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

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Do the abusive messages sent to One Direction members reveal a darker side to fandom?

Incidents like this are often used to characterise all young female fans, but this isn’t about fandom. It’s harassment. 

One Direction’s Niall Horan is the internet’s favourite innocent blond goofball. He spends his days tweeting platitudes about golf and the weather, Snapchatting his reactions to whatever is on his TV, and thanking his fans for everything they’ve done for him. His social media presence is generally one of cheerful bemusement.

So, last night, the web went into maternal #ProtectNiall mode when he took to Twitter to highlight the darker side to fame.

A group of “fans” got hold of Niall’s number, and started frantically texting, WhatsApping and calling him. After two weeks of constant abusive messaging, despite requests to stop, Niall tries to use his platform to get them to stop.

Around the same time, screenshots of the supposed messages started to circle online. (I certainly can’t prove whether they’re real or not, but they first surfaced before Niall’s tweets and feel genuine.) The pattern that emerges seems to be one of frantic, attention-seeking messaging, extreme shock and surprise when he writes back, and, when Niall only requests that they stop messaging him and respect his privacy, the really nasty stuff starts. Messages range from “You invented cancer” to “If [your nephew] was my kid I’d sell it”; from “You’re so stupid and r*tarded” to “I hope your house blows up”.

Niall’s responses are extremely Niall in their politeness. “Why do I deserve to have a bad day?” he asks one. “You guys are bullies,” he tells them. “Go away please.”

As soon as the screenshots emerged, so did suspicions about the identity of the individuals in question. A set of five or six Twitter handles were circled by fan accounts, encouraging people to block and report the usernames to Twitter. Some of the owners of these accounts themselves claim to have been part of the conversations in question, to varying degrees. These account owners are seemingly women, under the age of 18, who have supposedly been involved in other recent One Direction harassment incidents.

One of those incidents came just days before Niall’s tweets. A person suspected to be a member of this group of “fans” got hold of another band member’s phone number: Louis Tomlinson’s. You can listen to a recording of the phone conversation between them that leaked online. After telling him her Twitter handle, Tomlinson asks the caller how she got his number. “You’re a fucking bitch and I hope your baby dies,” she says. Louis responds with a variation on the ancient proverb, “Lawyer up, asshole.” He seemingly tweeted about the incident later that day – and Niall retweeted him.

Fan accounts insist that the same Twitter users were also involved in hacking the iCloud of Anne Twist, Harry Styles’s mother, and leaking hundreds of photos of her son online.

The whole situation is a complicated mess. Parts of the messages feel as though they have been influenced by the style of accounts desperately trying to get the attention of celebrities on Twitter. If you look at the top reply to any tweet from a celebrity with millions of Twitter followers, the responses are calculated to shock the most in an attempt to get noticed. Maybe it’s a weird combination of sexual and violent imagery, or a sexist or racist slur. This is harassment itself, but its ubiquitousness can make it seem less offensive or extreme. Perhaps this kind of behaviour is easier to ignore on Twitter or Instagram – if you have millions of followers, you presumably can’t be notified every time one of them interacts with you online. When it moves into your private sphere, I can image it becomes more terrifying than annoying. Maybe these girls were simply swept up in the cultural moment, and failed to grasp the consquences of their behaviour.

Is it a damning indictment of the hysteria of teenage girls? The scary state of twenty-first century fandom? The problems of anonymity offered by the internet? It’s true that the internet has offered new ways for fans and celebrities to have a more direct connection with one another: for the most part, a mutually beneficial arrangement.

But the revelation of the internet has also been that it is a tool through which fundamentally human behaviours are expressed. Over the last few decades, we have learned that aggressive behaviour online is not limited to largely non-existent stereotypes of spotty virgins in their mothers’ basements, or teenage girls developing “dangerous” sexuality. Grown men and women, mothers, fathers, daughters, sons all do it. It’s also not a behaviour that is inherently connected to online spaces: children and teenagers might experiment with moral boundaries through cyberbullying, but they also might do it via anonymous notes in lockers or whispers in school corridors. People of all ages, professions and genders harass others.

The real problem is not celebrity culture or the concept of teenage fandom or social media. As Louis Tomlinson rightly identifies, it’s that our laws have failed to catch up. If we continue to treat harassment as harassment, in all spaces and by all perpetrators, we’ll have a better chance of minimising it.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.