Why It Worked: Saints Row IV and Living Exuberantly

A well-written comedy can get away with just about anything so long as it’s funny. Paper-thin plots, characters that vacillate between personalities, and a dearth of thematic meat are by no means a requirement of comedy writing, but they’re easily excused when the jokes are genuinely funny and the delivery is strong. For this reason, it’s easy to overlook when a comedy gets its fundamentals right–when its essential narrative building blocks are sturdy and cleverly deployed in ways applicable to any genre.

Saints Row IV WallpaperImage purloined from the official site.

Saints Row IV is clearly comedic, but its narrative also succeeds in ways rarely seen in modern big-budget games. It builds its emotional stakes, Player engagement, and yes, quite a few jokes on a fundamentally joyful core.

Let’s talk about why it works.

But first, a quick summary for those unfamiliar with the game. (And of course we’ll be vivisecting the patient, so if you haven’t played it expect many delightful surprises ruined.) Brett Molina’s review in USA Today describes the Saints Row franchise thusly:

The transformation of Saints Row has been fascinating to watch. When it first launched in 2006, Saints Row seemed like a Grand Theft Auto knockoff, featuring the exploits of the Third Street Saints gang in the fictional city of Steelport.

Then things got weird. Instead of taking a dramatic turn, Saints Row II and Saints Row The Third ramped up the craziness. They focused on what made open world action games fun: exploring freely and wreaking havoc. Oh, and you can choose to do a lot of this while wearing cat suits.

In Saints Row IV, leading the Saints is not enough. Instead, players serve as the president of the United States from “The White Crib.” An upcoming speech is disrupted by an alien ambush that leaves the White House cabinet missing and Earth in ruins. Eventually, the president is captured and placed in a simulation of Earth.

Trapped (mostly) in the simulation (a la The Matrix), the gangster-turned-POTUS proceeds to gain simulated superpowers (improved via lightweight RPG-style mechanics), rescue his or her fellow gang members, and take the fight to the aliens in an open world environment. Story missions are linear and scripted and unlock as the game progresses, while various activities and minigames are available at any time.

Joyful Noises

Although the protagonist’s personality and dialogue are predetermined, his or her physical appearance, clothing, gender, and voice can all be heavily customized by the Player along with a steadily growing array of superpowers and special abilities. These aesthetic and mechanical options are old tricks, traditional means of giving the Player a strong sense of ownership and attachment to the Player Character. They’re deployed well and they’re deployed appropriately, but they’re not what makes Saints Row IV’s treatment of the protagonist special.

Instead, consider this quality that sets the Saints Row IV “Boss” apart from so many narrative-driven video game protagonists:

The Boss loves his or her life.

Saints Row IV is as full of delights for the Player Character as it is for the Player. The Boss cheers enthusiastically when he or she collects a power-up item. The Boss sings along to the radio. The Boss appears to genuinely enjoy spending time and hanging out with his or her colleagues. The Boss gets a kick out of fighting.

Raise the RoofRaising the roof in the middle of traffic. How much more joyful can you get?

That doesn’t mean the the Boss can’t view dangerous or unpleasant situations as dangerous or unpleasant (although Saints Row IV never takes itself too seriously), but it does mean there’s an ubiquitous effervescence to the narrative. The Player Character always has something to be excited about, whether a new weapon or a chance to reunite with a friend.

That’s an incredibly appealing quality in a human being. We like spending time with people who are enjoying themselves. “Funny” is great, but enthusiasm is infectious, and my desire to spend time with the Boss was a major part of what kept me engaged with the game.

Not every story needs a protagonist with this particular joie de vivre, but it strikes me as a particularly effective creative choice for this medium. So many games are built on giving the Player a chance to have fun, yet utilize dour or grim (if occasionally snarky and sarcastic) protagonists. But synchronizing the Player’s experience with that of the Player Character nearly always provides superior engagement and immersion, so why not let a game’s protagonist enjoy him- or herself alongside the Player?

And while it may be easier to fit such a character into a comedy, there’s no reason joy can’t fit into more dramatic stories, too. An outwardly angsty, tormented protagonist isn’t the only way to give a story weight. (I say this, of course, as someone who loves and writes angst-ridden stories… but remember how incredibly effective other methods can be!)

Emotional Stakes

In the world of Saints Row IV, blowing up Earth (an event that occurs relatively early on) is a joke. Sure, characters occasionally seem a little mad or a little down about it–but mostly, it’s an over-the-top gesture in an over-the-top game. It’s insane and funny and just a bit horrifying if you think much about it.

But when one of the Boss’s friends is hurting? That’s when the music changes and all the characters gets scowly. And even though I haven’t played a Saints Row game before and the intricacies of the relationships are largely lost on me… when the Boss gets upset that his or her friends are being hurt? I care, too.

Why? Because as we established already, I care about the Boss. I like the Boss. I don’t need to care about his or her friends so long as it’s clear how and why they’re important to the character.

The evil alien Zinyak, the prime enemy of Saints Row IV, is an absurd character wonderfully portrayed by voice actor J. B. Blanc. I liked having Zinyak show up–which isn’t something that particularly motivates me as a Player to stop him. But the Boss really, really doesn’t like Zinyak, and again… I care about the Boss. So I’m okay fighting the enemy.

High Five!High five!

