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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The Day That Went Missing: a memoir that breaks all the rules

Richard Beard's book is brimful of anger and guilt, fails to deliver an uplifting ending and opens with a death.

The Day That Went Missing: a Family’s Story, by Richard Beard

Harvill Secker, 278pp, £14.99

This memoir breaks all the rules. It’s brimful of anger and guilt, fails to deliver an uplifting ending and opens with a death. In the sea off the Cornish coast, the author, aged 11, is jumping the waves along with his brother Nicky, aged nine. It is August 1978. They are trying to outdo each other, joshing in the water; but then a rip current catches Nicky, pulling him out and sucking the sand from beneath his feet. A last image is burned in Beard’s brain: Nicky paddling madly and whining, “his head back, ligaments straining in his neck, his mouth in a tight line to keep out the seawater”. The next moment, responding to a deep instinct to save himself, Beard turns his back on his brother in a frenzied break for the shore.

All his life, Beard writes, he has “made a habit of looking away”. With this book – born of a midlife wobble, a dissatisfaction with being “insufficient in feeling” – he is determined to face down the dreadful events of that day and bulldoze the walls of denial that his family began erecting immediately after Nicky’s funeral, when they returned to the same house (and beach) in Cornwall to finish their holiday as if nothing had happened.

But now there’s so little of Nicky left: a gravestone that gives no date of death, a memorial at the boys’ Berkshire boarding school, a chapel dedication. Beard’s father, who with his determined silence imposed a moratorium on discussing Nicky, is now dead, too, and his living brothers’ recollections are as hazy as his own. At his mother’s house, a suitcase in the attic stows Nicky’s scant belongings, out of sight and mind, and there is a bunch of condolence letters whose well-intentioned inanities Beard quotes to good effect throughout the book, ­showing up the poverty of our language in acknowledging grief. “Death in these letters is character-forming, like a traditional English education,” he remarks at one point.

Beard revisits the holiday house, where difficult memories surface of his boyhood self, pretending to cope while falling apart. He cries uncontrollably as he walks along the cliffs to the beach where Nicky died. “My eyes are leaking,” he writes, another reminder of how he has been drilled not to feel (his boarding school, co-conspirator in denial, does not come off well here).

Beard’s mother hides behind revisionism. She tells him that Nicky was “hopeless at games, and not very brainy”. By believing this, he writes, she can believe that he didn’t have the strength or cleverness to outwit the sea. Another distancing mechanism: his mother points out that Nicky bore little physical resemblance to his three brothers. Beard drily notes how this helps account for Nicky’s erasure: “He wasn’t genuinely one of us – a reason for forgetting him that would make sense, in a novel.”

Making sense of life in novels is what Beard does for a living: in 2011’s Lazarus Is Dead, he even gave his central character a brother who drowns. And his novelist self protects him still, here. While reading (and finding flaws with) the condolence letters, he relies on his inner literary critic to “fend away the risk of genuine empathy”; stumbling on precious references to Nicky’s personality in school reports, he expresses a wariness of short cuts to character. Yet even the denial that serves him professionally breaks down when he comes across stories he published in his school magazine when he was 12 and 13 – one about a diver crippled by fear of water, another about a consummate actor who can’t keep up a performance: he keeps fluffing his lines.

Scraping away this final layer of self-protection creates a certain freedom. It allows Beard to be crazy angry at his father, who had cancer in 1978 and a lousy prognosis with it, and therefore had nothing to lose by jumping into the waves to save his son. And yet he didn’t do it.

Beard is angry at Nicky, too – “stubborn little bastard”. His brother, it turns out, was far from hopeless at sport. School reports indicate that he excelled at it, that he was ­indefatigable, competitive, ambitious. Beard hated him for that, for showing him up, for being the more talented sibling. Once, he punched Nicky in the face but there was no running away to tell on him in response. Nicky bore the punch, showing his brother who was the bigger of them. “I didn’t like him,” writes Beard, and so he goaded Nicky into the sea. “I was older and it was my idea. I left him out of his depth and drowning and I didn’t try to save him, not really. I was busy saving myself.” This is the stuff of true grieving and remorse, the acid peel of genuine soul-searching, whose sting few of us are capable of bearing. And it sings.

Beard has written an enriching rather than uplifting book. It deals in difficult truths. It insists that we can hate those we love; that forgetting is hard work and more damaging than remembering; and that grief will hound us to the end. It also tells us that brothers are more important than we might ever credit. 

Marina Benjamin’s “The Middlepause” (Scribe) is now available in paperback

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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