Saints or sinners? The problem of satire in videogames

There's a fine line between what's fair game for mockery and what isn't. Phil Hartup looks at <em>Saints Row: The Third</em>, a game that steps on a few toes in its pursuit of laughs.


The moment I knew Saints Row: The Third was a new and hitherto unseen kind of twisted occurred when I was playing it in co-operative mode with a friend of mine. We’d decided to do a side mission for one of the characters, who was a pimp. Fair enough in the world of Saints Row we thought, not thinking anything of it. Long story short, aforementioned friend found himself playing a mini-game where he had to give a handjob in the back of a car while I drove away from the paparazzi.

Sometimes I miss the days when a video game was about trying to get a frog across a road, y’know?

The Saints Row series is an oddity in gaming. A game series that eviscerates every icon it comes across yet has managed to avoid almost any serious censure. As a series they can be seen to have picked up the baton from the early Grand Theft Auto series in terms of tone. The original GTA games featured an anarchic and gleefully depraved style. You’d get bonus points for mowing down particular groups of pedestrians all in one go, you could get a kill frenzy bonus to go nuts with a flamethrower on a crowded sidewalk and you always got extra points for running somebody down with their own car. Good clean fun.

Then Grand Theft Auto grew up. Not proper grew up, not grown up so that you’d loan it money you expected to get back or let it look after your kids for a weekend, but it started to show more maturity and more character. You could still run down the pavement shooting everybody, but it really didn’t feel like the game wanted you to do that. The violence remained, but muted. Now the game wanted you to talk to Roman about his love life or go play darts with Kate. Everything felt low key and fragile, building to a conclusion that brought more tragedy than triumph.

Enter Saints Row. The first Saints Row game actually started out with a fairly gritty premise, you were a young black guy from a town called Stilwater, a fairly typical rustbelt city. You got beaten down in the street, so you joined a gang, mayhem ensued but it was more of a GTA San Andreas style game than the pure mayhem of the sequels. Saints Row 2 was the first to introduce the elements of craziness that typified the series, with The Third, and the impending fourth and possibly final instalment looking to go even further over the top.

On the surface the anarchism of later Saints Row games is so banal that it can barely be described with words. To really capture the essence of it you have to imagine a noise, two parts a grudging grunt of acknowledgement to one part chuckle. More "meh" than "heh". However it is clear that beneath all the brutal stereotypes and cheap laughs Saints Row has always had a lot of heart. It’s hard to imagine warmth and charm in the game in which the main character is happy to flout any kind of moral or ethical behaviour, but it is there. Also Saints Row games have always supported the anarchy of the game with a solid and sensible set of game mechanics and a sharp presentation meaning that even the simple act of kicking a police officer to death in the street is challenging yet rewarding for the player.

Looking through layers of froth and silliness that characterise the series it is clear that, probably tucked away in some corner cubicle, unsung and seldom acknowledged, there is somebody at work on these games who really knows their onions when it comes to the nuts and bolts of making third person action games.

Compare the Saints Row series to the Postal series and you can see that the heart and soul of the game makes all the difference. Postal games feature the same sort of gross humour but there’s no soul to it. Saints Row games have nailed what makes a good satire, rather than merely being badly made wish fulfilment for people striving to be edgy. Spraying a neighbourhood with sewage is funny. Peeing on somebody until they vomit isn’t. It’s science.

Some things that Saints Row games have got most right relate to the main character. In the first game you began as a black man, but you could change race and clothes and so on at will in various shops. The second game really changed it up however by allowing you to swap sex, not just with a binary switch either, gender was a variable in that game. These settings were dialled back in the third game, a casualty in a generally scaled back customisation system, but the ability to dress your character however you like remains. It’s important to remember too that this isn’t a game like Mass Effect where you create a character from scratch to fit into the story. In the Saints Row series, whatever you look like in the later games (and predictably in the adverts and so on the protagonist is typically a white man) your character started out as a man. This is something that is actually remarked upon quite often in the second game if you do switch the protagonist to a female body. Intentionally or not the Saints Row series are the first mainstream big budget games to embrace the option of a transgender hero.

