Last night I finished playing Saints Row IV, the most recent game in the series that started in 2006. While I got the game too late to include it in my Top 10 Games of 2013, it's safe to say that SRIV would probably occupy my #11 slot. The game suffers from numerous glitches and a few design flaws, but overall it was definitely one of the funniest games of 2013.
However, as I played through the game, I got the sense that I didn't quite know who the game was designed to appeal to. For those who don't know, the first game in the series was a typical Grand Theft Auto knockoff. Like GTA, the story revolved around gangs, and the gameplay was open-world, allowing the player to complete missions at their leisure and using the game world as a sandbox to play in. In order to differentiate itself from its more popular cousin, Saints Row 2 started the series' trend toward wacky humor, with increasingly bizarre missions, some of which involved spraying feces across the road.
It wasn't until Saints Row the Third where the series truly caught my eye. While SR2 leaned on the wacky side, it was still heavily inspired by GTA. The third game in the series took the wackiness to a whole new level, featuring missions that defied the laws of physics, missions where the player jacks into a version of The Matrix, and above everything else, a giant dildo that could be to beat people to death. Saints Row the Third was unafraid of offending anyone, and its degree of absurdity finally elevated the series to a new level of success. Naturally, Saints Row IV went even further and placed the entire world in a simulation, where the main character gained superpowers and fought aliens.
While I loved SRIV, I couldn't help but realize that I am very different from the kind of person who enjoyed the first game in the series. Going from copying Grand Theft Auto to parodying space opera-style stories like Mass Effect may gain you fans, but also lose others in the process. I got a good laugh when I saw I could choose Nolan North as the voice of my character, since I recognized him as one of the most prolific voices in the industry. However, your casual gamer wouldn't know who he is, and would feel like they're missing out on an in-joke. The "romance" option where you can seduce a crewmate at the press of a button is meant to parody the storylines in Bioware games like Mass Effect and Dragon Age, but while I found it hilarious, I'm sure others who aren't as familiar with those games as I am may see it as misogynistic. The extended Metal Gear Solid parody would also fall flat on those not familiar with the series.
Aside from the gaming industry in-jokes, it's clear that the very premise of Saints Row IV may turn off fans of the genre. If a casual player were to pick up what they thought would be an open-world gangster game only to find out that it's actually a science-fiction story with cyberpunk and superhero elements, they would feel cheated. Even the decker.die mission from the Third, where you are tasked with going into a virtual world must have made more than a few players feel out of place. Though, that mission was a good length into the game, so only the more dedicated players would have reached it. SRIV has an alien invasion within the first hour of playtime.
But while I certainly feel like the target audience thanks to a love of absurd humor and gaming satire/parody, other parts of SRIV felt more like they were meant for older fans. There are several sections in the game dedicated to reminiscing about the first two in the series, where the characters discuss how a certain church brings back memories, or how different SR2 Shaundi is compared to her modern incarnation. Past allies are brought into focus, but since I had never played the earlier games, it was now my turn to feel lost, and had no choice but to wait for these sequences to end so I could go back to the absurdist humor.
It's clear that as much as the series has changed over the years, the developers still feel a lot of attachment to the earlier installments, and wanted to bring that across in SRIV. There's nothing inherently wrong with calling back to earlier parts of the story, as long as it's done in a way that doesn't alienate fans. But I couldn't help but feel lost as I played through those nostalgia missions, watching characters fondly remember times that were completely irrelevant to me. More than likely, the gamers who would recognize those characters and places would also be turned off by the very premise of the most recent installment. As a result, it feels like a game designed for no one but the developers.
It's fine to have an enthusiasm for what you've created. I can only imagine what the offices at Volition must be like compared to those that churn out generic shovelware titles. It's fantastic that the creators of the Saints Row franchise move forward with so much confidence in their game in an industry where most developers are too scared to try anything new. However, a radical shift in tone comes with a radical shift in focus - by embracing a new style of game, you are attracting a new audience while turning away from the audience you already had. As the saying goes, you can't please everyone. Either embrace the absurd, or shun it. Trying to have emotional scenes in a game with a dubstep gun isn't going to tug at any heartstrings - it'll only make the player feel awkward.