How ‘Saints Row’ Went Crazy… And Became Great

These days, gamers know Saints Row as the game where Johnny Gat goes to hell to beat up Satan and sing catchy musical numbers. But, as hard as it is to believe, the series has far more grounded and humble beginnings. Here’s a look back at how Saints Row became great by losing its mind.

First You Get The Money…

The series started with, of course, Saints Row, which was a serious story about a gang attempting to secure the city of Stillwater. It was rife with corrupt politicians, undercover cops, and other gang movie tropes, all of which were played relatively straight.

Right from the start, though, there were hints the series was a little wacky. Take the series mainstay Insurance Fraud, a minigame that’s literally about playing in traffic, in the sense that the more hits you take, the more fake insurance claim money you pile up. That hint of mischief, combined with being an Xbox 360 exclusive, was enough: Saints Row sold 2 million copies and held, for a long time, the record for the most popular demo on Xbox Live.

Then You Get The Power…

Saints Row 2 broadened its reach to more platforms, appearing on the PS3, and it also began to set aside the gritty crime-based aspects in favor of impersonating a police officer (and committing over-the-top acts of assault) for a reality show, riding a burning ATV through the various neighborhoods of Stillwater, and a quest with Tera Patrick to bring down the Ultor Corporation. Yes, that Tera Patrick.

Despite all this, though, the story was still a bit dark, full of dead friends, betrayal and all that other boring stuff. At least until the sequel.

Then You Get The Fame…

The third game starts off with the 3rd Street Saints, a group of hardened criminals who rule through fear, violence, and intimidation… as enormous celebrities. And it’s really here that the game’s satirical nature comes into full focus; the Saints have their own energy drink, clothing line, and even a movie deal in the works. The Saints guest star on violent Japanese game shows, beat up luchadores, and rescue a pimp with an auto-tuned digital voice box in his cane. Not to mention the shark attack gun:

And, in fact, an ongoing theme and frequent target of satire in the game is just how ridiculous it is to be beloved and famous for being, well, utterly terrible human beings. The series often lingers on the fact that you are, self-admittedly, a gangster, a criminal, and yet, everyone loves you. The fact that the government gets involved and sends a paramilitary force with fighter jets just underlines the absurdity, even as you start blowing up buildings and generally acting like a public nuisance.

So, where was there left to go?

…And Then Aliens Invade

Straight into postmodernism. I’ve argued here before that Saints Row IV is actually postmodern art, starting with the fact that it’s a video game about the Saints playing their own video game, something the development team takes full advantage of. Everything, in Saints Row IV, is either commentary on or parody of video game tropes, games as a whole, or the series itself.

It’s the kind of game where fussy, problematic NPC romances are mocked in one-button scenes where you unlock a trophy for getting everyone to jump your bones. Glitches are deliberately invoked when you get close to a rift in the Matrix-like setting. Nolan North’s constant appearances in games is referred to by having him do all the voice work in the game, and then making “Nolan North” a voice setting. Not a single cliche, trope, or convention escapes unscathed right down to, during a climactic fight, your hero noting that man, do these aliens love to do things in threes.

And that’s the kind of teasing we need in gaming. The truth is, many games are very, very serious, and what Saints Row puckishly points out is that all this pretentiousness and self-seriousness is hung on something that’s supposed to be fun. Besides, find us another franchise that’s not only willing to go to hell, but go the full Disney while they’re down there.