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

FADEL SENNA/AFP/Getty Images
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Mathias Énard is the most brazen French writer since Houellebecq

Énard's latest novel, Street of Thieves, has ideas and charisma to burn.

This book, though no kind of failure, may seem a little pinched and bashful to readers of Mathias Énard’s novel Zone, a 500-page, single-sentence rumination on European cruelty that was published last summer to giddy applause. A back-cover blurb by the writer Patrick McGuinness, who also teaches French at Oxford, claims that Street of Thieves is “what the great contemporary French novel should be”, but this is a description better deserved by its predecessor – and possibly its successor, Boussole (“compass”), a grand-scale effort published in French this month by Actes Sud, which promises the reader “staggering erudition” and “heartbreaking lucidity”. Street of Thieves never calls for adjectives of that order (“involving” would be closer to the mark) though it still confirms Énard as the most brazenly lapel-grabbing French writer since Michel Houellebecq. Even on a quiet day, he has ideas and charisma to burn.

In a doomy, plague-ridden future, Lakhdar recalls a late adolescence torn between his duties as a Moroccan-born Muslim and the temptations extended by the north, an alternate universe situated just across the Strait of Gibraltar. In one scale sit “prayers, the Quran and God, who was a little like a second father, minus the kicks in the rear”. In the other sit miniskirted female tourists and the pleasures portrayed in the French detective novels that Lakhdar consumes “by the dozen”: “sex . . . blondes, cars, whisky”. When he is thrown out by his family for having an affair with his cousin, it looks as if fate is tipping the balance. But it doesn’t work out that way. Poverty keeps him tethered to his homeland, and he takes a job working as a bookseller for Sheikh Nureddin, the local imam.

Meanwhile, Lakhdar’s best friend, Bassam, is playing out the same conflict in more volatile ways. Though no less lustful and weed-smoking, he is devoted to Nureddin, for whom, it soon emerges, the Propagation of Quranic Thought is an activity broadly defined, accommodating sticks and stones – and knives and bombs – as well as the pamphlets peddled by Lakhdar.

For much of the first half, the novel is an odd mixture of picaresque and parable. Lakhdar is sometimes an object or victim of fate, sometimes a plaything of his author’s purposes, and the gear changes required can be jerky. One moment, Lakhdar will tell the reader, “And that’s how I entered the service of Marcelo Cruz, funeral services,” in a fish-out-of-water, “isn’t life funny?” sort of way. The next moment, he coolly notes the thematic overlap of his work for Cruz with a previous position that involved digitising the records of an Algerian infantry regiment in the First World War. “The idea of sending real stiffs back to Morocco after having imported dead soldiers to it virtually was rather amusing, I thought.”

Énard’s parable-making instincts frequently take control of the plot, with results that verge on tiresome. When Lakhdar sets sail on a boat named after one of his heroes, the 14th-century traveller Ibn Batuta, the vessel equals Freedom. But lack of an exit visa confines him to the port of Algeciras, then a dispute with the Spanish government keeps the boat there, too. So the Ibn Batuta becomes a symbol for the way that life dashes our best hopes – or upends them. Dreams of freedom produce a nightmare reality. An ideal of escape leads to more stasis.

Yet it feels churlish to grumble about the novel’s design when it enables so much potent writing. Sending Lakhdar from Tangier to Barcelona is a contrivance that you wouldn’t want undone. As well as furnishing different possibilities in terms of scene-setting and atmosphere, it turns the novel into a comparative portrait of two societies through their common factor circa 2011: a period of civic unrest and popular anger that failed to produce a revolution. Morocco is the country that the Arab spring forgot, while in Barcelona the deepening despair is only punctuated, never alleviated, by the occasional protest.

In the Barcelona section, richer by far than those set in Tangier and Algeciras, Énard uses Lakhdar’s outsider perspective to lay bare the shallowness of the type of dissent you find in a democracy. He notes that a general strike is claimed as a victory both by the organisers, because “they reach such-and-such a percentage of strikers”, and by the government, which didn’t have to make any changes. To Lakhdar, Spain appears “a land beyond politics”, where the nationalist government “no longer gave a shit about anyone” and industrial action has become an end in itself.

The workings of orientalism – or whatever cross-cultural logic shapes European responses to North Africa – are exposed with clarity, even flair. A feeling for paradox crowds out the platitude, derived from ­Edward Said, whereby representatives of the developed west are only ever blundering and stupid. It’s true that Judit, a student of Arabic literature at Barcelona University, so narrowly associates Tangier with sexual licence and foreign visitors (Burroughs, Paul Bowles) that Lakhdar, as a Muslim from the suburbs, feels that “we were discussing a different city”. But Énard – who teaches Arabic literature in Barcelona – is careful not to present Lakhdar’s Tangier as the “true” version and Judit’s as a romantic Other-laden mirage. Despite her overemphases, Judit never comes across as a dabbler, and it is Lakhdar’s mistiness about Barcelona that receives the harsher humbling. (The “street of thieves” lies not in Tangier, but in the Raval district of Barcelona.)

So, it is a shame, given this balancing of myopic perspectives, that Énard also feels the need to grant the older, reminiscing Lakhdar, smug in his 20/20 hindsight, a prominent place in the telling. But then Street of Thieves gives the consistent impression of a writer who, not unlike Houellebecq, views formal choices as not just secondary, but irritating. The unpunctuated first-person rant, as used in Zone, is surely Énard’s ideal device. It turns crude technique into an engine. The more intricate demands of the novel – the niceties of plotting and narrative point-of-view – merely serve to slow him down. Lakhdar is most convincing when neither a picaro nor a symbolic type, neither totally himself nor entirely representative, but a balance better suited to Énard’s analytic needs: specific enough to be vivid, while clearly standing in for the migrant who, drawn by fantasies of easy passage to streets paved with gold and teeming with blondes, finds instead an obstacle course from one site of crisis to another. 

Street of Thieves is available now from Fitzcarraldo Editions (£12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism