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Let's Talk About: The cultural significance of Saints Row 4

Saints Row 4 has possibly the most progressive approach to player/character identity in any game I've ever played.

Chris Plante co-founded Polygon in 2012 as editor-at-large and is now editor-in-chief. He also created and occasionally teaches NYU’s Introduction to Games Journalism course.

Let's Talk About... is an opinion series in which two members of Polygon's editorial team discuss an important game or topic. In this piece, Senior Reviewer Danielle Riendeau and Editor-at-Large Chris Plante discuss the significance of Saints Row 4, along with the game's progressive take on sexuality and family and its dissimilarities to Grand Theft Auto.

Chris: I can't believe Saints Row 4 hasn't been released yet. Rarely are we afforded so much advance time with a game, let alone one as big as Saints Row 4. Frankly, I don't know why the game wasn't released earlier this month, assuming it's been completed since we received code. My concern for this game — which I really enjoy — is that it has more or less two weeks until it's sucked beneath the tsunami of Grand Theft Auto 5 publicity.

Our time to discuss it, and for readers to care, may be limited. So, let's get to it. Because while I expect Grand Theft Auto 5 will be a worthy game on its own merit, I also assume it will lack many of the things that make Saints Row 4 so special.

I want to address this comparison, before we get into some of the other topics, like the game's portrayal of gender. Saints Row has lived in the shadow of Grand Theft Auto, and rightly so at first. The original was a crude facsimile of Rockstar's hard work.

But as both series have progressed, the two have taken very different roads. Grand Theft Auto games became earnest and cynical satires of the American Experience, proclaiming the sort of toothy opinions you imagine a college freshman flaunting after the first encounter with Howard Zinn.

The original Saints Row was a crude facsimile of Rockstar's hard work

The GTA games exist in an almost-reality that looks and feels like the world we live in — minus the permanent ramifications of illegal actions.

Saints Row has, over the course of four games, become a satire of video games and video game culture. I think it's easy to read the humor as puerile, but I believe it's a cheeky critique of video games. The pro-wrestler voice actors, a cast of characters that look like dejected porn stars, the self-aware mission design feel, when taken as a whole, act as a self-aware statement: It's one part satire, two parts kitsch, three parts guilty pleasure.

Unlike Grand Theft Auto, the Saints Row series has rapidly distanced itself from reality, including the ability to play as a ceramic toilet while piloting a hover-bike. Saints Row 4 actually jettisons the construct of reality altogether, setting the game in a computer universe, allowing for super powers. You can do anything.

And I think that's why I've fostered a soft spot for Saints Row. I admire the craftsmanship of Grand Theft Auto, but I loathe the self-centered characters and snide commentary. I find the worlds awe-inspiring, but also cold. Saints Row is filled with people who can do anything, and will do anything to save the world. Sure, it's not capital-A Art, but it is stupendously fun, as though the game were designed in a fashion that fleeced every action, every character, every moment that impeded enjoyment.

I'd like to dig into the characters and an admittedly insane comparison to the Fast and the Furious franchise, but before we get to that, I'm curious to hear about your history with the franchise, and how you compare it to the more popular, more expensive Grand Theft Auto games.


Danielle: I'll be honest, the last GTA I played all the way through was Vice City. While I have enjoyed more recent entries in the series, nothing has grabbed me the way Saints Row 2 and on have.

I like that Saints Row always knows it's a big, dumb, goofy half-parody of the big, dumb, goofy things that are everywhere in video games. I played Saints Row 2 to death, and actually got attached to the characters. I really felt for Shaundi and Johnny Gat and Pierce and my own home-brewed psychopath, and I loved how gleefully the game embraced its own id. I also enjoyed Saints Row 3, but story-wise, it didn't click quite as well for me. Saints Row 4 absolutely blows the entire series out of the water, in my opinion. But I'm sure we'll get to that.

