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

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Stanley Johnson's Diary

The author on iguana burgers, cricket with Boris – and what Russia really knew about Brexit.

My week began with the annual Earl Spencer v Boris Johnson cricket match, held at Charles Spencer’s Althorp House in Northamptonshire. This is a truly wonderful event in a wonderful setting. Boris’s team has not yet notched up a victory, even though we once fielded Kevin Pietersen. This year, we actually came close to winning. The Johnson team made 127. Charles Spencer’s, with one over left, was on 123. It was a nail-biting finish, and they finally beat us with only two balls left to bowl.

Clapping for Britain

The day after the match, I was invited to lunch at the Travellers Club to meet Alden McLaughlin, the premier of the Cayman Islands, and other members of his government who were travelling with him in London. I discovered that his vision for the islands’ future extended far beyond the financial sector, central though that is. He was, for example, proud that the Cayman Islands – like other UK overseas territories – contribute enormously to the UK’s biological diversity.

“The blue iguana is endemic to the Cayman Islands,” McLaughlin explained, “and it is one of the great environmental success stories of our time. It has been brought back from the brink of extinction.” If the blue iguana is on the way to recovery, it seems that the green iguana is superabundant. “We must have a million of them,” he said. “They are getting everywhere. We are working on a strategy to deal with them.” I told him that I once had an iguana burger in Honduras. He shook his head. “We don’t eat iguanas in the Caymans.”

Premier McLaughlin was also able to offer a useful insight into Britain’s current Brexit-related tensions. In 1962, the Cayman Islands were forced to decide whether to stay with Jamaica, as Jamaica became independent, or to stick with Britain as a separate crown colony. “We decided by acclamation,” McLaughlin told me. “One side clapped loudest; the other side clapped longest. The loudest side won. We stayed with Britain.” Like the latest Johnson-Spencer cricket match, it was a close-run thing.

Light touch

Last week, we went to the first night of the Proms at the Royal Albert Hall and, in the course of an inspiring evening, heard Igor Levit, born in Nizhny Novgorod, give us a haunting version of Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto. There were mutterings afterwards that he shouldn’t have chosen Liszt’s transcription of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy as his encore, but if Levit meant this as a political statement – and he probably did – it was done with the lightest of touches. He doesn’t paint his message in huge capital letters on the side of a bus.

An open goal

My sister, Hilary, who emigrated to Australia in 1969, has been visiting. We spent two days on Exmoor in the middle of the week, on the family farm where we grew up, before coming back to London for the launch of my 25th book and tenth novel. Kompromat is a satirical political thriller that aims to recount the real story behind both the election of Donald Trump as US president and the pro-Brexit vote in last year’s referendum. There is a quotation from the former London mayor Ken Livingstone on the front cover: “It’s brilliant and, who knows, maybe it’s true.”

In interviews, I have been asked whether I really believe that the Russians might have been behind both Trump’s victory and Brexit. My response is simple. In the US, the idea of Russian interference in the election is being taken very seriously. Over here, we don’t seem to be bothered. I asked myself, when I started writing Kompromat in February, why wouldn’t the Russians have taken a shot at an open goal?

My fictional British prime minister, Jeremy Hartley, is a deeply patriotic man, convinced that the only way to take Britain out of the EU is to call a referendum – with a little help from his “friends”. But I don’t want to give too much away. Channel 4 has bought the rights and will be programming six half-hour episodes.

All in the family

Hilary and I went to Wimbledon for the ladies’ final as the guests of her old friend David Spearing. Usually referred to by tennis addicts as “the man in the black hat”, he first became a Wimbledon steward in 1974 and, even though he has lived in Abu Dhabi for the past 50 years, he never misses a season. As the longest-serving steward, he gets to sit (wearing his famous hat) in the “family box” at Wimbledon, the one where close relatives of the players are invariably placed.

We met Spearing in the officials’ buttery during one of the intervals (Venus Williams had just been walloped by Garbiñe Muguruza). Later, as he walked us back to our seats, people kept stopping to ask him for a selfie. “I’ve been on duty in the ‘family box’ for 20 years,” he explained. “They all know me, from the TV or in person, seeing me sitting there hour after hour. The first time Andy Murray won the championship, he climbed up into the box to hug his girlfriend. I noticed he had missed his mother, who was sitting over to the side. ‘Don’t forget about Mum, Andy,’ I told him!” 

Stanley Johnson’s novel “Kompromat” is published  by Oneworld

Stanley Johnson is an author, journalist and former Conservative member of the European Parliament. He has also worked in the European Commission. In 1984 Stanley was awarded the Greenpeace Prize for Outstanding Services to the Environment and in the same year the RSPCA Richard Martin award for services to animal welfare. In 1962 he won the Newdigate Prize for Poetry. He also happens to be the father of Boris Johnson.

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder