I was in daddy-day-care mode earlier this week, and so I ended up finishing Saints Row 4 on Tuesday afternoon, during the kid’s nap. It took me a little over 20 hours to get to the end; after the credits rolled I jumped back in so as to finish finding all the collectibles which ended up only taking around 5 minutes, give or take; one of the perks you can unlock is that all the collectibles show up on your map, so it’s just a question of finding what you’re looking for, setting a waypoint, and then blasting over there. I’ve also found probably 80% of the orbs – er, Data Clusters – around Steelport, and if I go back at all that’s probably what I’ll focus on doing, if for no other reason than because they’re there. As for the activities – well, I’d done all the side missions during the playthrough, but didn’t feel particularly inclined to get gold medals in everything.
The point that I’m late in arriving to is that I wanted to write about the game right after I’d finished it, but life (as it does) got in the way, and so here we are on Friday morning – just 3 days later – and I find that I have no idea what to talk about. I have not thought about the game at all since the last time I played it. While I still have the residue of Gone Home and Brother lingering in my brain – games that are much shorter and that I’d finished long before I’d started SR4, I’m having trouble remembering anything that’s worth talking about.
This is probably important; this is probably a bad thing.
Here are some comments I’d made last weekend, when I’d originally intended writing an impressions post:
- 10 hours in (as of 8/24, 11:00 am). feels like i’ve eaten 20 pounds of candy, and i still have 80 more pounds to go
- i appreciate how completely committed to being batshit insane the game is; but on the other hand, being insane the entire time becomes exhausting. each mission you do is really just a series of activities that can get very repetitive; the game is aware of this and even comments on it; but just because it’s self-aware doesn’t make it any less repetitive.
- the city of steelport is just as faceless and devoid of personality as it was in the last game, except you’re zooming by at ridiculous speeds, so it actually feels a lot smaller.
This month’s question for Critical Distance’s “Blogs of the Round Table” is about story in games. Do games need stories? Do games have the capacity to tell stories more effectively than other media? Is ludonarrative dissonance a real problem, or is it just pretentious navel-gazing?*
* I’m kind of kidding with that last bit, though it certainly plays a role in all this.
This post doesn’t necessarily aim to answer that question, but it’s certainly a lens with which to view SR4. The game more or less makes that leap for you, in fact, doing everything it can to remind you that all these activities you’re doing are pointless and repetitive and without any sort of narrative purpose. Case in point: there’s one mission late in the game called “Talkie Talkie” where you have to talk to a character on the ship. The mission description on the pause screen literally says: “We’re stretching out gameplay. Come see me!”
Does self-awareness of a flaw excuse that flaw? Because the game does this all the fucking time. Every loyalty mission you do is the same general idea of 5 actions you need to perform; clear out an area of bad guys; do an activity; hack a store; steal a car and drive it to some random location; clear out another area of bad guys. If you’ve already done one of those activities in the simple course of screwing around, then those actions are greyed out and struck through. Lather, rinse, repeat. Over and over and over again.
The actual story missions do change things up a bit, and by that I mean that they will, on occasion, arbitrarily strip you of the superpowers you’ve laboriously worked to build up. The justification for doing so is, to put it kindly, weak; and the game admits as much. These missions are also, on occasion, straight-up parody of other games; there’s a stealth mission that’s straight out of Metal Gear Solid (with a great line asking “why should I use two bullets to shoot out two lights when I can just use one bullet to kill that guy?”); there’s a text adventure; my favorite of all is a 2D side-scrolling beat-em-up.
The game is fun; there’s no denying that. The game only wants to entertain; there’s nothing wrong with that. But the game also feels empty and hollow, and the characters are mere caricatures, and there’s nothing particularly memorable about the experience as a whole. I saved the planet and had a few laughs and killed thousands of monsters; I’ve done this before, though, and the only thing different in this game was that there’s a lot of casual profanity and nudity and occasionally the game turns itself inside out and goes even more fucking insane.
The difference between satire and parody is quite large, actually, at least in terms of videogames. In my last post, I talked about how it’s sort of impossible to talk about Saints Row without talking about Grand Theft Auto, and how SR4 literally makes this comparison for you in the second line of dialogue in the game’s opening cutscene. The two franchises have clearly moved in wildly different directions, and I sincerely applaud Saints Row for emerging under GTA’s shadow and becoming its own thing. It has become a franchise worth looking forward to; not only has it made significant innovations to the open-world genre, but it’s done it in style.
But it’s also now a victim of its own success, I think. SR3 really upped the ante and surprised everyone by being a genuinely great game that gleefully went off the rails; SR4 somehow managed to outdo SR3, which seems impossible. But now this franchise seems to be purely about outdoing itself, and I fear that eventually – quite soon, actually – they’ll hit a wall, and have nowhere to go.
And if they decide to simply go down the path where the next game is pure parody, filled only with ironic self-awareness about, say, stupid mission design while doing nothing to change the stupid mission design, then I’m not really sure that’s something to look forward to.