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A look at the development of the Saints Row series and its push towards diversity

John Rehberger, Blogger

December 9, 2014

12 Min Read

John Rehberger


Intro to Interactive

Saints Grow: From Misogyny to Parity

            When most people think of Saints Row, they see a Grand Theft Auto clone gone wild, a surface-level misogynistic romp during which players can demolish enemies with a variety of phallic shaped weaponry. However, should players choose to delve below these absurd trappings, the Saints Row franchise contains a significant movement towards inclusivity and diversity across the four main titles in the series. In very few franchises can you see this sort gradual thematic maturation, and it is in part present here because the franchise took so long to find its unique voice. In Anita Sarkeesian’s Tropes vs. Women in Videogames YouTube videos, the original title is featured as an example of women as background objects. Beyond this, the first game actually commits far more serious misogynistic violations towards its few female characters that would later be rectified in the sequels. Saints Row, as a franchise, is a unique example in which players can see writing and themes mature across titles, slowly becoming less misogynistic and more inclusive, a reflection of the transitionary period that gamer culture has been in during the past several years.

            The original Saints Row, released in 2006, was remarkable in that it did so little to differentiate itself from the multitude of clones that shot up in the wake of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, never amounting to much more than being a shallow story following a group of “gangbangers” on a rampage to take over the city of Stillwater. All four games in the franchise had the same lead writer, Steve Jaros. In an interview with Gamespy, “Jaros says that Volition has gotten better at representing women in Saints Row games over time, and that the team debates and tries to dress and address female characters in ways that don't sexually objectify them.” (GameSpy). Unfortunately, to make this incredible amount of progress, the series had to come from questionable origins. It is notable that this is the only title that is actually featured in Sarkeesian’s Women as Background Decoration: Part 2 video, due to it helping to establish many of the more misogynistic pillars that that the other entries in the franchise slowly removed. Specifically highlighted by Sarkeesian’s video was the minigame “Snatch”, in which players drive around stealing or “snatching” up prostitutes from rival gangs in order to better increase the power of the player’s own gang. What goes unmentioned by Sarkeesian, however, are the far more egregious blunders made by Saints Row’s narrative that go far beyond a simple minigame. Steve Jaros, responded to Sarkeesian’s video in a tweet, saying “This is something we should all be better at. Yes the original Saint’s Row is listed here. Yes it should be” (Jaros). As lead writer, his admission of the need for improvement signifies that the issues with the game extend beyond just “Snatch”. A vast majority of the major cast is male, with less than a quarter of the named characters being female. There is only one high-ranking woman who is part of the Saints. This character, Lin, is also the only named member of the Third-Street Saints that ends up being killed over the course of the game. The only non-antagonistic woman, Aisha, barely has a defined identity outside of being one gang member’s girlfriend. One major “plot” point in the original game is the kidnapping of Aisha’s sister, who was never even given a name by the writing staff. Worse yet, the game features “homies”, NPCs that can be summoned to help the player in their time of need. Whereas the male “homies” featured include diverse picks such as an old Chinese-American businessman, the mascot of a fast-food restaurant, and a pimp, the only female homies included in the game are a stripper, an unnamed female driver to service the player, and a housewife. None of the three aforementioned male characters are sexualized, whereas the stripper featured is nearly nude. Furthermore, out of all 16 radio stations present in the game, only one features a female DJ. The minor presence females had in the story make it clear that the writers were aiming to market the game to young men, the same audience that Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas has targeted. Fortunately, while it still remained slightly misogynistic, Saints Row 2 was able to address many of these issues and actually established a more inclusive tone for the franchise that would separate and ultimately save it from being overshadowed by the much larger, more popular Grand Theft Auto franchise.

            Saints Row 2 is an important point in the series not only because it represents a transitional period for the franchise during which it was attempting to break away from its prior identity as a Grand Theft Auto clone, but also because it was here that the franchise began to alter its stance on both women and gender roles. The first and possibly most important change in this game was the introduction of female playable characters. The Protagonist, as the developers began to call them, is also given more personality and diversity through 6 provided voices for players to choose from, three male and three female. This was the beginning of an ideal at Volition that demanded players could “be whoever they wanted.” Multiple diverse body styles are present for both genders, ranging from obese to muscular. All body styles and both genders can wear any of the clothing present in the game, which ranges from thongs to an enormous hotdog costume. Unfortunately outside of this advancement not enough steps forward were made, especially in their handling of female characters in the story. Of the three new characters introduced to help the Protagonist, only one, Shaundi, is female. In fact the cast as a whole features even fewer primary female characters than the original game, with only three present. Shaundi and Aisha, the two female characters allied with the Saints, are also the only two members that are held hostage at any point in the game. Aisha is eventually killed off, but her presence in the narrative and death serve little purpose outside of motivating one of the male characters. When she is killed, however, the camera cuts away to a shadow before any actual gore is shown. The way the game handles the death of the only female antagonist, Jessica, is also very poorly done. She is easily captured by the Protagonist, used as bait in order to draw out the leader of one of the enemy gangs, shoved into a car trunk, and finally crushed to death by a monster truck. The way the writers chose to kill her off is fascinating as, despite it being one of most brutal kills in franchise history, no actual violence or dismemberment is shown. When a principle male antagonist is beheaded, the severed head is displayed on screen for the player to see. This clearly highlights the fact that Volition was handling female characters in a different way than male ones. Fortunately, despite the hiccups with the story, Saints Row 2’s customization and more insane antics found a broader audience than the first title, likely saving the franchise from an early end. Volition was able to recognize this and upped the ante with Saints Row: the Third, a title that was essentially a reboot of the franchise and was able to direct it in a more positive and inclusive direction, bringing the series into the limelight and making it a juggernaut on the gaming horizon.

