Monday, January 23, 2017

Saints Row IV: 9/20 hours

Oops. I played a lot longer than I intended to, but it's all right, because I didn't do much to advance the plot. A lot of the nine hours was spent gliding around virtual Steelport, collecting the blue floating orbs that enhance my superpowers. Another big chunk was spent going from store to store, hacking into them for bonus money.

That said, the little bit of plot I did play was consistently funny and entertaining (though the joke about electing a short-tempered narcissist with connections to organized crime to the presidency is more bittersweet than I would have predicted in 2013) and it's great to see the old Saints Row crew in a new context. Saints Row IV is inexplicably a sci-fi super-hero game, but it doesn't matter, because at this point I could watch this group of characters in just about any genre (maybe Saints Row 5 could be a western; I think Pierce could rock the cowboy look).

From a purely technical point of view, the story of Saints Row IV is a mess. A once-notorious street gang is now an anti-terrorist special forces group? Whatever. The leader of the group grabs onto a nuclear missile mid-launch and deactivates it before it can detonate? Whatever, that Aerosmith song is a sly reference to 90s nostalgia. The leader not only survives a fall from the edge of space, but parlays their popularity to become President of the United States? Whatever. Then there's an alien invasion and the Saints have to escape their individual cyberspace prisons to lead the resistance against the pretentious, Shakespeare-quoting, Jane-Austen-reading head of the alien empire? WHATEVER!

But the best part of the story is that its only frustrating in summary. In practice, it's great. It shouldn't work, but it does. And I think the reason it works is that it is above-all a video game story, and while none of what I've written contradicts the widespread prejudice that video game stories are trash, I would point to Saints Row IV as an example of trash masterfully executed.

See, the problem with a lot of serious, story-driven games is that between the story segments, the actual gameplay is an absurd power fantasy. One moment, you're contemplating the nature of mortality and man's relationship to violence, and the next you're gunning down, like 50 guys wearing black body-armor and wielding military-grade weapons. Saints Row IV, by contrast, just takes that power fantasy and leans into it. This is something that the Saints Row series as a whole has been doing since SR2, but SR4 really drives it home.

The story doesn't make a damned bit of sense except when viewed through this lens. The connection between events is nothing so prosaic as cause and effect, but rather a shared theme - "there is no obstacle you can't eventually brawl and brazen your way through." It establishes that being a badass, by the game's narrow definition of the term, is a gateway to success, in the logic of the game's universe. By being good at the shooting, running, and general-mayhem-causing of the game's central activities, you can even become President. Which is great, when all you're going to be doing in the next 20 hours is shooting, running, and general-mayhem-causing. It would be a real bummer of a game if you were established as an unstoppable warrior, capable of winning any battle you participate in, only to find out you couldn't defeat the aliens because your policy for issuing bonds isn't good enough to secure you a sufficient amount of food and ammunition. Very few action games recognize the value of accounting, diplomacy, and policy compromise in running a successful insurgency, but Saints Row IV very aggressively refuses to acknowledge that sort of thing, and instead presents the kind of reality where they don't matter (ie a bizarre and often logically-inconsistent one).

Another way that Saints Row IV establishes power fantasy as the connective tissue of the plot is that it never even pretends that the Saints are in any danger of losing. Zinyak's defeat is inevitable. The game opens with the Boss sitting on an alien throne, and the narration talks about how the Saints transformed into heroes. Later, the narrator returns to emphasize that a critical event will later be remembered as the thing that triggered the fall of the Zin empire. This also serves a comedic effect. When Zinyak dismisses the Boss's threats, it is dramatic irony. The audience is privy to information that Zinyak cannot take into account, namely that the Boss is an unstoppable badass who will inevitably overcome all opposition.

And if this were a serious science fiction story, that sort of presentation would be a fatal flaw. It would drain all the tension from the central conflict. Granted, most people have seen enough stories to know that the hero is unlikely to lose at the end, but there is a social contract involved. Good stories pretend that their heroes are in genuine peril, and the audience pretends that they don't know the protagonists' victory is a foregone conclusion. What makes Saints Row IV such a brilliant piece of video game writing is that it recognizes that video games can have a different social contract. It indirectly addresses the player and says "punching aliens and blowing shit up will always be a good use of your time."

Since punching aliens and blowing shit up is exactly what I want to do, I'm more than happy to let SR4's story do whatever the hell it wants.


  1. I like it when the identity of the narrator is revealed at the end of the story

    1. Oh yeah. That was reveal was pretty good. I didn't realize until after the fact that the first few words of the game were a dead giveaway.