There’s a man that owns half the city. He obtained it all – homes, shops, factories, an airport, and even a nuclear power plant – without a single hint of municipal scrutiny. It wasn’t under the table either, as the man in question is a celebrity gangster with a history of mass murder, rampant destruction, and a comic appreciation for human life. Each day he remains, hundreds die. Cataclysmic gang fight erupts in broad daylight on the hour, complete with automatic weapons, rocket launchers, and even stolen military-grade drone missile strikes.
If it’s not street skirmishes over drug territory or the prostitution business, it’s the corrupt and antagonistic American military, called in to counter the violence by turning it back on the gangs two-fold. Biological weapons ravage the city, military wreckage scatters the streets, and still animated posters of the gangs are projected onto skyscrapers, immortalizing them like the pharaohs of ancient Egypt. The city of Steelport is an awful place to live, a dystopian nightmare of greed, corruption, and violence, and Saints Row the Third, for all it’s immature bravado, will acquaint you with in a way you won’t expect.
Of course, there’s plenty of flagrant nudity and a dildo bats along the way.
If you haven’t played Saints Row the Third, you’ve likely only seen it portrayed in advertisements, doing its damnedest to highlight its goofy and satirical nature. It is those things. SRTT will have you giggling and calling your roommates in to watch. But there is a story there, thin as it is, to lash together each outlandish mission. It’s a narrative that’s easy to dismiss, considering how short the vignettes are and how often they contain disassociated nudity (even your own, if you choose) and dialog so decidedly aloof that the main character even wonders aloud why he makes such ridiculous plans, as he attempts to skydive into the cockpit of a plane, shoot a man, and fly out the open cargo hatch in the back.
The fundamental story is about The Saints; the gangsters with a celebrity status that represent the ultimate evolution of unchecked excess, marketing tie-ins, and America’s love affair with violence. The antithesis of the purple gangsters is the military, who are just as sardonically represented. Nearly from the get-go, the two oppose each other viciously, with no regard for anyone caught in the middle. Sure, there are some other gangsters in there to battle, some with Luchador masks and others with cyberpunk roller skates, but the constant enemy at the Saint’s lavish door is the American military and they knock hard.
The unit, known as S.T.A.G. (Special Tactical Anti-Gang Unit) deploys tanks, APCs, and a hover jet so powerful that it fires a devastating laser beam as a secondary weapon. They show no restraint, with their first action upon the Saints committed brashly without discretion in a public park. In no time, martial law spreads across the city. Human rights and citizen’s lives are disregarded. It’s a dark time. But, for The Saints, the jokes and ludicrous gangster camaraderie continues as if nothing is truly wrong. Despite how it seems, it’s not neglect that leaves the story seemingly disassociated with the horrors of gang warfare. It’s perspective. Everything appears to be roses because The Saints are on top. This isn’t the story about the common man, they’re just in the way.
The people of the city aren’t given opportunity to do anything but wander aimlessly into combat. The most you’ll see is one – maybe two – protesters gathering outside any one of your lavish penthouses. They show up and apathetically wander, demoralized, with a single picket sign that kindly suggests you and your homicidal gang leave Steelport. The only citizens you can really interact with are fans pleading to take a photo with you, which you can oblige for some collectible reward. There’s no way to engage your protesters, though. Well, except for the same way you deal with anyone else that questions your gang’s dominance: you can kill them.
That’s the bizarre angle that SRTT takes. In every other dystopian story about in a world is in shambles, the point of view is provided by the downtrodden. We see where all the militarization and brutality is at its worst by viewing it from the blunt end.Whether it’s Winston Smith against the Thought Police, Spider Jerusalem squaring off with The Smiler, or Katniss Everdeen starting a revolution in Panem, we follow the age-old paradigm of the underdog. But the leader of the Saints isn’t some subjugated protagonist under the boot-heel of corruption. You’re the one wearing the boot.
With that new angle, we get a deft illustration of a modern tyrant, told from his ego-centric perspective where the only things that matter are revenge, money, and elevation of his fame. Yet, the game’s central character is presented as the hero, supported by immutable mission objectives and validation from your short-tempered allies. Nothing within the contents of the missions is done purely for the sake of the violence it entails. Every explosion and gunfight has a meaning, flawed as it may be. But we’re never forced to truly examine our choices or the tragedy we leave in our wake. The game distracts us with side-missions and unlockable weapons upgrades.
Saints Row the Third’s campaign does what dystopian tales do best – push a society until it breaks and then witness the fireworks. We see corruption reach its absolute peak, where a whole city is for sale, no matter how cruel and destructive the customer happens to be. Firsthand, the player witnesses the casualties and injustice of a government that chooses unchecked military action over litigation. But, all this dark, moral controversy is snuck under the radar that’s too busy blipping with dick jokes and an ally who talks about hookers through an auto-tuned pimp cane.
Ostensibly, Saints Row is a crude, explosive sandbox. But, it succeeds at breaking relatively new ground in the avenue of video game storytelling. The player is tricked into acting out the whim of a madman via the traditional confines of a heroic player-character. We go into this game, like all games, trusting that the character we control and those giving us our objectives are the good guys. So, we happily stomp around our dystopian city run by violence and money. We unwitting play the villain and by doing so, gain a new perspective on the terrifyingly effortless genesis of evil. Perhaps the scariest part is how much fun you’ll have doing it.