            Saints Row: the Third managed to remove many of the more misogynistic aspects of gameplay in the franchise, and the story present in the game commits far fewer errors than its predecessors, a sign that Volition had taken immense steps towards equality. Most importantly, Saints Row: the Third blew open the doors on character customization with a new system that is still unparalleled by most other games. Sliders allow for minute editing of the facial structure, for the alteration of the Protagonist’s overall body proportions, and for the increase and decrease of their sex appeal. For the first time in the series, players could truly be whoever or whatever they wanted to be, no longer limited by Saints Row 2’s archaic engine. Also important is the fact that this game provided a small alteration to the “Snatch” mini game that led to Anita Sarkeesian’s original criticism of the franchise. Of the six slightly different instances of the game, three retained the old style of gameplay, again forcing the player to round up “Hos” and place them under the control of a friendly pimp. The other three instances are instead run through a new female character, Kinzie, and focus on recruiting “contacts”. The gender disparity still remains, however, as the male “contacts” are in no way sexualized like the “hos”. In the context of the series’ overarching storyline, this game worked to introduce more primary female characters than any before with just under half of the new cast being female. It also refined Shaundi, changing her from a drug-addled damsel in distress into a focused, more powerful character. As for brutality towards women, there is only one specific moment in the plot during which the primary antagonist, Killbane, snaps the neck of a secondary female antagonist in a bid for power. This is an important moment, because, unlike in Saints Row 2, the violence is directly shown to the player. It could be argued that the moment only exists to help define Killbane as “evil” and an easy and quick way, but later in the game this moment is almost repeated with a male character. Killbane ultimately winds up releasing him, but his underlying brutality and anger overshadows any mercy. The game’s only damsel-in-distress situation is not only caused by a female antagonist, but during the event both Burt Reynolds and Shaundi are taken. The hostages are targeted for specific reasons outside of gender, instead taken based on their powerful positions within the city. Saints Row IV takes both the character customization and progressive writing of Saints Row: The Third and further improves on both, becoming the culmination of years of work towards inclusivity.

            Finally, Saints Row IV, the most recent title in the series, not only fixes most of the problems of the prior games, but actually revisits old plots and attempts to repair some of the more egregious mistakes the writers had made. Due to taking place in a simulation, this game was able to delve deeper into the established character’s mentalities and dredge up issues of the past games. Jaros, in late 2014, again in response to the original game being called out in Sarkeesian’s video, stated “I think it's fair to be called out on your s**t," he said. "I think that it's a sad man that can never be self-reflective. I think that we tried to go and carry ourselves with respect, and try to respect sexuality and respect gender as much as we can, and sometimes we fail but hopefully we'll do better and continue to get better” (Jaros). These statements are important because it is in Saints Row IV that these changes are really highlighted and can be seen. Not only does this game carry over and improve the customization system of Saints Row: The Third, but it also addresses the topic of the Protagonist’s sexual orientation in a way unique to the title. In most games, NPCs that can be romanced have present sexual orientations and have to be seduced over the course of the entire game, forcing players to navigate through minefields of choices to hopefully appease the character. In Saints Row IV, however, all it takes is walking up to any character on the Protagonist’s ship and pressing a button prompt. These features were given warm reception, evidenced by a Polygon article on the subject:  “If there's anything I liked more than the wacky sci-fi parody, it was that this game treated every character exactly the same. Male, female, in between or other. You can play as a woman with a man's voice. A man with a woman's voice and woman's haircut. You can create approximations of any imaginable bipedal character/person you'd like. And no matter what, you can "romance" ladies or fellas, whatever floats your boat” (Polygon). Saints Row IV, like the sequels before it, greatly improved its story potential, this time aided by special missions that allow the Protagonist to enter the minds of their allies in inception like missions that tackle the Saints’ deepest fears. Afterwards, whichever member of the gang has been helped, they are metaphorically and literally empowered by being freed of their worries and receiving superpowers in game. Saints Row IV represents the power that three sequels worth of progressive thinking can have on a series.

            As a franchise, Saints Row is important because it shows that over time and with some effort, even the most misogynistic of franchises can become more open and accepting of all players. In a time where many games are being torn apart for their gender flaws, Saints Row is a defining mark on the landscape. By adding female playable characters in Saints Row 2, by improving customization and the use of female characters in the story in Saints Row: The Third, and by breaking down sexual norms in Saints Row IV, Volition makes clear progress towards being more inclusive and improving their franchise. If players make suggestions on ways that games can improve similar to how Saints Row has instead of simply tearing them apart for their flaws, perhaps progress that all gamers will agree on can be made.






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Saints Row 2 : Aisha Dies and Johnny Almost Dies. Perf. Volition. MrGUITARMAN1232, 2014. Youtube.

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