Saints Row also gets the details right — little things, like characters singing along to classic songs on the radio on the way to missions, really made me fall for the series. And I know we'll talk about gender soon, but it's precisely the freedom that the series allows when it comes to gender that appeals to me beyond the basic, goofy premise. The GTA games turn me off, to some degree, because the female characters aren't appealing, and I can never play as a hero of my choosing. If I'm going to be tearing down a city using a rocket launcher or dubstep gun, or whatever, you better believe I want to do that as a woman, wearing Daisy Dukes.

Saints Row gets the details right

One thing I wanted to address in your initial comments: the statement about GTA being like a college freshman after his first taste of Howard Zinn. God, that's the most accurate description I've ever heard. And by that logic, Saints Row is kind of like the dumb, lovable jock in the class who has great ideas occasionally, but no one ever listens to him because of his reputation. The moment-to-moment stuff is frequently over the top, but there are moments of near-genius under that veneer.

Saints Row 4 has so many of these genuinely inspired moments. The '50s parody, the Paula Abdul, the gung-ho Zero Dark Thirty parody, etc.

The use of super powers in Saints Row 4, explained under the guise of a crazy Matrix parody, is actually brilliant. In fact, this would have worked as a much better sequel to the actual first movie, with freed supermen and superwomen wreaking havoc on an oppressive system (as hinted in the final moments of the film, with Neo's Rage Against the Machine-fueled takeoff — God, the '90s...)

So, what did you think of the game's structure, which is also its most obvious (and, in my opinion, best) parody: Mass Effect 2? What with gathering a crew, loyalty missions, etc.


Chris: OK. Confession time. I don't enjoy the Mass Effect games. I don't really enjoy role-playing games in general. Any game over 30 hours makes me itchy and paranoid and dwell on the great Why. It's not the games. It's me.

That said, I did push through about half of Mass Effect 2, so I can appreciate that Seth Green is represented in Saints Row 4 by a cheap sex doll with stars for nipples. And I also get the overall conceit, that both games crib the heist movie structure. "This job's bigger than one man. We've got to get the gang back together."

Multi-thread storytelling is a smart way to allow some freedom in a story-driven game, right? I can run around the city, causing my own mayhem, and if I want to see more of one supporting character's story over another, I just tap my in-game cell phone for the mission of my choosing. And for the characters I cared less about, well, there was always the incentive of unlocking a weapon like the Inflato-ray.

You love Saints Row. I believe you love Mass Effect. Tell me about them!


Danielle: Oh, I can see why the Mass Effect series wouldn't appeal to you. Really, the main reason I enjoyed them so much is because they let me create a badass female character — who could romance ladies or dudes — and fight aliens and explore planets, etc. It was basically an id-fueled sexy space fantasy for me, and empowering for precisely the same reasons Saints Row 4 was (for me).

I loved that Saints Row 4 ripped so gleefully from Mass Effect. It was just an unhinged version, with no restrictions on romance, and loyalty missions that took place in goofy 2D arcade brawlers, or "supernatural bromance fan fiction" parodies.

What surprised me was how attached I got to the Saints Row 4 characters. Maybe it was the loyalty missions, or the audio logs, or the rescue missions all based on each character's worst fear. But for people in a world that's this over the top, they are likeable — sometimes even lovable. I even liked Zinyak — mostly because he was such a wink-and-nod mustache-twirling, Shakespeare-quoting ass. His singing along on "Just a Friend" was probably my favorite laugh-out-loud moment in the whole game.

What did you think of the past Saints Row throwbacks, like old/fun Shaundi and Veteran Child? And shall we delve into gender as well?

Chris: Finally, I can share my absolutely absurd theory about why The Fast and the Furious is the greatest blockbuster franchise of our generation and... no, no, please don't leave, trust me, this makes sense, I promise!

(Oh, and this relates to Saints Row, too.)

