Even though it's fundamentally just another open-world action game, its central purpose seems to be simply to entertain. There's no attempt at telling some gripping story, doling out meaningful lessons, or even creating a cohesive world. Saints Row IV concerns itself first and foremost with showing gamers a good time, and everything else that happens in the game is secondary to that aim.

And that's why Saints Row IV is easily one of my favorite games of 2013. It's not that its satire is particularly clever, it's that no one else seems willing to call out the medium on its bad habits. So maybe labeling one of your character's possible voice options "Nolan North" (because it's the option voiced by omnipresent voice actor Nolan North) is a swing at low-hanging fruit. Maybe a dubstep gun that makes enemies bust out into booty-shakin' is beyond stupid. If low fruit is all anyone else is planting, who can blame Volition for taking the bait?

You know, there's a reason I continue to look forward to every single Mario game that comes down the pipeline, and it's not because I think jumping on turtles is the platonic ideal of video game design or that a fat, falsetto plumber makes for a cool hero. It's because Nintendo (and only Nintendo) consistently delivers some of the only games in the world that manage to combine HD-sized budgets with unpretentious fun. Saints Row IV doesn't bother to try and be An Experience, and it doesn't try to make big statements about the medium. It's more a matter of hit-and-run mockery -- but in its breezy flippancy it managed to make its competitors look like stale, stuffy dinosaurs. Even if its jokes missed the mark as often as they hit, at least Saints Row IV was willing to be honest about the gloriously stupid trainwreck we call video games.

The best community comments so far 8 comments

  • Da_Beerman 4 months ago

    Nice, it looks like Saints Row became a good version of Matt Hazard.

    Games like Prototype make me think games are about on the level of 90s comics in terms of storytelling, also developers you are not clever for saying "look how many people you killed" after giving no alternative.Edited December 2013 by Unknown

  • Dogislander 4 months ago

    Nice write-up, Jeremy. My only concern for this franchise is where it goes from here. The satire is SO blatant and over-the-top at this point that I'm honestly not sure if I could handle another meta-game experience. For my money, SR2 was the peak of the series in that it had all the insanity you wanted without the CONSTANT self-reference and patting itself on the back. I love 3 and 4 as well, but it just smacks a bit of trying to hard. At least the mechanics themselves are solid throughout...

  • Ohoni 4 months ago

    SR IV was my game of the year, and that came as a big surprise to me, since I hadn't played any of the previous ones. It was just phenomenal. It didn't have the story punch of Tomb Raider or Bioshock, and it more evolved gameplay than creating any new elements from nowhere, but like Darksiders it borrowed a lot of things from a lot of people but improved on almost all of them, resulting in one of the most fun superhero RPGs I've ever seen, and with plenty of side missions that, while not exactly brilliant, were at least fun and hilarious, which I think is even better.

    The number of movie and game parodies, and the genius with which they're executed cannot be explained, only experienced.

    As for where they go next? I'm hoping a full on space opera. Take your Mass Effect, throw in some Star Wars and Trek, your Firefly, maybe a few deep cuts here or there, they can really have a great time with it. I think they've done about all they can with the GTA rip-off, but they can still use the characters and basic "flavor."

    Oh, and they did actually have to run for President, it just happened off camera between the first and second scenes. Kieth David talks about the campaign in his audio logs.

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