Saints Row and Deviant Optimism

Saints Row: The Third should be, by all accounts, an unremarkable game. Most everything about it is “competent” and nothing more. The gameplay, running around and shooting with no cover, is fine. The missions are fine. The open world is mostly lifeless and small. Yet it was easily one of my favorite games of 2011, one that I plugged around 100 hours into over multiple playthroughs, and the entry of the Saints Row franchise that put the series on the map as more than a Grand Theft Auto clone. Why? What is so damn special about this also-ran open world crime game?

Well, it has an amazing story. Mmm, not an amazing “story” per se, as in some masterfully crafted narrative structure and rumination on the human condition. The plot itself is rather mundane—your gang, the Third Street Saints, take on a large crime syndicate in a new city, and hijinks ensue. Simple, right? And yet the deliriously absurd tone and characters take the story in unpredictable and exciting directions—there’s a mission in cyberspace with riffs on classic text adventures like Zork or Atari games like Combat, a wrestling mission, a zombie outbreak, a film called Gangsters in Space, a cameo from Burt Reynolds—this game goes places.

Of course, that alone doesn’t really get across what makes The Third so compelling. With a description like that, and observations such as the ridiculous character progression that makes you invincible, or the selection of absurd weapons such as giant purple dildo bats, the game sounds more like a toybox than a properly curated experience. Yet, for all of its “throw fun stuff at the wall and see what sticks” bravado, The Third does have an oddball consistency, a quirky sixth sense that runs throughout. The cliché would be that “it is greater than the sum of its parts.” Yet even this does not work, because that assumes that the compelling nature of this game is somehow within its myriad gameplay systems and story beats, as in “Wow, I didn’t realize these things would go together so well, yet they do.” But what makes Saints Row: The Third so hard to explain is that its greatest elements come from outside the game—specifically, our engagement with its tone and characters. And this engagement is imperfect—some side missions fall flat, certain gameplay systems are a chore. In a weird way, that adds to it though—not to get too pretentious all at once, but life is similarly a series of imperfect engagements with sublime or transcendent concepts. That the experience is incomplete does not make it any less profound.

Did I just call Saints Row: The Third “transcendent” and “profound?” Yep. Its writing is consistently self-aware and endearing in a way that makes us invest more emotion and attachment into the proceedings than is actually there (in a rather similar way to the with magic of the characterization in Fast and Furious). With this coy, indirect method of engagement with an audience, I start to think of Lucretius, and his theory that all movement, all energy exists because particles are constantly swerving. They fall, but they do not do so in a direct, static line. Similarly, Blake believed that all progress in the universe came, not from constant good or evil, but with the conflict of opposites. “Without contrarieties, there can be no progression,” or something to that effect. And Saints Row is nothing if not constantly swerving. Sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse, but it is always lively.

Another game that puts me down a similar philosophical track is Trackmania 2. Here is another game that should not be special. It is a simple, time trial racing game in which you drive cars through strange courses at high speed, with loops, wall rides, big jumps and boost pads. It plays very well, with snappy, responsive controls, but the default courses are boring, all of the UI is a nightmare, and there is next to no support for the game. Except the game has a ridiculously dedicated following that supports the multiplayer constantly with new, exciting tracks, custom car models and skins, custom servers with horrible (or amazing?) music, usually of the techno or dubstep variety, and a small but persistent group plays it to this day. Adding to the surreal feeling of the gameplay, cars all appear on the track at once but do not collide with each other, as they are all simply racing for the fastest time. Servers usually have 50 players at once, but they can go up to 200. Now, Trackmania 2, in isolation, can be rather depressing and desolate. But Trackmania 2 with 49 other players on the track at once, blaring custom horns with custom car models (why does that car look like Sonic the Hedgehog?) while a dubstep remix of Cher is playing for… some reason… is incredibly entertaining.

Both Saints Row: The Third and Trackmania 2 swerve the unremarkable into the remarkable, and turn the mundane into something special. There is a devious kind of optimism in both games, where they give us, the audience, not what we expect or want but something else entirely. In this day and age—when it seems like we’re surrounded with nothing but shit—perhaps the only option we have is to remember that we can turn lead into gold. A Grant Theft Auto clone can be the funniest comedy in video games possibly ever, a niche French racing game can be the embodiment of the Wild West of the Internet. Games can do anything, and so can we.

If ever in a seemingly inescapable position, if we feel powerless and like we have no control—

All we have to do is remember Lucretius. And swerve.