It would be remiss not to point out though that in its quest to mock everything under the sun Saints Row does manage to walk into a few crass and unpleasant areas. A significant part of Saints Row: The Third involves trafficking women to use as sex slaves. It is implied that your character is a nicer pimp than the people that you are liberating your slave women from. But damn. Even as a joke, in a game of jokes, a game that under no circumstances should ever be considered serious in any way shape or form, even then, that’s not right. But that is the nature of a game where the character is an entirely unapologetic self-serving villain. The majority of games, even when you have an option to be the villain, have you as some sort of honourable outlaw. Saints Row doesn’t do that, you have to be the bad guy, even when you’d rather not.

That can be the problem with satire, when you’re trying to mock everyone and treat everything as a joke you can end up aiming you jokes at those below you on the totem pole, and that’s weak comedy. It can be a fine line between what is fair game and what isn’t. This fine line was what Seth McFarlane nearly garrotted himself with at the Oscars.

Chastising the Saints Row games for stepping on a few toes in pursuit of laughs misses the point though. This is a game series that treats sacred cows with all the reverence of a killing floor. It makes no apologies nor should it. It comes with an adult rating after all.

While as a series it may perhaps never be taken as seriously as GTA now wants to be it deserves praise for daring to push the limits of bad taste in an industry that seems inexorably drawn towards safe bets. Given the collapse of its publisher THQ it seems clear that this commitment to style over sales was not made without a cost.

A still from Saints Row: The Third.

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture

Jens Schlueter/Getty Images
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The House by the Lake is a history of Germany told in a single house

History, which we learn about as a series of ideological abstractions, is lived concretely - in ordinary houses.

Recent years have brought a number of popular stories, told about Jews who lost their patrimony during the Nazi period: Edmund de Waal’s book The Hare With Amber Eyes, for example, which focused on a group of netsuke – small Japanese figurines – that was all that remained of his family’s once-vast art collection, and the film Woman in Gold, which tells the story of the descendants of Adele Bloch-Bauer, who successfully sued to reclaim Gustav Klimt’s portrait of her.

It is no coincidence that these stories are emerging just at the historical moment when the last survivors of the Holocaust are dying. The actual victims of the Holocaust suffered too much to be plausibly recompensed; there is no way to tell their lives ­except as stories of irrecoverable loss. It is only for the second and third generations that the restoration of lost property can seem like a form of making whole, or a viable way of reconnecting with a familial past. There is, however, always something a little uncomfortable about such stories, because they seem to suggest that regaining a painting, or a piece of real estate, does something to heal a historical rupture that in reality can never be closed.

The House by the Lake starts out seeming like another one of these stories. In 2013 Thomas Harding travelled from London to the outskirts of Berlin in order to visit a house that had been built by his paternal great-grandfather, a German-Jewish doctor named Alfred Alexander. What he finds is a shambles: “Climbing through, my way illuminated by my iPhone, I was confronted by mounds of dirty clothes and soiled cushions, walls covered in graffiti and crawling with mould, smashed appliances and fragments of furniture, rotting floorboards and empty beer bottles.” The house had been used by squatters as a drug den for years and it was now scheduled for demolition by the local authority. Here is a perfect symbol of a lost estate and the reader half expects Harding triumphantly to restore the house and reclaim it for his family.

Yet The House by the Lake has a more complex and ambiguous story to tell. For one thing, Harding makes clear that his relatives want nothing to do with the house, or with Germany in general. Harding comes from a family of German Jews who emigrated to Britain in the 1930s, starting new lives with a new name (originally they were called Hirschowitz). Understandably, they have no sentimental feelings about the country that drove them out and no interest in rekindling a connection with it. But Harding is an exception. His last book, Hanns and Rudolf, was also an excavation of the family’s past, in which he showed how his great-uncle Hanns Alexander fought in the British army during the Second World War and ended up arresting Rudolf Höss, the infamous commandant of Auschwitz.

Rather than let the house disappear, he sets about recovering its story, in an attempt to convince the German authorities to let it stand as a structure of historical value. In doing so, he broadens his subject from Jewish dispossession to the history of 20th-century Germany, as seen through the lens of a single modest building.

Alfred Alexander built the house in 1927 as a summer home for his family. He was a fashionable Berlin doctor, whose patients included Albert Einstein and Marlene Diet­rich, and he joined a number of successful professionals in building second homes in the village of Groß Glienicke, just west of the capital. The village had a long history – it was founded in the 13th century – but the exponential growth of modern Berlin had disrupted its traditions.

