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The Self-Sabotage of Saints Row: The Third

Why does a smart take on the cottage industrialization/mass production of celebrity insist on idiocy?

Taekwan Kim, Blogger

July 22, 2013

9 Min Read

One hopes that the fundamental harms of trivializing sexual slavery and violent disempowerment of women (literal voice silencing via neck snap in one case) are rather self-apparent. Plus, I’m pretty sure that that topic in relation to Saints Row: The Third—and why it should be taken specifically seriously in a game that already trivializes mass murder for profit—has been covered quite thoroughly by authors more qualified than me.

So I’d like to use this post instead to take a slightly broader approach and discuss how SR3’s insistence on misogyny breaks engagement by shattering thematic focus. That, despite frequent protests to the contrary (that somehow SR3 wouldn’t be SR3 without it), it is indeed a contextual problem. And of course, I am thinking in particular of the entire Zimos chain of missions and activities.

But first, I need to talk about what makes SR3 so good.

The thing with SR3 is that it’s about the unconditional power and impunity of celebrity. It’s a distillation of the fantasy, made ever more visible and possible by the substantial financial successes of YouTube posters and tweeters-turned-screenwriters, that one’s “personality” and “special uniqueness” alone can build six figure incomes (never mind the diligence that went into those successes). It’s our generation’s American dream, the logical conclusion to the morphing of that dream from “the pursuit of financial security through diligence” to “the pursuit of instant and massive wealth”. Celebrity has become the most readily monetizable product of the day.

It’s a strange kind of commodity, too, when the more common it becomes, the more desirable and valuable it becomes, the greater the illusion becomes. And SR3 renders even this in superb fashion, and it does so mechanically, where the more levels of reputation the player achieves, the more nonsensically overpowered the player grows—an inspired harnessing of the paradox that the highest levels of agency in a game are the most desirable, and yet that unlimited agency conversely removes all meaning from gameplay.

Which is to say that SR3 captures the zeitgeist in a way that the GTA games never did. And this theme of the bi-directional spiraling of celebrity culture is communicated vividly from the very opening sequence.

Let’s analyze that opening sequence. The game begins with a “mock” bank robbery (real guns and explosives are brought anyway) that is also a publicity stunt and movie making exercise. In-game TV celebrity Josh Birk is tagging along, ostensibly to research his part in an upcoming movie featuring the Saints. He boasts about how his method acting demands he keep it “real”, then promptly trashes his method by trotting out media clichés of bombast instead of quietly observing the pros do their work.

Meanwhile, the criminals disguise themselves as themselves, donning franchised merchandise masks of their own likeness, from their own mass market brand, and comparing the making of “Japanese commercials” with grand larceny in terms of ease of profit. And the “work” consists of signing autographs and taking photos with fans.

Straight away, then, manufactured, Hollywood “authenticity” and the dictates of personality commodification overtake everyday logic, where even the police feign familiarity and request signatures in the middle of lethal shootouts (“Please autograph, and then put down, your gun”). It’s a blurring of the lines between in-game reality and in-game filmic fabrication (an idea bookended even more explicitly by the “Gangstas in Space” finale), and it plays on the idea that celebrity culture as modern day blood sport is concurrently both “intimate” and distanced.

Mechanically, this convergence is communicated by the helicopter and free fall sequences—what would, in any other situation, just be on-rails events. Instead, the conscious and overt placement of the player in heavily scripted scenes that so carefully follow the hyperbolic posturing of summer blockbusters, while giving the player the artificial invulnerability of action movie heroes, underlines their nature as rhetorical devices. They establish the protagonist’s status as an action hero made in-game flesh, while pointedly mocking this construct with amusingly unchallenging—that is, un-game-like—play. Thus, in just a handful of minutes, the game deftly equates stardom with omnipotence while mechanically satirizing that equation (and, by extension, aspiration) as a delusional farce.

The combined result is a tour de force encapsulation of the rapidly disappearing distinction between natural and constructed realities/identities, between celebrity (perceived) and (real) power, between the private and public spheres.

For a newcomer to the series like me, it’s a truly explosive introduction, and one that had me suddenly far more interested in SR4 than GTA5. In an age where Obama’s purported status as “the biggest celebrity in the world” is wielded against him, where he must carefully manage too frequently appearing with media stars just to avoid accusations of a presidency founded on celebrity alone, the leap in SR4 to that office is eminently logical—perhaps, genuinely relevant even.

