This past week, I've had the pleasure of revisiting Saints Row 4: Re-Elected on my Nintendo Switch. Within minutes I was transported back to one of Volition's best open-world action games of the past console generation, and two prevailing thoughts kept popping into my head. The first was how much better Fishlabs did at porting this game to the Switch than Saint's Row: The Third, complete with options for dynamic resolution and even motion controls. The second was how of its time the game's comedy really was, both the broad parody and the satire it was making at the expense of the gaming industry. It's a time capsule of an early 2010s game design philosophy that is weirdly charming in its simplicity, and in that respect, it is still fun to play. But the strange thing is while a lot of the jokes haven't aged that well, it's biting satire of the industry at the time was weirdly prophetic.
The Saints Say, Why So Serious?
First, it is important to give context to where Saints Row 4 was in this point in the industry. Originally starting life on the Xbox 360, the first Saints Row was a pretty obvious knock-off of the extremely popular Grand Theft Auto series; a crime-based sandbox game where you were the head of a gang trying to make your way to the top of the food chain. But while Rockstar's iconic franchise continued to push the envelope with realistic visuals and an increasingly nihilistic tone with an eye on satirizing modern urban America, Volition decided to go in the exact opposite direction with broad parody and crude farce. If Grand Theft Auto was a stand-up comedian grousing about social media and gun control, then Saints Row was the random weirdo in a leather outfit telling a fart joke then hitting you with a pie.
It was a game released in a very different landscape. The Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 were in the end of their life cycles, and developers were overcome with a desire to both push scale and spectacle to their breaking point while also being self-conscious about video game elements potentially getting in the way of making immersive, emotionally resonant art. That lead to a lot of awkward creative choices influenced by Hollywood envy. See David Cage's recent work or the 2013 Tomb Raider reboot if you want a good example of how extreme this went.
Enter Saints Row 4, the final big installment in a series in the last gasp of a console generation being directly put into competition against not just Rockstar's super-ambitious Grand Theft Auto V, but in a climate where the series' favor of stylized absurdity was going against the trends of trendy photorealism. So what was Volition's solution? Simple: double down on their anarchy. The industry says go big or go home even if it makes no sense? Fine, let's have our simple criminal gangster game start with the player becoming President then fighting aliens in a giant computer simulation and ending with them getting power armor and becoming a warrior king; also time travel, robots, and laser guns. Hollywood envy you say? Let's just reference, homage, and blatantly rip off a bunch of movies shamelessly with crass abandon. The Matrix, They Live!, Conan The Barbarian, why not? Also, Keith David's in the game. He's not playing a character, it's literally just Keith David. Is he stuntcast or important? No, it's just Keith David. As for removing or narratively justifying gameplay elements or plot points, Saints Row 4 was adding more artificial game-y nonsense because shut up. Superpowers, collectibles, picking up floating health packs, it was as if the game itself was saying, “get off your high horse,” to the rest of the business.
Volition's Industry Roast
In fact, there is a level of meta commentary going on when it comes to player agency and the expectations of a simulated world. In Saints Row 4, The leader of the Saints is placed into a horrific simulation of the city of Steelport by the alien overlords in an attempt to break their will with unrelenting torture of a world brought into conformity. But their allies start discovering errors in the simulation, which they exploit to break not just the boss' physical limitations, but the very illusion of the simulation itself, causing it to collapse under its own weight; much the same way a player finds exploits in elaborately crafted worlds to find their own fun.
Saints Row 4 not only anticipated that their game would be picked apart for unrealistic depictions of a believable world, they made it a fundamental part of its gameplay loop and its central story. It didn't make the game high brow by any means—you were still anally probing people with alien guns and launching people into space with dick punches—but it did show some sly commentary on behalf of Volition.
Fast-forward to 2020 and Saints Row 4's outward audacity feels quaint. With the rise of free-to-play models and seasonal drip-fed content, a lot of modern games have internalized the importance of pacing and restraint. Firing on all cylinders because you can just seems reckless. There's also a greater sense of stability now. As we slowly enter yet another console generation, the prevailing attitude isn't how things can become bigger and grander, but a simple continuation of how games can retain their own distinct audiences with their own personal identity.
But as for that cutting satire, it falls in line with a noticeable shift towards the industry embracing games' own artifice and unique voice. The soft reboot of Doom in 2016 made a strong statement by having its hero actively ignore or disregard developments in the story so he could get back to high-octane demon-killing gameplay; complete with a chainsaw that makes enemies explode into health and ammo. The very niche hobby of speedrunning, exploiting glitches and issues in beloved games to finish them quicker than the developers had ever imagined, has a dedicated following on Twitch now. In fact, the biggest game right now in mainstream culture is the extremely colorful battle royale craze, Fortnite.
Saints Row 4: Re-Elected is a crude thing compared to what we have now. Comedy is the quickest thing to age, and in that respect a lot of the game's referential jokes land with a thud. But in terms of lampooning an industry a little too full of itself, it was more ahead of its time than anyone could have predicted.