a review of Saints' Row
a videogame developed by volition, inc.
and published by THQ
for the microsoft xbox 360
text by tim rogers
The first clue in this who-shot-modern-society season cliffhanger comes in the form of the game’s title: according to the Volition Inc. website, the proper rendering is “Saints Row”. Now, “Row” seems to indicate we’re talking about a street of some sort, a thoroughfare if you will. So how many saints are there presiding over this thoroughfare? If it were one, the game would be “Saint’s Row”; two or more and it would be “Saints’ Row”. The developers at Volition must have left the naming conventions for last, thinking that they would decide how many saints we were dealing with toward the end of the “dev cycle”, and then hire someone to airbrush an apostrophe onto the package design. Maybe they’d even make it a graffitti-style apostrophe, for extra “street cred”.
Seeing as the game involves a gang called the “Saints”, I take it that the title is supposed to be rendered “Saints’ Row”, so I will call it thus in this review. Volition should pay me a proofreader’s fee. At New York rates, what I just did here, in the back of my head, is worth six dollars.
I’m not going to deride the developers’ choice to let players make their own characters. In the end, it doesn’t matter. My character is a vaguely Hispanic looking white man of imploding anorexia and soppy cornrows. His facial hair looks like someone applied it with Mario Paint. He looks like a wet rat at a job interview, minus a stack of A4-sized print-outs bearing the names and URLs of all the Wikipedia articles he’s contributed to. Hey, it was either this or make “‘Before’ Jared” from the Subway commercials, now African-American and with purple hair. (You know, I ate lunch with Jared in high school, a couple of times. He was my big brother’s best friend. He graduated two years ahead of me. My brother was into kung-fu. He once beat the shit out of some kid who threw a rock at Jared after school. No kidding.)
The game lets you make your own character because it wants you to identify with the character. Right at the beginning, your creation is standing on a street corner in a magic city where everyone has access to violence, and he gets meaninglessly gunned down by thugs riding a gaudy automobile, probably because he looks like Boy George wearing FUBU by order of a witness protection program, and that shit just don’t belong in our hood. Some other gangsters, in purple, show up and fuck up the motherfuckers who just tried to fuck you the fuck up. They blast those motherfuckers. You’re rescued by a man in a backward hat, voiced by a black actor I think I’ve seen before in a movie that wasn’t very good. He helps you up and takes you in to his gang, the Saints, who are dedicated to cleaning up the streets by murdering anyone who even thinks once about murdering anyone else. They want to clean up the drugs, and the gangs, and the hookers — the cops in this town aren’t worth shit, we’re told, and shit, that means we can blow up a car and probably not be chased around like in Grand Theft Auto. Shit yeah!
Previous games have used perhaps-political authority figures as thug-blasters: Final Fight, for example, stars Mayor Mike Haggar, former pro-wrestler (in the 80s, it seemed like such casual, hilarious irreverence), who will kill any pixelated sons of bitches between him and his kidnapped daughter. Now that we’re putting this sort of thing into 3D, with realistic vehicle physics and “evolutionary” (their words) aiming controls for gun firing — now that there’s voice acting by the Hollywood B-Team, it feels kind of fake and breathtakingly insulting. There’s a tiny twinge of subtext that a fourteen-year-old boy could pick up on if he was lucky enough to not have a distracting erection during world history class yesterday — that absolute power corrupts absolutely, and that this leader-guy might possess ulterior motives for wanting to kill the other gangs. Still, that’s neither here nor there — the gang underlings listen to this man like church attendees. They behold him as a walking religion.
So when I’m on a mission, and I feel like shooting an old woman in the head for no reason, and my partner — indicated in cut-scenes as the most devout follower of the gang — pulls out his gun and starts shooting the police instead of turning me in for being a raving psychopath, hundreds of red flags fly up in the back of my brain. I don’t even get a “Dude, that’s not cool!” out of the guy. I punch an innocent pedestrian on the street, and my man whips out his pistol when the pedestrian throws a single punch back. How hard is it to program these AI scripts? Why wouldn’t my guy, I don’t know, punch me, scream at me, pull out his gun and shoot me in the kneecaps, call the cops, or something?
The game is an acrobat when it comes to tripping over itself. On the one hand, the street-cleaning Saints are a gang of religious proportions; on the other hand, when the police are following you for doing something you shouldn’t do in real life, the way you clear your criminal rating is by driving your car through a drive-thru church. In Grand Theft Auto, you drive into a seedy auto shop and get your car painted a different color, and the license plates changed. Here, you ask forgiveness at a drive-thru church, and “donate” them some money. Get it? Ha ha! Religion is a commodity, get it? Get it? The game is just a skin for Grand Theft Auto, made by people who thought that putting an FPS-style right-analog-stick gun aiming system (very nice, actually) and some crunchier vehicle physics (again, pretty nice, good sense of weight) into it would suffice for “innovation”.
Yet it is the dynamic physics of the game that commit its greatest act of evil. When a realistic innocent human is murdered in cold blood in the street, his corpse disappears within one click of a watch’s second hand. However, when your character purchases a soft drink from a restaurant (absolutely unthinkingly named “Freckle Bitch’s” — yeah, profanity in the name of a fast-food restaurant! that’s right around the corner! let’s get in on that one on the ground floor!), and then drinks that soft drink, and then litters the empty cup on the ground, the cup rolls around for a full thirty seconds. That’s the developers saying, “Hey, we hired guys to work out that physics engine! We’re not going to waste that research!” If pressed in an interview, someone in charge of decision-making in this game could say that the corpses disappear so that players can’t be overly cruel by continuing to pop caps in the dead person’s head and/or ass and watching the corpse flinch realistically. A skilled interviewer would then ask them why they let you kill innocent people at all, and the interviewee would reply that they want the players to “have fun” and/or “enjoy themselves” and/or “express themselves” through the videogame, which is a hell of an audacious answer. I’d say, when there’s no better way to have fun or enjoy yourself or express yourself in a game than by destroying the people-shaped targets the game does not explicitly ask you to destroy, then maybe your game is just a big empty husk, as cheap and tacky as the Styrofoam sculpture of the history of hip-hop that makes up its soundtrack.
Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, for one, stars a young man whose mother has been killed. When he starts getting revenge, he has a reason. All we know about him is that he left his hometown because he was tired of gang violence. He comes back when the violence claims his moms, and he wants to fuck up the fuckers that fucked his moms up. Good enough reason. If Carl “CJ” Johnson slays a hooker in his quest for revenge, it’s just something that happens. It’s a tendency within him as an angry, wronged young person; it’s your choice to bring it out in him, you sick fuck, you. If you want to play San Andreas as a story of an honest man getting revenge for the death of his moms and subsequently getting caught neck-deep in some serious shit, you can do that. You are playing a role. You are free to interpret it as you will. In Saints’ Row, you’re a blank slate who gets knocked on his ass in a drive-by. Maybe this blank slate is a raving psychotic motherfucker who had just never been privy to a stash of weaponry the likes of which the Saints’ gang possesses. That’s all well and good: that the characters in the game are not appropriately shocked and/or appalled when you do horrible things is something of a mortal sin.
I am a liberal enough person to admit that, if I had an identical twin sister and if she wasn’t actively repulsive I’d probably have had at least cooperative oral sex with her by now, so when I say that you have no idea quite how deeply your game offends me, you should know that you’re in deep shit. How dare you put this presumptuous trash out on the market. Quit your jobs producing entertainment software, abandon the lucky break that scored you a “connection” to the “industry”, and take up a job at a Denny’s or a Starbucks, to see what real people look like and how they walk and how they gesture with their hands.
Or maybe the problem’s not you. Maybe it’s the whole fucking “industry”. Or maybe it’s not. Though Rockstar, who shat the gold brick called Grand Theft Auto, has begun to use their “sandbox” genre as a rough outline, a checklist of “things one can do, if so inclined, in 3D action videogames”, on which to base more dynamic levels of storytelling — as evidenced in 2006’s conceptually excellent Bully — the rest of the world seems to be turning the wrong way. Why, in Saints’ Row, there’s a mission early on where you have to kill “evil pimps” to steal their hos for another pimp, a good pimp, who also happens to be friends with your gang, which, yes, is a gang devoted to killing all of the other gangs as a means of “cleaning up the streets”. It’s obvious at this point that the “story” of Saints’ Row was shunted in at the latest possible moment, and that the ho-snatching mission was drafted during a meeting in which some coke-fiend producer jumped up and down on the boardroom table with his polka-dot necktie clipped uncomfortably to a wrinkle on his forehead: “GTA lets you pimp hos! We need to let you pimp hos! GTA lets you pimp hos! Let’s let players pimp some hos!”
Where Volition hangs its fuzzy hat, the gene pool is heated to the temperature of a cesspool. Within the marble halls of its psychological accident of game development, a man actually speaks the words “Complete missions to earn respect. Fill your respect meter to unlock more missions.” Yes, he actually uses the word “unlock” with regard to content existing in the game world he occupies. On another corner of this cube-shaped world called the videogame industry, Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six Vegas opens with a difficulty selection screen: “Difficulty select: Select the difficulty level of the game: NORMAL / REALISTIC”. Witness this and feel years of current events rip from the top of your skull to the soles of your feet, like rollercoaster g-forces. The War in Iraq, the grin of the current mongrel president of America, the shootings in Columbine, foaming media feeding frenzies smothering out the sparks of introspection that might have had the chance to fan into a bonfire of renaissance, Jack Thompson. “REALITY IS NOT NORMAL”, games are saying, in a sideways subliminal way.
Could you imagine a dramatic television show about a rugged cop, a great man at heart, maybe one whose wife had been gunned down by thugs, who lives only to drink whiskey, eat at the same sad diner every golden sunlit morning, and keep the streets clean — who, for some reason, the sixth episode in, pulls out his gun, fires it out the window of his patrol car, and kills a young boy riding a bike, only to have his partner keep rattling on about the drug dealer they’re looking for, only to have the writers seem to forget such a thing happened and let the show go on through eight more Emmy-winning seasons? Of course you can’t. It’d be fucking ****ed, disgusting. It’s not even the senseless violence that gets my goat: it’s the internal inconsistency. It’s the complete and utter lack of artistic conscience. At least, whether you can admit that “American Idol” is actually beneficial to society or not, you have to agree with me that the television and film industries currently possess many more individuals able to competently judge the worth content than the videogame industry has perhaps ever seen. You can spin it out all you want and say that videogames are a young industry, and that’s where I flip you off and tell you that yeah, they’re a young industry, though it’s a pretty mature fucking world we live in, and these people went to school, where they very well should have read books about the fucking world and learned just how mature it is.
(Oh for fuck’s sake — according to GameStop.com, the PlayStation 3 version of this game is being released on the Fourth of July. Ain’t that America.)
We are all philosophically doomed as creatures that dream because we can’t physically handle being happy all the time; we have to be happy sometimes and sad sometimes; we believe shadow lends context to light, or whatever. I say yeah, I can see where you’re coming from. Though I’d also like to be the first to admit that, maybe, this is a fundamental problem in the world it may take us centuries to work out. In the Zen buddhist sense, which is convenient and kind of a cop-out because it’s pretty much every sense rolled into one, Saints’ Row just isn’t fucking helping, and the next patch released for it should do more than just cut down the lag in the online multiplayer — it should render the disc fucking unreadable by my Xbox 360.