The term “postmodern” gets thrown around a lot by people as a catch-all term for “whatever the hell I want it to be”, but it does have a few specific ideas tied to it. One of them is the concept of deconstruction: Examining a genre in a semiotic context, which is an intellectual way of saying “Calling out dogma for what it is.”
And, bizarrely, a video game where you can beat an alien to death with a giant rubber tentacle called the Violator manages to do just that. A lot more than you’d expect, actually; somehow, this silly over-the-top franchise has managed to become an effective criticism of the pretensions in many games.
As we all know, the Saints Row franchise is built around mayhem: Cause as much of it as possible in as many ways as possible as ridiculously as possible and as often as possible. And that’s the only supposed goal, here, but Saints Row IV is gleefully written and designed to take an axe to pretty much every pretension in the video game industry, and its own pretensions as well.
First of all, the entire game is essentially the Saints playing their own video game: The majority of the game takes place inside of a virtual simulation of the decaying Steelport. This isn’t just a minor theme, either: The developers play with the idea constantly. If you stand near “rifts”, you’ll see common glitches in open world games suddenly trigger, from distorted bodies to people walking upside down to cars suddenly embedded in the ground. The game’s interface will glitch as you or your antagonists mess with the simulation.
More than that, though, the writers rip the hell out of their own narrative constantly. Any other game would take itself profoundly seriously; Saints Row IV is freed by knowing it’s inherently ridiculous. Your character will gripe about the ever-changing rules, point out logical inconsistencies, and note that basic tropes like the rule of three are annoying and nonsensical. When you learn the name of a major landmark, your character will complain that “nobody tells me things like this!”
It doesn’t stop there, either: As a character named Shaundi was played by two different actresses, the game actually brings both personas back, and has Shaundi argue with her younger self about her failures; there’s an optional mission where you help her reconcile with her younger self… who continues to be a player character you can talk to and summon in the game. Your default character designs from previous games become your enemies. Boss characters from previous games come back to be killed and recruited.
Everywhere you look, Saints Row IV has something actually fairly intelligent to say about gaming and the pretensions and cliches of various game genres from stealth games to racing games to, well, open-world mayhem simulators, especially the logical inconsistencies in the franchise itself. When you go to rescue Johnny Gat, you discover the inside of his mind is… a side-scrolling beat ’em up that often satirizes both the technological and storytelling crudeness of older games. And that makes sense because this is a guy who sees the world entirely in terms of black and white, and who solves his problems exclusively with violence… how else would he see the world?
Even the “romances” are a deserved mockery of how interpersonal interaction is handled in games. They’re not complex feats you have to tend to like a shrubbery; they’re cutscenes triggered in one button about casual sex. That you have to complete to get achievements. It teases out the sometimes awkward implications of “romance” being a matter of button presses.
Don’t get me wrong. This is still a game largely built on mass murder, property destruction, and committing the two together with a litany of ridiculous tools. But it’s also a game that, just underneath the surface, constantly draws attention to the things we don’t question, and that perhaps we, as gamers, should.
Also, you get to reenact the finale of Ghostbusters II. And if that’s not an artistic achievement in video games, then it probably should be.