Saints Row IV consistently values relationships above events–a fairly standard dramatic approach–to an almost satirical degree. And it’s only “almost” satirical because it still works. The events can be unimaginably important, and yet I still care more about helping my pals come to terms with their pasts.

Yet none of this would matter if the game weren’t so effective at creating a likable central protagonist. We’ve all played a dozen games which motivate the Player Character–and attempt to motivate the Player–through a threat to a loved one, and which fail utterly because I don’t really care about the Player Character in the first place. Sometimes it doesn’t matter if you handle one aspect of your narrative well; sometimes the weakest link in the chain is all that matters.

Embracing Gameplay

Another unusually successful element of the Saints Row IV narrative is its treatment of “standard” (that is, non-narrative-focused) gameplay: e.g., open world combat and exploration.

Most big-budget titles that set the Player loose in an environment built to react to havoc ultimately ignore the fact that much of what the Player does jars with the central narrative. Mowing down civilians–accidentally or not–or engaging in a high-speed chase over the sidewalk “ought” to have permanent legal and psychological consequences if the characters are to remain relatable and the setting is intended to be remotely realistic.

But generally speaking, games that let you cause absolute havoc are designed to encourage that havoc. Which means in many games of this sort, either the protagonist comes across as a psychopathic lunatic or the narrative suffers from a fundamental disconnect. (Alternatively, the Player may actually try to play the game “in character” and avoid wreaking havoc… and thereby experience an internally consistent narrative that simply isn’t much fun.)

Saints Row IVNote the in-game pixelation of the character on the right: a reminder that no, this isn’t even real in the game’s own universe.

Saints Row IV handles all of this with one easy excuse: The world is a computer simulation. It’s okay when it doesn’t make sense. It’s okay to use random cars as explosive weapons or shoot friendly civilians to regain health. The protagonist is acting out the same impulses as the Player, but he or she isn’t hurting anyone within the framework of the story. Even bad AI and bugs are justified by the narrative.

As with ensuring that the narrative’s major emotional beats are character based, this aspect can be boiled down to a trite and traditional piece of advice: establish the rules and themes of your setting upfront and abide by them in gameplay and narrative. But once again, since so many games fail to acknowledge that my gameplay takes place in the same universe as the narrative, it’s useful to look at an example that takes this to an extreme–and entirely succeeds.

If anything, bridging any gameplay-narrative divide is far more important to a dramatic narrative than a comedic one. By making everything “real”–that is, by creating a much tighter narrative in which everything I do, “gameplay” or not, fits with everything else–moments of actual emotion and importance hit much harder. My mind doesn’t need to spend effort justifying how killing enemies in combat doesn’t matter, but killing a character in a cutscene does, because the story’s already done it. I can absorb everything the game offers me without artificial distractions.

Sex Positive

The last success we’re going to look at is the game’s treatment of sex. Saints Row IV is the rare video game that handles sexual content:

a) in a largely positive manner. That is, sex is depicted as something that people desire and seek out and participate in consensually. Characters have sexual agency. They aren’t punished or stigmatized for it. Even kinks (such as one prominent character’s BDSM hobby) are treated as harmless quirks–fodder for infrequent jokes among friends, but not a source of shame or a defining characteristic. The “romances” the Boss can carry out with the crew are delightful in this respect:

One of my favorite “romances.” Not my video.

b) in a way that almost never conflates sex with genuine violence. There are a few rare exceptions (to my mind, some of the content in the Enter the Dominatrix downloadable content was a failure on this front; and I found some of the comedy weapons such as the dildo bat to be in poor taste, albeit essentially harmless), but next to the cavalcade of rape threats and misogynistic foes found in many games, Saints Row IV is practically utopian.

c) without favoring any particular gender, orientation, or gender-orientation combination. Or it tries to, at least. Sure, non-player characters wander the city in fetish gear, but women and men so dressed come in roughly equal numbers and are equally absurdly exposed. The Boss can romance other characters regardless of his or her gender. (In fact, the Boss’s own gender is fluid–the Player can change the protagonist’s gender essentially at any time, as well as mix and match male voices with female bodies or vice-versa.) It is worth noting that plots focused on past romantic partners or sexual dangers invariably center on women, but these are relatively few and far between.

This shouldn’t be difficult and it shouldn’t be rare. But it is rare, and Saints Row IV is a worthy example to study when considering the role of sex in a “mature” game.

Saints Row IV

“Mature” might be an overstatement. Or maybe not?

Yes, even with the dildo bat.

Final Thoughts

Saints Row IV was my introduction to the franchise. Based on reviews, I expected to enjoy it and be amused. I didn’t expect it to be worthy of a full-length dissection, yet here we are

Every narrative has its flaws, and Saints Row IV has its share as well. It relies a bit too much on character knowledge from previous Saints Row games; not all of its dramatic moments land, and a few seem oddly disjointed; and the game has an occasional tendency to ignore its own rules (or forgo an explanation of why they don’t apply).

Yet it’s still a fantastic narrative piece for all the reasons discussed above. The fact that Saints Row IV tells a funny story isn’t why it works–“funny” just happens to be the sort of story the wonderfully crafted narrative sets out to tell.

Footnote: This post draws from my experiences with Saints Row IV and its downloadable content packs Enter the Dominatrix and How the Saints Save Christmas. The standalone expansion Gat out of Hell ships this week. Hopes are high.