Pretending to Care: Saints Row (2022)

Video games have never actually, as a medium, reacted to GamerGate. The 2010s hate movement’s ripples seem to color everything about the medium for me in both temporal directions, forcing a re-evaluation of the history that led games to “be a boy’s medium” through the NES’s placement in toy aisles at stores, all the way to suffering through a deluge of toxicity when discussing any game that stars a woman. Perhaps I’m alone in this idea, and the Gamers are trying to sweep it under the rug and cower in shame when the spewers of discourse fire up again. This read clicks when you consider how few professional game discussers still acknowledge such a monumental cultural shift in American online video game discussion, the likes of Jim Stephanie Sterling among the miniscule crowd.

And yet, when I play a game like Volition’s 2022 reboot of Saints Row, I get the nagging feeling that the producers in play in the western AAA space have been thinking about GamerGate for every day since it began with a few lies almost a decade ago. Not to say that Saints Row is interested in dealing with rampant sexism, but that the discussion of politics and greater ideas in the gaming space kind of…broke their brains.

Famous for its position as “stupider Grand Theft Auto”, the first four Saints Row games covered an increasingly absurd crime syndicate that went from garden-variety shoot-outs to dildo bats and a Presidential seat. I wasn’t terribly familiar with the series, having only played and not particularly caring for the fourth game, but I understood the philosophical underpinnings of the series at the time of its first conclusion. The Saints Row that everybody knows is a game about irreverence, a game about being silly for the sake of being silly and enjoying a detailed map of chaos and nonsense to dick around in because dicking around is fun.

It’s not really my thing, standard open worlds have never clicked with me, and the nihilistic absurdism gets old for me very quickly. It’s the same feeling of watching four episodes of South Park in a row and on the third episode realizing that thinking everybody is stupid can only get you so far, however funny the first two episodes were be damned. It’s a look into the matrix of edgy teenagers, its most valuable asset being in remembering your own edgy teenage phases and cringing with the bristling illumination of hindsight.

When Volition announced they were rebooting the series to go back to a more grounded style like the first two games, I was cautiously interested, less as a player, and more as someone who wanted to see how this formula and ideology could grow and change with the times.

It grew alright, right down into Hell.

I brought up the explosive and braindead controversy about “politics” in games at the start of this piece because what Saints Row 2022 wants above all else is to be a game about something, positioning the game immediately as a response to millennial and Gen Z fears about economic despair, calling the player character a “wage slave” for taking a job with a comically evil corporation as a mercenary and forcing you to enact horrible, bloodless violence against the activist groups your friends and roommates are privy to. The main characters of Saints Row, and forgive me for this, are woke, and the opening chapters of the game set up a passively interesting conflict between survival at the call of the enemy versus doing what you think is right.

To its credit, when the game is still trying to be about something, there are some interesting ideas at play. An early game segment tasks you as a security guard for the grand re-opening of a museum exhibit that gets raided by these activist groups trying to reclaim the exhibit. Is the exhibit unethically sourced? It’s not terribly clear. The best reasoning I could parse is “capitalism”, which, fair, but the end goal of these activism groups is never delved into. This is because, of course, they make up the roster of villains to the Saints that form when the player character is let go from their position and has a complete change of heart.

Our villains are a massive mega corporation and the jilted activist groups that seem to stand for little more than an uncompromising idea of anarchy, avoiding any criticism of a raid on a small business by saying that all people are pawns of the machine or some shit like that. And you know what? I guess that’s a genuine point to have, but it makes the waters that Saints Row delves into so muddy and simplified that there’s no place for the game’s lofty ambitions to go instead of into its own chaos. Saints Row keeps many of the more destructive ideas from the original series, which includes throwing yourself into traffic for the insurance money, among others. The attitude that this is a more “grown-up” version of the series ultimately falls flat; it has the same irreverence for ideas and power struggles, but replacing the dildo bat with a pride flag in the background of one shot.

The game lives in a series of hypocrisies and empty gestures. Capitalism is bad but also the game is about amassing a great deal of wealth. The characters are modern, disaffected, and diverse, but none of that informs a single line of dialogue in any meaningful way. One of your friends breaks into tears because the destroyed car she loved was her only connection to her family back home, and then you’re right back to participating in a battle royale to get online fame. The game oscillates between what it thinks a scared, disaffected, heavily online mass wants and what it knows works, ultimately pissing everybody off. This has led to a wave of horribly annoying YouTube videos about “woke Saints Row” and how its critical mauling and commercial failure is a sign of “go woke go broke” culture war bullshit.

This is obviously disingenuous, a relic of GamerGate that media like video games are art and worthy of protection when people like Jack Thompson were trying to get video games’ content federally regulated in the 90s and 00s, but are simple toys when anyone suggests they be about something greater than just existing in an open world. It’s the same sort of conversation we saw around Paul Feig’s 2016 Ghostbusters, a perfectly mediocre film that became a lightning rod for conversations about sexism and racism because…they cast women in a reboot of a kinda funny Bill Murray movie.

Saints Row wants to get the praise for being about something, but it can’t fathom why people actually like to discuss ideas like capitalism and wealth hoarding. Maybe this isn’t the place to do it, open world action-adventure games are as arcade-y as the genre has seen since the actual arcade, and even the most incisive and direct dissections of them such as Far Cry 3 barely stumble across the finish line, failing to leave any lasting impact with its unsuccessful criticism of the ultra-violence committed by the player.

Putting these more radical ideas in front of an already established brand is really tricky, and I do not envy someone who has to toe the line when trying to craft a story for a Saints Row that tries to directly engage with the modern world. Not to say that nobody should try, but this is not the way to do it. Similarly to how slashers like They/Them or the Black Christmas reboot try to polish up their genre with confused representation that feels like a mean-spirited parody of itself, Saints Row throws buzzwords at symptoms but settles on the very libertarian conclusion that none of it even mattered in the first place and everybody who says they care about others is faking it.

Saints Row could have been a slam dunk with the franchise’s core fans if it just made another loud, brainless shooter that thinks engaging with ideas is stupid. That is the sort of game that Saints Row is, but covering it all in a thick gloss of a video essayist’s thesaurus. It’s a game that’s rotten to the core, and actively sets back any sort of cultural conversation it’s trying to engage, because if my first exposure to the idea of trying to make the world a better place was Saints Row, I would also be tempted to see these people as nothing more than whiny, petulant children.

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