Saints Row, Mafia, and GTA

EDIT: Due to an error in scheduling, this post showed up at midnight July 6th instead of noon. Fuck it, I’m leaving it.

Saints Row to Grand Theft Auto comparisons are obvious and thus played out. We’re doing one anyway. The original Saints Row is probably the most straightforward GTA clone to ever hit the market (and get noticed). While Mafia responded to GTA’s success by making a similar game, but set in the 30s and featuring a heavier emphasis on realism, Saints Row was almost exactly the same in era, tone, and gameplay as what was then the current state of the GTA series. It was a blunderbuss assault on modern American culture that valued cynicism above everything else. In the attitude of GTA 3, Vice City, and San Andreas, everything was a corrupt farce.

Saints Row had the same philosophy. Freckle Bitch’s was a perverse reimagining of Wendy’s in which a sultry, “all grown up” mascot in a bikini coquettishly flirted over radio ads and batted her eyelashes from the sign over a restaurant that sold nothing but double entendres. No effort was made to establish why Wendy’s was singled out for this alleged hypocrisy between their wholesome facade and the crass, adult reality that apparently lay just underneath. Really, I’d expect a cynical takedown of the fast food industry to focus more on working conditions, the slave labor in their supply chain, the health problems they cause, or the conditions of the American beef industry that are so terrible that people will accuse you of being a vegan hippie just for describing them. Instead, Wendy gets some curves and a naughty streak, which we are to understand is indicative of…something. I dunno. I don’t think there’s an actual criticism underneath this. It’s just perversion of Americana for the Hell of it.

I bring up Freckle Bitch’s in particular for the disconnect between the thing it’s criticizing and the criticism leveled, but if the criticisms in other parts of the game are better, it’s only because they’ve managed not to lose the substance of a parody completely while they copied the surface elements. Forgive and Forget is a mercenary religious authority offering forgiveness for a fee. Friendly Fire is a proud supporter of Americans’ second amendment rights to own sniper rifles and rocket launchers. Technically Legal is a strip club whose name seems to be poking fun at the fetishization and subsequent exploitation of youth, not that the series presents this as wrong so much as just kinda funny. It makes fun of it the way you make fun of MMO mobs for being sociopathically indifferent to the slaughter of their comrades whenever your level is high enough to shrink your aggro bubble down to near non-existence. Not as an actual problem or anything, just as something to snark at for a giggle.

This whole attitude was directly imported from GTA 3, Vice City, and San Andreas. It was a juvenile sort of cynicism in which making fun of things was an end unto itself. You didn’t have to have an actual point to your sarcasm. The goal was just to be sarcastic. This could be grating, but as a backdrop for the wacky mayhem of an open world crime game, it worked fine. Who cares if the cynical sarcasm was really landing, you’re tearing through the streets of Stilwater looking for Westside Rollerz cars to blow up with a rocket launcher.

Then, in 2008, GTA 4 was released, and suddenly Grand Theft Auto was trying to be a true crime story, except the actual gameplay was the exact same manic car chases and gun fights with twenty gangsters/police as before. Protagonist Nico Bellic is haunted by a body count from the Yugoslav Wars, but doesn’t seem to mind that he’s doubled that bodycount within like two days of arriving in America. It was the same old GTA gameplay, and even the same old GTA setting, with Bleeder Burger joints and radio ads that serve as overblown parodies of American culture. In the cut scenes and only in the cut scenes GTA 4 pretended to be a serious crime drama, before immediately forgetting all about it to go back to being insane.

In the same year, Saints Row 2 was released, and it was just as crazy as ever. More than that, it suddenly had something to say. There was a point to the cynicism now. Somewhere along the line, the people behind Saints Row had decided to actually say something. The player is a madcap gang lord, killing pedestrians on a regular basis with sloppy driving, gunning down truckloads of gangsters and cops for the sake of personal power, and engaging in every crime imaginable in the literal sense that every crime the developers could imagine was programmed into the game and is something the player could do.