The land that Dr Alexander leased to build his house on was part of an estate owned by Otto von Wollank, who sounds like a stern Junker but was a Berlin real-estate developer who bought the estate (and then his title) in the early 20th century. Already Harding shows that the history of Groß Glienicke is bound up with social changes in modern Germany and in particular those in Berlin, whose population exploded in the years before the First World War. This made it more profitable for the von Wollanks to parcel off their land to city-dwellers than to farm it, as its owners had done since time immemorial.

The house that Alfred Alexander built was a modest one: a one-storey wooden structure with nine small rooms and, because it was intended to be used only in the summer, no insulation or central heating. It was a place for leading the simple life, for rowing and swimming and playing tennis, and the children – including Elsie, who later became the grandmother of Thomas Harding – loved to spend time there.

Groß Glienicke was, however, no ­refuge from rising anti-Semitism: Robert von Schultz, the Alexanders’ landlord and Otto von Wollank’s son-in-law, was a leader in the Stahlhelm, the right-wing paramilitary organisation, and a vocal hater of Jews. After 1933, when Hitler seized power, things became much worse, though the Alexanders attempted to continue living a normal life. Harding quotes a diary entry that the teenage Elsie made in April that year: “Thousands of Jewish employees, doctors, lawyers have been impoverished in the space of a few hours . . . People who during the war fought and bled for their German fatherland . . . now they stand on the brink of the abyss.”

Fortunately, the abyss did not swallow up the Alexander family. By 1936, all its members had escaped to Britain. At first, they tried to keep legal possession of the Groß Glienicke house, renting it out to a tenant named Will Meisel, a successful songwriter and music publisher. (The company he founded, Edition Meisel, still flourishes today.) But Meisel, like so many ordinary Germans under Hitler, was not above profiting from the dispossession of Jews. When the Alexanders’ citizenship was revoked by the Nazi state and their house confiscated, Meisel bought it from the tax office at a bargain price, much as he had previously bought up music publishers abandoned by their Jewish owners. After the war, evidence of this profiteering delayed – but did not prevent – Meisel’s efforts to be “denazified” by the ­Allied occupying powers.

Meisel won the house by the lake thanks to one political upheaval and lost it thanks to another. The postwar partition of Berlin left Groß Glienicke just outside the city limits; as a result, Meisel’s business in West Berlin was in a different country from his lake house in East Germany. This turned him into another absentee landlord, like the Alexanders before him. Indeed, there is an odd symmetry to what happened next. Just as the Nazis had taken the house from its Jewish owners to give it to an Aryan, now the communists took the house from its capitalist owner and gave it to the workers.

Because of the housing shortage in postwar Germany, the small summer house now had to serve as the year-round residence for two Groß Glienicke families, the Fuhrmanns and the Kühnes. This required a series of alterations that destroyed much of the house’s original character – a typical eastern bloc triumph of the utilitarian over the aesthetic.

In tracing this next phase of the house, Harding shows what life in East Germany was like for some of its typical citizens. Wolfgang Kühne, a bus driver, was recruited by the Stasi (his code name was “Ignition Key”) but was soon booted out for failure to do any actual spying. His son Bernd was a promising athlete who unwittingly participated in the state’s doping programme, before an accident destroyed his sporting career. At the same time, the family benefited from the guaranteed food, jobs and housing offered by the state – perks that Wolfgang would miss after reunification brought capitalism back to Groß Glienicke.

The institution of East German life that the Kühnes could never ignore, however, was the Berlin Wall. Because Groß Glienicker Lake was legally part of West Berlin, a section of the wall ran between the house and the lake shore – a three-metre-high ­concrete monolith that was literally in the Kühnes’ backyard. They couldn’t have guests over, since they lived in a restricted border zone, which required a special pass to enter. Occasionally, Harding writes, the young Bernd and his classmates would make a game of tossing sticks over the wall, trying to set off the alarm tripwires.

This emblem of tyranny was just another fact of life for those living in its shadow. And that is, perhaps, the most important lesson of Harding’s book. History, which we learn about as a series of ideological abstractions, is lived concretely. This is why an ordinary house can serve so effectively as a symbol of the German experience.

Today, the Alexander Haus, as it is known, is a designated landmark and Harding hopes to turn it into a museum, a fitting new incarnation for our own age of memorialisation. Whether it will be the last stage in the house by the lake’s career is something only time will tell.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and critic. His latest book is “Emblems of the Passing World: Poems After Photographs by August Sander” (Other Press)

The House by the Lake: a Story of Germany by Thomas Harding is published by William Heinemann (£20, 442pp)

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis