Candied, crushed sago't gulaman
It was 2003 when I first discovered the malicious joy of committing virtual crimes just because it was fun.
Gaming had long been a favorite hobby of mine by then, and I was no stranger to violence. But as fun as it had been to overcome enemies through simulated acts of aggression, there was always a sense of purpose in gunning down or slicing open or beating up foes in the games I played that went beyond killing for fun’s sake.
There were princesses to be rescued, lands to be united, and worlds to be saved.
Possibly the only exception to that would be Rampage World Tour, a side-scroller where you play as a giant monster (literally) stomping through cities across the globe with the goal of causing as much destruction as possible. It’s presented in an entirely cartoony style, removing any potential weight to the violence and making it palatable to my 9 year old self who enjoyed it immensely. It carried over the design of its arcade predecessor, as the high score is your objective and your reward.
Grand Theft Auto: Vice City was a different beast.
I’d already heard a little about the “mature content” it contained before playing it, but I wasn’t so aware of the bigger issues regarding the gaming industry back then. Video game news about how Grand Theft Auto III was decried by mainstream media in the States and other first world countries didn’t really have much reach over here in the Philippines. All I knew was that the cool kids in my freshman year had played it and its direct sequel.
My parents hadn’t been screening any of our video game purchases since the first PlayStation, and the reality of pirated media in the country means no uniform regulation as to what can be sold to “innocent young minds”. Having consumed and understood the adult-leaning themes in the fictions of Metal Gear Solid and Final Fantasy Tactics, 14-year-old me was sure that he could handle all that this trip to the 80’s could offer.
I mean, come on, I was born in that decade. What could I have possibly missed other than big hair, women in suits with shoulder pads and a revolution at home?
Drugs, prostitution, armed robbery, assassinations, racketeering, extortion, counterfeiting, race-fueled gang violence, street racing and plain old mass murder were all laid bare to me in exaggerated realism, and I had complete agency in enacting each of those crimes.
Conquering cocaine-fueled sleazebag-infested Vice City to carve out my own criminal empire was compelling, especially to a teenager who had only seen video game stories through the lens of a “hero”.
I went back to 3 soon afterwards to see where it all started, and it still hooked me despite being a step down in just about every aspect. Got San Andreas when it came out, but its promise of “bigger and better” only really lived up to the former and not the latter for me (the mandatory flight missions didn’t help). When my copy and the PS2 conked out about 2/3 of the way through, I didn’t feel the need to go back to it when the PS2 was repaired.
Finances didn’t allow me entry into 7th gen gaming at home until this year, so I skipped out on all the open world crime games from that time span. Any maniacal tendencies were put to rest for about nine years, until it was reawakened by Saints Row: The Third.
Structurally, the game is still similar to the fundamental mechanics set by GTA3. You’re dropped into this sprawling city where you can interact with it in all sorts of violent ways like hijacking vehicles, shooting rival gang members and cops, and ramming cars off the road in high-speed chases just to name a few familiar felonies.
There are main missions to take to progress through the story, and you’ve also got your requisite side quests which you can choose to engage with or not for bonus perks that will help make the ultimate goal of taking over the city easier.
As I pointed out, the plot itself shares the recognizable overarching narrative of conquest through crime. In these basic aspects, there isn’t much in the way of innovation.
What Saints Row: The Third does to break out of the “GTA clone” box the series was originally put in is accept absurdity.
The feats you accomplish in the GTA series to rise up the ranks of the criminal underworld taken at face value are already patently ridiculous. You’re a one-man army bulldozing through waves of incompetent AI thugs on your way to becoming a legendary lawbreaker. But within the context of the fiction the GTA games tell, it’s all still grounded in a self-serious story. This also informs the rules that limit what you can do when interacting with the worlds lovingly created by the Houser brothers. When important characters still closely follow the archetypes of a gritty crime saga set in modern times, you don’t expect them to create clone armies of a Russian giant, hire ninja packing assault rifles as their bodyguards, or run and star in their own pro-wrestling event as a killer luchador.
And when these characters can die from being run over by a car or getting caught in an explosion, you can’t have your player character jumping out through the cockpit of a falling airplane and kill scores of bad guys with rocket launchers as they all plummet through the air without parachutes.
When Volition’s Scott Phillips, the design director of Saints Row: The Third, and his team mocked up a “tone video” with clips from movies like Hot Fuzz and Shoot ‘Em Up to help set the feel of the game itself, they carved out their own niche in the open-world genre both in terms of narrative and gameplay.
Probably looked something like that.
Saints Row 2 had already begun the separation of brand identities when Rockstar decided to go further down the “realistic” route in GTA4, but the contained wackiness in some of the missions in SR2 was still playing off the short displays of insanity seen in GTA: San Andreas, and its apparent schizophrenia on whether or not it should play its story straight showed Volition was not yet ready to fully embrace the madness.
By the time the third installment rolled up in its purple pimp coupe de ville sporting wheel-popping spikes, and carrying submachine gun-toting bikini-clad strippers, the divorce from the tired old gangster movie scenarios and drive-from-point-A-to-point-B-while-escaping-the-cops encounters was palpable.
Playing through the main quest alone was revitalizing my forgotten lust for wanton chaos. Parachuting onto a penthouse party and blowing away every Syndicate member with pistols akimbo and grenades a-poppin’ while Kanye West’s POWER blares through my headset is an experience that none of the GTA games have made me feel, and that’s just one of the early missions. In any entry of that acclaimed series, you’re probably still playing in that same time frame as a glorified nanny to some NPC who’ll get killed before the 2nd act.
Even the extra city-takeover missions have their charms. Seeing your player character ragdoll through the air as he gets struck by high-speed traffic, or scoring points by killing fur-suit wearing mascots with a laser rifle on a Japanese-inspired TV game show is engaging in its own weird way.
Having character upgrades that basically make you invulnerable to any sort of bodily hazard would break tension in most action games. SR3 says “fuck you” to that nonsense and makes it work. The fun is in experiencing the insane circumstances that demand you whip out your Reaper drone controls and rain down missiles on unsuspecting enemies or call your pimp lieutenant who speaks through an auto-tuned voice box and ride a VTOL fighter jet for air superiority.
It’s crazy how I enjoyed myself much more when I could focus on doing a running spinning DDT on a random pedestrian, dropkicking my way through a windshield and onto a driver’s seat, and calling an airstrike on a crowd of goth gangsters decked out in Tron-like fashion, without ever worrying about dying.
As great a story the Rockstar’s modern sandbox masterpieces can take me through, letting loose in these open world environments has always been the core selling point for me in this particular slice of the genre. I still definitely appreciated Grand Theft Auto V (its online component not withstanding) feeling the weight of a twisted sense of responsibility and camaraderie it espouses. In contrast, the over-the-top approach of Saints Row: The Third and its successor managed to bring out that crazy little kid with a thirst for simulated mayhem. It accomplished that lofty goal by entrusting more agency to me and letting their gameplay and narrative work in perfect harmony.