A few months ago, one of my friends had a “house cooling party.” We said farewell to his old place, shared drinks and food, and helped ourselves to the pile of stuff he’d laid out to give away. Amid the expected books and DVDs, there were a few Xbox games in the pile. This explains why I picked up a copy of ultra-thug GTA wannabe Saints Row the Third. It’s not something I ever would have purchased otherwise.
I’m not really a fan of Grand Theft Auto or any of its sequels. I played San Andreas for a little while specifically because censors were telling me not to, but I didn’t love the game. I enjoyed the freedom to wander around and create destruction, but games are ultimately about story and character interaction for me and GTA games don’t really seem to have that.
Regardless, I received a free copy of this Saints Row game and decided to give it a shot. After all, free game! So what happened?
It’d be difficult to say that Saints Row the Third has a good story. The story is very strange and very, very irreverent. For a game that starts out about thugs and gangsters and such, you realize somewhere between the zombie invasion and fighting tanks in midair in a tank that fell out of a plane that this game is a bit of a subversion. Usual story conventions don’t really seem to apply here. The motivation for anything in the plot seems to be “do as much cool shit as possible!”
So you have your gang of fellow thugs and criminals to accompany you; you can also design your own character, male or female. One thing I particularly liked is if you create a female character (which I did), she’s in charge of this gang of criminals and nobody says anything about it. Nobody calls your gang out for being led by a woman. It’s not weird or remarked upon. It just is. Your gang’s color is purple whether you are male or female. It’s all surprisingly refreshing.
Anyway, there’s a scene early in the game where you and your fellow gangster Pierce are driving to a destination to complete a task. Usually, on these sorts of drives, the characters will talk about plot things. You know, something to get the story rolling. I wasn’t expecting to come across anything particularly poignant or meaningful.
Here’s a YouTube recording of the scene. The game play of crashing into cars is irrelevant to my point; the thing I want to focus on is the dialogue. Warning: NSFW language is present throughout.
What’s going on here? This isn’t plot dialogue or exposition. Pierce says, “we need some driving music,” flips on the radio, and then suddenly Pierce and my character are singing along together while they drive.
That’s powerful. Do you know why? Because suddenly I feel like Pierce is my character’s friend. They’re having this moment together. It’s not a romantic moment. It’s just a moment between friends. It’s a moment that creates a bond and it only struck me with how powerful that moment was once I realized how few games try to do this.
Listening to Pierce and my character sing, laugh, and tease one another forged a bond that was with me for the rest of the game. It informed decisions I made later on when certain choices were presented. It was a small moment, a silly moment, and yet it was one of the most powerful I’d ever experienced as a gamer. It’s so rare for games to do anything like this.
“Here is your friend,” the game tells you. “You care about this person.” Rarely does the game try to give you a reason. Rarely do you have a moment of two characters interacting in a way that friends would. But this game, with all its ridiculousness and irreverence for taking things seriously, nevertheless manages to pull off a powerful and serious bit of character building with nothing more than a bit of Sublime and two characters singing along together.