But all this is what makes the “casual” sexism that ramps up to full-blown misogyny such a jarring thing. Where the rest of the game at the very least tangentially concerns itself with the power and ubiquity of fame, (social or other) media presence, and public relations—essentially, the commodification of the (conceptual) self—the first half of act 2 suddenly becomes about the power of sexual violence and the commodification of others (exclusively, women).

That makes Zimos's mission chain a non sequitur, as out of place, slip-shod, and tacked on as the zombie sequence later in the game. Even Kinzie’s arc pertains to constructed identities, revenge against a sabotaged self-image, and escorting informants of image destruction. Her obsession with privacy is the same as Angel’s obsession with regaining his mask—empowerment through a strictly, jealously guarded line between private and public egos. In stark contrast, the logic behind Zimos basically boils down to vengeance (against women) for his emasculation.

This sharp intrusion in the game’s thematic progress subsequently causes every incidence of careless discrimination and “benevolent sexism” to become constant reminders of that thematic failure. It becomes increasingly impossible to dismiss such lapses as poor characterization, and each break adds to the creeping suspicion that maybe SR3’s “kitchen sink” approach is actually the more egregious “throw anything at the wall until it sticks because we lack ideas” approach. The player ends up questioning whether the entire game wasn’t in fact just a hap-hazard, chance result. (This, of course, is not even mentioning how such persistent and blatant sexism mangles the experience anyway.)

That is to say, it undermines confidence in the deliberateness and quality of the game’s construction, which makes continuing to invest in it needlessly harder. It makes every other aspect of the game feel that much more loose, that much more disconnected. And it’s a sad situation when a well-crafted game starts to seem like a “lucked upon” one.

The problems don’t end there, however.

The blockbuster action hero is a male gendered entity. In other words, it’s not specifically sexualized. The player’s ability to play the protagonist as a female is therefore especially powerful, in some ways overtaking the considerable accomplishments of Commander Shepard herself, because of the unmitigated potency of SR3’s protagonist. It’s a set up that allows female Boss to handily out-Ripley Ripley; even that groundbreaking action hero ultimately succumbed to a forced maternalistic story arc of needing to protect a surrogate child.

The point here isn’t that the player should or needs to play female Boss so much as it is that, at least initially, doing so actually has the effect of strengthening and amplifying the theme beyond what can be achieved with male Boss. Again, the omnipotence of stardom trumps all other socially imposed values and hierarchies. The Boss’s authority is simply accepted by default.

But the introduction of sexual power in Zimos’s specifically misogynistic (as opposed to, for instance, generally misanthropic) manner insidiously warps the protagonist from one that embodies action hero conventions into one that’s just an embodiment of chauvinistic masculinity—a projector, if not receiver, of sexual objectification. By once again prioritizing male gender (or, at least, female objectification) as a prerequisite to power, this intrinsically damages the player’s engagement with its exercise, because now its source has been adulterated—it’s no longer about the power fantasy of fame. And player agency just doesn’t feel as concentrated moving forward.

Misogyny in SR3 is thus a crack in both the construction and the fiction of the game. And its dissonance threatens to bring down the whole dam. (And again, this is before we even take into account the inherent odiousness of sexism.)

At least, that was my personal experience with SR3. What began as a thrilled surprise at my tremendous mistake of assuming the game to be as terrible as it made itself out to be, eventually became a sincere disappointment that the game took it upon itself to be as terrible as it made itself out to be. It says a lot for the game, then, that I still stuck around until 90% completion, and I’ll probably go back for a co-op playthrough—that’s how enjoyable the gameplay was, a small indicator of how truly amazing and noteworthy it might have been.

Surely, in this day and age, SR3’s slavish adherence to the chauvinistic male perspective is costing as many, or more, fans as whatever gains it has generated. And the truth is that it’s precisely this which kept me from picking up the game—indeed, had me pretty much ignoring it—until it went on sale for $5 the other week (hence, the timing of this post).

It’s baffling that SR3 is so reluctant to appreciate its own merits, and its ill-defined, insecure need to “differentiate” itself ultimately results in self-damaging content. It’s not that the game needs to adopt a more serious tone and characterization or whatever—that actually would not serve its purpose. It’s simply that SR3 loses efficacy by diluting its satire. A game that could easily stand on its own two feet ends up selling itself short in the most unnecessary ways, and one can’t help but coming away feeling like the imperatives of (bad) marketing overtook the imperatives of design integrity.

A real shame.

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