No one man should have all that power

In a recent review of Saint’s Row: the Third, Destructoid’s Jim Sterling misinterprets one of his favorite games. Speaking of the protagonist’s return to the world of crime, he states that the player takes on the role of an “irredeemable villain whose sociopathic treatment of others made for a truly vile character. A real scumbag, yet one that we couldn’t help rooting for due to the sheer magnificence of his or her bloodthirsty antics. It was a game about being evil, and not in the pussyfooted way that other games present playable villainy. It was pure, malevolent, all-encompassing turpitude, and it was spitefully good fun.”

Not minding the contradictory language, of the handful of signifiers only a few are applicable to the protagonist of Volition’s opus. There is no evil in the world of Saint’s Row, only the strong and the weak. If there is any evil present in the game, it comes in the form of Ultor, a massive corporation whose interests are, according to our (anti)heroes, ruining Stilwater. Furthermore, none of the Saints can truly be considered sociopaths: their thirst for power is only usurped by their intense focus on loyalty and revenge. This is where the Brotherhood, the Ronin, and, to a far lesser extent, the Sons of Samedi fail–their quest for supremacy leads them to betray their friends and their allies. When the Saints’ sense of loyalty is sniffed out, the other gangs immediately exploit it by killing, kidnapping, or torturing the companions the player has gained along the way. This is how the game establishes conflict, and it is what makes the “irredeemable” protagonist and his virtual mirror Johnny Gat wholly redeemable.

Of course, Sterling’s interpretation allowed him to gain a greater appreciation of the game and its narrative. This is never a bad thing, so what am I going on about? Well, as developers are wont to do, they released a sequel. And between the events of Saint’s Row 2 and the Third, something happened.

But first, Sterling’s take: “The Boss of the Saints is no longer a psychotic villain, having been softened up and turned into a lame antihero who fights against characters far more despicable than he is.” The irony of this complaint is that, unlike his assessment of the protagonist’s efforts in the second game, his claims on the Third are not only spot on but alluded to (and, to be honest, outright stated) in the game itself.

In the world of Saint’s Row, the events of the second game had turned the gang into a cultural phenomenon. Having been established as celebrities, the Saints change their approach to criminal violence to include marketing possibilities, multinational commercials, and a sponsorship from Ultor itself. When things head south at the beginning of the game, the surviving members have to confront their gradual devolution and return to a place of power. Though it effectively captures a certain zeitgeist in modern media, this trope is hardly as new as the game presents it to be.

And here we find justification for the game’s over the top and ridiculous events. In an essay on Cervantes, the venerable (lol) Harold Bloom identifies a mode in Don Quixote “in which figures…read prior fictions concerning their own earlier adventures, and have to sustain a consequent loss in the sense of reality.” If the relative realism of Saint’s Row 2 is compromised, it’s because the characters have seen their deeds mythologized into movies and ad spots to the point where they no longer recognize them as actions but as givens. Whereas Bloom sees Don Quixote as a “subtle critique” of reality, Saint’s Row: the Third blows it up until the players cannot escape their own ridiculousness.

As in the previous game, the gangs of Steelport recognize the Saints’ emphasis on ego and self-image and do their best to injure them internally and externally. Travelling to the Decker’s cyberpunk world will see the leader turn into a toilet or a blow up doll, leading Matt Miller to claim it is “more fitting” an image . The Syndicate leaks compromising footage to lower the Saints’ reputation in the city. The entire agon between the Saints and Killbane hinges on their motion to remove the Luchador’s mask, ruining his career as a wrestler–a fate said to be worse than death. As Viola says, “publicity is the key to taking a city.” Everywhere the protagonist turns, they recognize the effect their celebrity has on the events taking place and the distinct unreality of it all. While this succeeds in making Saint’s Row: the Third, well, more “gamey,” it does so on familiar ground.

Of course, the fact that the game adopts this mode quite strictly is lost on many players, whose lack of context may lead them to find truth to Sterling’s review. The Saints–particularly the leader–have indeed changed, but according to the principles the plot lays out. Are we to treat the developers who pay attention to contemporary issues and character development with disdain because they recognize that idols are subject to change? The leader of the Saints recognizes the conflict, Pierce recognizes the conflict, Shaundi recognizes it and, in the most changed role the series has to offer, transcends it to enact revenge. Maybe it’s the game’s admittedly more noticeable theme–a return to a state of power–that makes the Saints’ “softness” seem unintentional or even contradictory. Either way, it would be a mistake to fault the game for its core message, particularly when it challenges the player’s sense of reality (as it pertains to games) itself.

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One Response to No one man should have all that power

  1. Pingback: Music month/textual intercourse: the originality of licensed music | The Bombers' Notebook

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