Do you have ‘that game’?
That game you keep coming back to, no matter how many times you finish it. The one you remember specific streets or buildings in. The way a car handles, how a gun fires, the exact tone a voice actor delivers a line. Something so familiar that your enjoyment of it now isn’t discovery, but repetition. Comfort in the known.
Now, think about what you were using that game to cope with. Why did you spend so much time alone, twiddling your thumbs on an ergonomic piece of plastic?
For 10 years, I haven’t been able to answer that question about Saints Row IV. The game has hung heavy over every open world title I’ve played since. Volition’s superpowered criminal caper is a personal torchbearer, a testament to how much of my life I’ll give a game if I care about it.
Saints Row IV is one of “those games” for me. Feathering the Boss’ glides between rooftops, swerving at the exact right time in Insurance Fraud… these things are second nature to me. Offhand I could tell you where the one Leather & Lace in Steelport is, or which characters had audio logs and what they were. There’s no stone I’ve left unturned—especially thanks to a helpful Collectible Finder unlocked after clearing certain loyalty missions.
In college, I could’ve pursued illustration, which my parents spent an inordinate amount of money to try and get me to continue. Or maybe I could’ve kept acting, which I’d quit after four-plus years as soon as I got intimidated by the confident, driven kids in the college theatre program.
Instead, I settled into the rank comfort of an English degree and got better at videogames. Proudly told anyone who asked that my plan after college was to become a “gaming journalist.” (Pff!) My 13-year-old self would’ve thought I was cool. Now, it’s hard to not feel immensely embarrassed at how I sometimes blew off a multi-thousand-dollar education to play videogames and make excuses for it. It’s peak privilege. Only now have I reckoned with how much I limited myself to fit into a convenient box. A box that could be labeled and filed away by my controlling partner at the time.
Understanding this, how does it feel to visit Steelport again?
Small. For an intergalactic epic, Saints Row IV is grounded in the aughties as far as structure and design are concerned. It’s a consequence of re-skinning the map from Saints Row The Third, a game developed between 2008 and 2011. That game already took critical flak for aged map design and dated mission structure anachronous to its peers. In 2013, it felt downright archaic.
That’s why the set dressing is so important here. The game’s crew is in the same position as us—trapped in a stifling virtual world barely big enough to contain them. Military-grade assault weapons, high-tech alien arsenals… nothing seems strong enough to break alien warlord Zinyak’s virtual reality prison. His simulation even breaks under its own weight, as NPCs bug out and building textures flicker. This world is a barely functional facsimile of a town the Saints already have a contentious relationship with.
That’s where the vaunted superpowers come in. In-text, team hacker (and press secretary) Kinzie hacks the simulation and allows the Boss to absorb abilities from the simulation’s anti-virus programs. Of course, this is a goofy McGuffin—the real reason is that selling audiences on the same map twice, unchanged, wouldn’t sit well. The decision is easier to stomach, however, when new powers fundamentally change the way players engage with that map.
Going from point A to point B hits different at a Barry Allen cadence instead of cruising there in a Nordberg you shot someone for. It’s a difference of minutes versus seconds—cohesion versus freedom. In Saints Row The Third, a key moment sees players dive from a helicopter onto a penthouse rooftop to crash a party, shoot up their rivals, and take their crib. Set to Kanye West’s “Power,” the audacious sequence establishes the game’s tone, scale, and attitude within the first handful of missions.
But in Saints Row IV, players can sprint up the side of a building in seconds. Music can be cued up at will, and “shooting up” gangs is weak tea held against psychokinesis. Skills learned to master The Third suddenly become useless, as the game takes on the spirit of titles like Prototype or Incredible Hulk: Ultimate Destruction. Players must contend with hordes of fast, powerful enemies in battles that span (and sometimes level) metropolitan blocks. Cars careen with a punch and city infrastructure ignites with a flick of your wrist. It’s all very silly, but out of the outrageous spectacle comes an exhilarating rush of empowerment that more expensive games such as Infamous: Second Son fail to capture.
That silliness factors into it, as Saints Row IV leans into irreverence more than its predecessors. Farts in jars may (thankfully) be left in The Third, but the jokes fly fast, loose, and more often. The script is punchier and more self-referential, often breaking the fourth wall as ‘immersion’ is sacrificed for an extra laugh or two. Yet this never undermines the core of what makes Saints Row work, as a series: the friends you make along the way. Between the dick jokes and casual sociopathy, there are tangible friendships built, ruptured, mended, and mourned over the course of four Saints Row titles. It’s something that sets the series apart from Grand Theft Auto’s ‘above it all’ emotional vacancy.
Saints Row 2 established this early on with gender selection in the character creator, absent in the inaugural game. If a player chooses ‘female,’ they continue as the character from the previous entry—only after full gender reassignment surgery. Aside from a few cracks about their hair, the Boss’ friends from the first game never question it. In a game full of casual disregard towards the houseless and mentally ill, it’s a strange bit of sweetness that the developers wisely continued forward with.
By Saints Row IV, the Boss has transitioned (maybe multiple times), built a global brand, and taken their besties to the top of the United States government. That’s before the aforementioned planetary destruction and VR prisons, mind you. Once they break out of that prison, the Boss sets off on an intergalactic trek with a crew of horny pansexual gangsters—all ready to bone down at a moment’s notice. Most of what passes as ‘good trans representation’ in gaming now is rarely as audacious, fun, and un-anguished as this character arc.
I don’t regret my time in Steelport. Nor Stilwater, for that matter. As a series, I played Saints Row more than just about anything to cope with misery. More than those cult JRPGs or survival horror games I’ve evangelized about. More than those retro games I’ve dug out to try and be more cultured with. Because Saints Row always made me smile. Because it never demonized my gender ideations or turned it into the butt of a cruel joke, like Grand Theft Auto V. Because—above all—it gave me hope I could hold out a little longer, to eventually find a crew to crack jokes and save the universe with.
There was a weekend in junior year at Guilford where my ex and I got in a fight. One of many. Another one of the ones where we almost, should’ve, broken up. Yet we stuck it out in the end, for one reason or another. In the weekend up to our reconciliation, I went on my first bender. More cut rate IPA and chunky brown-ish bile on dusty carpet than I care to recall.
Dried out, miserable, my room smelling like hops and regurgitated General Tso’s, I opened the window on Saturday morning and sat with Saints Row IV. This was my first replay—I’d cleared the PS3 version in a week or two at the top of sophomore year. This was the Re-Elected release, one of those hasty turnaround ports that have littered the top of two console generations now. It was here that Saints Row IV became one of ‘those games.’ A frenzied three-day binge that wound up with every possible checkbox ticked off. The game became a repetitious grind because I made it into one. What’s better therapy than collecting 1255 clusters over 72 hazy hours?
(Actual therapy, probably. But who can afford that!)
My best friend plays through every single Kingdom Hearts every year. Mouths along every word. These games gave her friends to strive for, dreams to chase. We both love them in two very different ways, and we meet in the middle as she makes her annual stops at Traverse Town. Along the way, we swap our stories, memories, favorite characters and least favorite voice actors. With each one, we feel less silly for being engrossed in a Disney soap opera.
My partner just wrapped up Quake II. She sped through the levels I half-remember from childhood without the blink of an eye. Her dad raised her on old PC shooters, and she thrives in their chaos. The intensity in her eyes, the joy she gets from toppling a boss… it reminds me of sitting next to my own dad when he played it on the first PlayStation. On the shoulder of somebody bigger and stronger than me, who loves me enough to face the demons together.
This past week, both of them have watched me play Saints Row IV. Laughed at the jokes, gawped at the outrageous physics. But above all, they’ve listened to me talk about it. Listened to me explain why I love this game, these characters, their stupid world so much. Through it all, a pitch meant to be a eulogy became a necromancy. With them, I remembered that spark for the first time in (now) ten years.
Today, news broke that Volition will cease operations—a few hours before this was set to go live. Founded as Parallax Software Company in 1993, the developer took on the Volition moniker in 1996. Over 30 years, they developed ground-breaking titles like Descent and Red Faction along with the Saints series and other standalone projects. The team weathered several structural changes over the years, and as the industry changed around them, Volition seemed willing to let their old ethos guide them. As games became “bigger than movies,” Volition was more than content for games to be… well, games. Last year’s Saints Row reboot was a solid capitulation of that, too. Held up against the po-faced seriousness of its contemporaries, it was a refreshing queer shot of aughties design and slick arcade-y gameplay grounded (loosely) by unreal physics.
Moments like this make being a games writer feel like a vanity project. I spent the better part of a month talking about why a game matters to me, blind to the suffering its own creators have gone through while I’m writing it. I feel like a sociopath. How does this help their status? How does this prevent another developer like Volition from being subsumed by the ceaseless cruelty of mergers and acquisitions that continue to drive this industry into the goddamned ground?
It doesn’t. I can talk about how much I love something until the cows come home. Nothing changes. But I won’t stop talking. I can’t. On the off chance somebody who had some hand in Saints Row IV reads this. Because they gave their lives to the craft, and I want them to know how important that work was to me—and to countless others. To read this and—through the pain—and know that it wasn’t a waste. That the world is just a cruel place, and that just because capitalism deems you ‘worthless’ doesn’t mean you are. What you’re capable of, and who you’re capable of saving with your art matters. Even if that art has dildo bats.
“Those games”—and the knots we tie to them—are meant to be shared. So long as we remember that, no amount of time with them is a waste. Working or playing. Developing or writing.
Fuck capitalism. Long live the Saints.
Madeline Blondeau is a Georgia-born, PNW-based editor, writer and podcaster. Her words can be found on Anime Feminist, Anime News Network, Screen Queens, and Lost In Cult. She’s also the creator of Cinema Cauldron—a long-form audio essay series on film. You can follow her on Twitter and Letterboxd @VHSVVitch.