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Saints Row 4: a fun game that makes serious points

Beneath the parody, there's a brilliant game about friendship, sex and strong women.

For years I've been saying I've wanted a game where I could play as an overweight, slightly older female protagonist. Call it my weariness of alpha male space marines or my undying affection for Love & Rockets lead Maggie Chascarillo, but I've always felt that this is a thing that needs to happen. Whenever I tell people this they assume I mean some sort of experimental curio - maybe an "interactive drama" (whatever that means) like The Walking Dead or Beyond, or perhaps the sort of casual adventure game that gets marketed to stay at home moms who frequent Bigfish. But that's not necessarily what I'm after. Instead, I've always wanted a big, stupid action game starring a chunky badass lass.

It's not that I don't like more experimental or esoteric games, but rather that a game doesn't need to cater to a different crowd to star an atypical protagonist. News flash: blowing up trucks and alien ships is just as fun with an older lady as it is with a man modeled after The Rock.

My Saints Row 4 character is more badass than any of y'all.

Of course Saints Row 4 gives you the option to tailor a character however you want and I'm not suggesting everyone make a similar character to my own. You could play as a transgendered person, an approximation of Breaking Bad's Heisenberg, or a strapping fellow running around naked. Despite my character's gang moniker, I'm no saint and at one point attempted to strip my character down to her skivvies because I figured the game was already pretty much mental masturbation anyway so I might as well make her as sexy as possible, but I quickly realised that I was distracted by her impractical choice of clothing (or lack thereof). Despite the game's inherent goofiness, I actually grew attached to my extraordinary well acted id-gone-amok leading lady and after about two minutes I stopped thinking about what would make her attractive to me and instead thought 'what would I wear if I looked like her, had super powers, and was about to kick some alien ass?' I'm still a little envious that she can pull off purple zebra print leggings and I can't. Games like Saints Row 4 are meant to be wish fulfilment after all.

On that note, Saints Row 4 allows your character to get laid constantly, and yet, shockingly, the game has a surprisingly sophisticated and mature attitude towards sex. In most games that contain sex, it's either portrayed as a ludicrous lark with nameless, drone-like NPCs (Grand Theft Auto, God of War) or it's a long, drawn-out, squeaky clean climax to a tender problem-free courtship. The main offender in the latter category is Mass Effect, where player character Commander Shepard is given the option to say various nice things (always highlighted blue) to the NPC they fancy and at the end - before the final mission - sex happens. Now there's nothing inherently wrong with this old-fashioned, practically platonic vanilla courtship, but that's only one kind of fornication. Saints Row 4, however, is concerned with the more varied circumstances in which intercourse occurs.

This is made clear in your character's first opportunity to get boned. In a hilarious parody of Mass Effect, you roam around your pale blue sheet metal ship talking to your NPC comrades. Rather than bog the player down with dialogue trees spread across several story-based intermissions, you're given a mere two options upon approaching the geek-chic firecracker Kinzie: "Talk to Kinzie" or "Romance Kinzie." Naturally I pick the latter.

"Hey Kinzie, wanna f***?" My avatar asks.

Without batting an eye Kinzie punches me in the face and exclaims "Let's go!" before hopping my bones. Cue campy 70s gettin' down tunes. Fade to black.

This got probably my biggest laugh of the game, but then I thought about it and it's actually pretty smart. Not everyone requires being courted in order to hop in the sac. Some people, like Kinzie, just want to get it on. This would be problematic if the other party wasn't into it, but even though the player character's query is comically blunt, it's still an honest question that leaves the choice up to the other person. You can't shag someone if they don't swing that way, like vice president Keith David for example (sigh). And while we never actually see any sex take place, Kinzie's bold love smack tells us all we need to know about how she gets off, and I for one think it's about time we see video game characters with libido's more complex than that laid out clinical middle school textbook.

Most of your crew can be romanced in a similar fashion, but your character has a different reason for being attracted to each one. My favourite was the militant Asha, who our avatar confesses to that she wants rough sex, but Kinzie scares the s*** out of her.

Is it realistic? Hell no (unless you're Ryan Gosling, maybe). It's obviously ridiculous that everyone is down to f*** all the time (though they do need breaks after the act. As Kinzie is fond of reminding you, "You need to wait until I want it."), but the individual scenarios capture the excited thrill of two people mutually discovering that the other person wants to get down with them. Heck, it's even semi-believable given that the game takes place after earth has been destroyed and the remaining survivors are naturally going to be sexually frustrated and looking to get their needs met.

Aside from its progressive attitudes towards women and sex, Saints Row 4 also contains one of the most moving moments I've seen in a game in ages. Shortly after you rescue your friend Pierce, the two of you cruise around on an assault mission against the alien menace. Between strike points Pierce turns on the radio and pressures the player character into singing Paula Abdul's Opposites Attract with him. Before you know it you're belting out "It ain't fiction, just a natural fact - we come together 'cuz opposites attract!" The voice actor laughs along to the fact that she's somewhat poorly crooning a pop song, while Pierce is having a ball getting his perceived uptight boss - and president of the United States - to loosen up. This all happens mid-mission, without the need to break to a cutscene or slow down the game's momentum. Saints Row 4 may be a big, stupid action game, but this whimsical sequence was perhaps the single best portrayal of friendship I've seen in a game. You might expect that in Gone Home or The Last of Us, but to find this emergent moment of warmth in the midst of a wacky candy-coloured world-saving fantasy was disarmingly effective and not one I'll soon forget.

Oddly enough, I don't know much about Pierce as I never played the other Saints Row games and this sequel does only a moderate job of bringing players up to speed, but somehow this didn't matter. I didn't need to know his backstory to enjoy this. In fact, maybe it was better that I didn't. It was just one of those slice of life moments that doesn't need any more context than the blueprint provided to feel authentic.

I went into Saints Row 4 expecting a time-killing goofy lark that I would promptly forget about the moment the end credits rolled. Instead, what I got was one of the smartest, most heartfelt games I've seen from a triple A release in ages. But best of all it proves that you don't need to make a so-called "serious game" to make a point about gender equality, sexual attraction or interpersonal intimacy. On the surface these themes might seem like the opposite of a silly action romp about blowing up aliens, but you know what Paula Abdul would say about that.

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Jeffrey Matulef avatar

Jeffrey Matulef


Jeffrey Matulef is the best-dressed man in 1984.

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