As weird as it was to contemplate, Saints Row: The Third reminded me that there are few things more amusing than first dates. Both parties tend to go all-out to highlight themselves as being as hip, cool, funny, sexy, or whatever as possible. To further this endeavor, they will also hide blemishes, hold in farts, wear expensive clothes disproportionately out of line with their normal lifestyle – obviously people will lie to impress others. Videogames (especially with demos) are generally designed with the same principle in mind: convince the player that there is a wonderful experience here worth their time, money, and emotional investment, even if that means misrepresenting the truth to some degree. This practice of selling a not-so-accurate package is tolerated, especially since most videogames (like dating relationships) aren’t really that serious, but the hiding of the truth can lead to complications and disappointment as time goes on.
For my tastes, a videogame without a compelling narrative has much ground to make up; one with a plot that expects to be taken seriously despite treating its story as anything but (see Portal 2) is a borderline affront to everything I hold dear. There’s seemingly little substance and even less dignity in a videogame like Saints Row: The Third that glorifies gangsta culture and has players driving prostitutes around with clients in the backseat of the car, or rescuing strippers from shipping containers on a rival gang’s barge. By all rights Saints Row: The Third is to videogames as some airhead model with more invested in silicon or steroids than education is to people, but Saints Row isn’t even trying to pretend to possess a high school diploma.
I was in the midst of robbing a bank and had given a fan of the gang an autograph amidst gunning down armed guards with a pistol. Due to arising complications, the bank vault had to be exposed from the floor above it via explosives, and then lifted out of the skyscraper with a last-minute helicopter request. “How long will it take for the helicopter to arrive,” asked one of my lackeys. “Probably two waves of SWAT guys,” answered another as she reloaded her submachine gun, measuring time in game challenge instead of conventional minutes. On cue, cops propelling down the side of the building crashed through windows with flash-bangs, and with a huge grin I was hooked by the meta-humor and engaging in third-person violence. My face actually started to hurt at times over the course of the 16 hours I spent with the single-player campaign of Saints Row: The Third.
As a game, Saints Row: The Third doesn’t have the prettiest graphics, the UI and controls aren’t the friendliest or tightest, the combat is simplistic, and the voice-acting and soundtrack left much to be desired. But Saints Row: The Third knows both its strengths and limitations and plays to or avoids them accordingly with vigorous candor from the start of the game, revealing a uniquely consistent experience as advertised with more heart than many of its contemporaries. Saints Row: The Third is special because it never attempts to be anything more than the crazy, outrageous videogame it embraces itself as, and there is never an opportunity for the player’s heart to be broken by some facade or potential that was never met by the game.
The complete lack of pretentiousness Saints Row exhibits is refreshing; instead of trying to come up with a story that could only offend its audience as so many other games do, Saints Row: The Third sets itself up for success by crafting a world that makes almost anything that happens believable, and where this otherwise unbelievable nonsense is first and foremost fun. Non-player characters questioning why they started the timer on a bomb before assassinating their target first is much more intelligent and less insulting than when the player is left wondering why Portal 2 is requiring that they plug in and reactivate the cold artificial intelligence that almost succeeded in killing them in the previous game. The player could wander around aimlessly in boring, brown, decrepit, subterranean ruins with the sole objective of getting closer to the surface via a limited number of portal-friendly surfaces after a trite and predictable betrayal, or they could earn some spending money by participating in a vicious Japanese-inspired television game-show that celebrates mindless violence, and then buy some OG duds with their winnings before busting up enemy gang operations with a tank or jet.
Growing up I was always told that it pays to be yourself, especially when trying to impress prospective partners. Saints Row: The Third serves as a great example of just how valuable that advice can be for developers and their games.