In crime stories, it’s typically the case that you recognize your protagonist is probably not a great person, but that they aren’t the worst person, or at least, not to start. Often they end up falling into total depravity and/or savagery as time goes on, but at first, they just want to get ahead, to be somebody, or whatever. Saints Row 2 recognizes that players do not play like this. Immediately upon entering the game world, all morals are switched off and players do whatever the Hell they want with no regard for the lives and livelihood of any NPCs (and hey, all they do is walk around aimlessly, so it’s not like they really have lives or livelihoods to worry about). So instead, the story admits that the protagonist is an evil maniac with no conscience and a nigh-unlimited ability to soak up bullets and evade capture. The other gangs are led by people who play out a human drama in the ruthless world of organized crime and pay the price for their ambitions. The protagonist and the Third Street Saints are just a force of nature tearing them asunder, putting the pressure on them until they show what their real priorities are – and inevitably, those real priorities are to cling to power desperately until their very last breath. The Ultor Corporation’s operations in the city is every bit as merciless. The protagonist isn’t even an “at least I’m not Hitler” anti-hero, because they are more villainous than most of their enemies, but their enemies are horrible people, so really, do we care that someone even worse eventually caught up with them? Sure, the Ultor CEO never personally rode down pedestrians to shave five seconds off his commute, but he started a gang war that would kill dozens or hundreds of them for profit, so it feels satisfying to see the latter thrown out a hundredth story window by the former.

By using its crazy protagonist to say something, Saints Row 2 managed what GTA 4 desperately wanted and never had: An inkling of real depth. GTA 4 aspired to much greater drama than Saints Row 2 did, but it constantly undermined itself. Saints Row 2 presents itself as an even crazier version of the GTA 3/SR 1 style of storytelling, and then surprises you when it has anything at all to say.

Saints Row and Mafia got out their third and second installments over the next couple of years. Mafia 2, set in the late 40s and early 50s, continued to show up GTA 4 in the “true crime drama” department, not so much because it was actually good as because its slightly more restrained gameplay meant that it cut itself off at the knees a little bit less. Saints Row 3 had apparently run out of things to say and decided to become a Saturday morning cartoon for adults, with laser guns and Tron/Matrix cyberpunk hacking and a zombie virus. Whereas in Saints Row 2 the protagonist was a force of chaos dropped into what was otherwise a mostly-normal, only slightly parodic American city, in Saints Row 3 the entire universe is a parody. While GTA 4 had gone maudlin, in Saints Row 3 the series transformed into a self-parody where insanity was not just a recognized inevitability of the open world cars-and-guns gameplay, but the foundation of the entire setting and plot’s tone. Except Shaundi, who is for some reason angry about everything all the time.

Saints Row 4 and Gat Out of Hell remained on that trajectory. Rather than a GTA game that admitted how insane the violence of its protagonist was as a necessity of its gameplay, it was now a game where insanity was the entire point, where even if the gameplay didn’t demand it, they would have to add it back in. Meanwhile, GTA 5 came out, and was another crack at the true crime drama schtick, but at least this time with the presence of mind not to give any of its protagonists a dark past where the darkness is that they killed some guys, while their apparently sunnier present involves killing even more guys all the time constantly.

And then Mafia 3 came out and was the true crime story that GTA so desperately wanted to be, except actually good at it. At this point, GTA has been pushed out of both ends of the market it might’ve occupied. Mafia is better at being a true crime story, and Saints Row is better at being a wacky crime-themed murder party. Sure, Saints Row games have stopped coming out, but they still exist, and it’s not like GTA’s release schedule is particularly rapid, either.

The weird thing is that GTA 5 remains by far the most successful of any of the games discussed. So far as I can tell, it’s just because it’s really pretty. Like, normally the graphics treadmill is pretty useless and you can tell people whining about resolutions that aren’t distinguishable without 4x zoom in to go fuck themselves and you won’t lose any significant number of customers, but GTA 5 is on a whole other level from what most games accomplish. It doesn’t just have one new graphical trick that’s supposed to set it apart from the crowd. It’s got a massive army of artists and programmers who have bent themselves to making every inch of an enormous game world look as much like a real city as possible. It’s not just hardware, but attention to detail that brings GTA 5 to life in a way that apparently sells them gajillions of copies.

I don’t know where I’m going with this, really. To be honest, I just needed a Friday article and this was quick and easy to write, which is good, ’cause I need to prepare a game today.

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