Games of 2011: Saints Row: The Third

It Saint where you're from, it's where you're at.

About once a year, a game makes me want to write.

I don't mean criticism, a review or even a cutting tweet about how long it takes to open a bloody chest in Zelda. I mean fiction. For - er - money. Since I've been completely out of games journalism for over a year, it's fairly likely you won't know me, so I'm going to have to write a bit about myself. I'm sorry. That said, if you do know me, you won't be surprised that I'm going to write a bit about myself. I'm sorry.

Basically, I write comics for Marvel starring characters that even my mum has heard of, as well as a bunch that she hasn't. And while I enjoy games' genre fiction, it rarely does anything that screams that there's further novel stories in its world. Or, at least, further stories that wouldn't boil down to reheated genre pulp. The last game that made my writing instincts twitch was Arkham Asylum, which reminded me of the sheer physicality of the Batman in a way I'd previously forgotten. The latest, if the title at the top of the page hadn't given it away, is Saints Row: The Third.

Saints Row: The Third is apes**t.

It's not the story that I found most affecting this year. (That would probably be Bastion, which managed to find a perfect aesthetic nestling somewhere on the previously unexplored boundary between SNES action games and Cat Power.) It's not the best-designed narrative game of the year. (That would probably be SpaceChem, which is such a masterclass in design that it makes everyone else look a bit thick. Including the player, because it makes such enormous demands of you.) It's not the story which actually made me write a big ol' rambly rant about metaphors and stuff and things. (That would be Deus Ex: Human Revolution.)

But it is apes**t. And blither-provoking interesting apes**t, at that.

Fresh Saints Row: The Third trailer

There've been plenty of essays complimenting Rockstar on their growing maturity across the decade. Fie on them! Saints Row: The Third says that Rockstar are quitters. Saints Row: The Third is the open-world game that makes even GTA at its silliest look like open-heart surgery in its seriousness. But Volition's game's lack of seriousness doesn't imply a lack of intelligence. As Adi Tantimedh wrote, "the ethos of the game's writers is the same as that of Monty Python's: that of smart people deliberately telling the most stupid joke they can possibly think of, as meticulously as possible."

It creates a world of loveable celebrity criminals in a lunatic society. They, because they possess the only sympathetic emotions presented (a loyalty to friends, good taste in hats, singing along to the radio) are much preferable to the array of jovial monsters they're thrown against. From casual dildo violence in the streets to defying a government task force which has decided to flatten the city to pacify these uppity tykes (i.e. you), its tone is constantly set to ludicrous. For me, it's this geniality which saves it from offensiveness. You'd call it satire if that didn't seem a bit too sober a description. I'd much prefer to say it's taking the piss.

None of this is real. More importantly, none of it tries to convince you with a shimmer of verisimilitude that it's closer to reality than it really is. We clearly know that Modern Warfare is nonsense, but it's selling itself to you as something else through the techno-thriller surface sheen. In Arkham City, the much discussed 'everyone-in-the-game-thinks-Catwoman-is-a-bitch' is actually about dirtying up a comic-book universe, and - for me - a little tawdry. Conversely, Saints Row, by its very nature, isn't doing any of that. It's trying to do the absolute opposite. It isn't trying to use "adult" language or situations to elevate. It's mocking all this while simultaneously celebrating it (because this isn't real, and the intensity of its imagery only underlines that). All of which means, it's a game that has its coke bowl and snorts it too.

It makes sure you understand it from the off. The mission escalates until you're falling from the sky, trying to catch up with a falling friend. "So what?" you're probably thinking. Yes, you're fighting dozens of people on the way down, but it's still a standard genre-movie move. It's at this point you realise you can have a crack at someone who's wronged you... at which point you re-drop the person you're carrying, crash through a jumbo jet's windscreen, fly through the entire plane, assassinate someone, burst out the other end and then manage to get back to the person you dropped in order to pull your parachute.

Apes**t!

It could only be improved by you making out with the person you catch, and their head exploding due to the incredible orgasmic power your lips have unleashed in their all-too-frail form. And your motivation for the rest of the game is trying to atone for the carnage your phenomenal lovemaking powers have wreaked. By shooting people. With guns. Also, double-barrelled penis and/or death-vagina.

Well, that's what I'd write. I believe that more games should be autobiographic. (And I clearly illustrate why I shouldn't be let anywhere near this particular universe.)

OK - there's no double-barrelled penis, but it's the sort of game where you're actually surprised to discover doesn't include such nightmarish pump-action weaponry. They give you just about everything else. Because what I think I love most about Saints Row: The Third is that for a sub-genre which leaned so cynical in its early post-GTA days, Saints Row: The Third is a wonderfully generous game.

It bubbles with bonhomie. "Why not?" it says, when the player wants to try and do something ludicrous. "Sounds like a giggle." And if you scratch the surface of the offensiveness, it's even got something of a liberal character to it. Emma Boyes noted that a game which is often so openly sexist still managing to have more memorable female characters than the vast majority of its peers is almost heartwarming.

Yeah, heartwarming. That's what I feel when I think back on my time with Saints Row: The Third . There's the sense that with all the silliness flopping around, the developers are laughing along with you and just want to share it at its best with you. One of the most memorable moments for me wasn't any of the crafted set-pieces - though the S&M Club chase scene is unforgettable in a way which makes me suspect many sensitive folk would rather forget it - but just a tiny detail.

There's one of the collectables where you pose to take a photo with a fan. Wander up, interact with them, and they take a shot with your posing antihero - just a cute nod towards your celebrity status. Now, fast-forward to the final, forking mission, where there's an epic battle at a city junction. APCs and tanks and gangs and everything are kicking off against one another with every explosive device the game has seen fit to invent.

And, standing meekly at the corner, is a tourist, camera in hand, waving for you to come over.

If you can do it before they get flattened, the resultant shot inevitably has this grand melee behind it, with your character just beaming. It's a WISH YOU WERE HERE shot from the best kind of hell. And whoever placed that camera-wielder on the corner knew exactly that, knew how awesome the shot would look, and wanted the gamer to see it. A half-second's break as the game rushes towards its conclusion to nudge you, and with a little wink, say that this really has been a whole lot of fun.

That's Saints Row: The Third. That generosity of spirit and lightness of touch is rare enough, let alone in a game about genial sociopaths, for genial sociopaths. I can't wait to see what they do next. I certainly wouldn't be foolish enough to try and predict it.

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