On the surface, the Fast and the Furious films look like tepid excuses for directors to film increasingly dangerous car chases and firm pectoral muscles. And yeah, both are important parts of the films. But fans know the Fast films have an elaborate, almost Dickensian cast of characters. Throughout the films, former villains are ultimately seduced by the loving, sympathetic self-selected family of the good guys and girls, and switch to the right side.

It's wildly, proudly complicated, like the best melodrama. Here's a great piece from earlier this year.

The byproduct of this narrative positivity, as the series progresses, is akin to an annual BBQ get-together with close friends. The cast members span various races, nationalities, political backgrounds and class structures, yet they're united by a love for one another, an unflagging commitment to the gang.

And so, when Dominic Toretto (played by the brilliant, D&D-loving Vin Diesel) catapults himself from a muscle car, through the air, over a highway median and into the arms of his long-believed-dead ex-girlfriend Letty, I care. I really, honest-to-goodness, care. As did the audience at my opening day screening, who burst into rapturous applause.

Saints Row is the video game equivalent of The Fast and the Furious films

For me, Saints Row has become the video game equivalent of the Fast films. With each iteration I look forward to two things: the escalation of the action set pieces and the expansion of this unexpected crew of characters that I've come to care about.

The throwbacks — like the return of old Shaundi and Veteran Child — remind me why I fell in love with this franchise, and also serve as a welcome contrast to how far the the series has come. However, I suspect Saints Row 4 will be the entry point for many players, and for them, I think the throwbacks will play like interactive Cliffs Notes. The emotional beats and cheeky in-jokes might not hit as hard, but the heavy lifting will be done for the inevitable Saints Row 5.

OK, thanks for sticking with me. Now let's talk gender. I get to play as a woman who sort of looks like my wife. That is awesome. And my wife agrees, as noted when she casually looked over my shoulder and said, "Wait, you're playing as a girl." (And apparently I wasn't the only guy this happened to!)

There's obviously way more to be said, but I've been rambling long enough. I loved that you touched on this in your review, but I want to hear all the brain thoughts that the dastardly Arthur Gies may or may not have cut.


Danielle: To me, this kind of tone reminds me of dumb (but wonderful!) Paul Verhoeven movies of the '90s. Especially Total Recall, Starship Troopers, and Basic Instinct. They all ride the line between "extremely cheesy" and "freaking fantastic," often slipping from one to another in the course of a single scene. They're also incredibly over the top and memorable, and I love them all, despite their flaws and pounds and pounds of cheese.

I couldn't talk much about the game's plot in my review (because of story spoilers), which made me a little sad because I legitimately thought this was the most enjoyable story campaign in any open-world game I've ever played. It rides that same '90s Verhoeven tone line. I won't be surprised if Johnny Rico shows up riding shotgun with Catherine Tramell next time around, and she has a skirt-opening gun.

With that lovely image, let's talk about gender!

If there's anything I liked more than the wacky sci-fi parody, it was that this game treated every character exactly the same. Male, female, in between or other. You can play as a woman with a man's voice. A man with a woman's voice and woman's haircut. You can create approximations of any imaginable bipedal character/person you'd like. And no matter what, you can "romance" ladies or fellas, whatever floats your boat.

There's something really liberating about the way Saints Row allows you to change your sex

That kind of freedom — and the fact that the game fully respects all choices with regard to gender and sexuality — made me feel totally empowered. It also made me really, gleefully happy. I played the whole game as a stoic, sexy black lesbian, and nothing in a cutscene or in the game's structure ever threatened to derail that identity.

This might just be me, but I sometimes do feel confined or even a little bored in games where I cannot identify at all with a main protagonist. Not in games with a very specific, well-done narrative, like The Last of Us, but in games where I can only play as a default, generic male character. I like to see myself — or some version of myself — in a character I'm going to dedicate 10+ hours to.

There's also something really liberating about the way Saints Row allows you to change your sex, race, etc. at any point along the game. I didn't use that feature much, but it warms my little heart knowing that it's in there.

Because of these things, Saints Row 4 has possibly the most progressive approach to player/character identity in any game I've ever played.

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