For some reason a certain segment of gamers think what they like about video games happens to be under attack from a group of vicious harpies intent on destroying all joy in the virtual world. Those gamers should play Saints Row, a hyper-violent, overly sexualized video game franchise that is generally beloved by their ideological and political opponents.
Saints Row started off its life as a rip off of Grand Theft Auto that mistook making everything about about GTA more extreme with being satirical. It was a game where the player becomes the leader of a gang called the Third Street Saints by taking over the territories of rival gangs. However, Saints Row the Third took the franchise in a deliriously oddball direction, with the Third Street Saints becoming world famous celebrity gangsters and (in the opening of the game) robbing banks disguised as themselves. Suddenly the satire was sharp and the jokes hilarious.
Saints Row IV took an already absurd franchise to new levels of silliness by turning into a game long parody of Mass Effect. Remember how you were a low level gangster trying to steal territory from rival gangs? Well now you are the president of the United States fighting aliens with your superpowers. It’s brilliant. Oh, and in the follow up to Saints Row IV the Saints take over hell.
But even as it got more zany, the franchise never stopped being as violent and sexual as it always was. One of the DLCs for Saints Row IV is “Enter the Dominetrix” which features the player character investigating a sex club (completely nude of course), leading to a city destroying fire fight with tanks shaped like giant penises. The character creation screen has a bar labeled “Sex Appeal” that determines how big the breasts are for a female character, and how big the dick is for a male character. It’s juvenile, but hilarious.
The point is that the Saints Row games give the players all the big breasted and sex crazed women, over-the-top violence, and low brow juvenile humor that gamers are claiming they want (and that is supposedly under threat). But it also gives them a boldly progressive context to wrap all of it in.
The game features a vast and multi-racial cast. The flagship character is Daniel Dae Kim’s Johnny Gat. Asha Odakar is an ethnically South Asian UK citizen working for MI6. Pierce Washington, Benjamin King, and mother fucking Keith David as himself are all black men on your team. And the player character has the option of being voiced by several different races and genders. The Third Street Saints are basically a hyper-violent post-racial society, and it should be pointed out that the games traditionally have the opposing gangs be of a single race. The Saints are ending virtual segregation by shooting it with rocket launchers.
By the fourth game the franchise doesn’t even make any assumptions about who the player wants to sleep with. The games always were on the easier side to make a sexy male player character (a consistent complaint I have with video games). And the game isn’t shy about sexing up anyone, and therefore made its male characters unusually attractive. However it always presumed the player was interested in women, hence why the hideouts had strippers all over the place, and some of them included a minigame about having sex with prostitutes. But by Saints Row IV the player can have sex with anyone in their gang, including the genderless floating robot orb. And, in fact, the player is deliberately baited to have sex since there are achievements specific to having sex with your entire gang. Oh, how it fills my heart with glee to imagine a homophobic completionist having to decide between not getting an achievement or watching the Boss make out with Matt Miller and Johnny Gat.
And, of course, there are the women. While Shaundi in Saints Row II was so useless that at one point the Boss tells her she is only superior to a character who is already dead at that point… by Saints Row IV the female characters have become vital and dynamic, with Kenzie becoming almost as an iconic and indelible a figure in the franchise as Johnny Gat. Saints Row IV has two different versions of Shaundi (and if you get the “Saints Save Christmas” DLC, three), and a huge portion of the game is about getting them to resolve their differences and becoming friends. Kenzie is, of course, awesome, and both your near constant companion via her voice in your ear while also constantly giving the Boss shit. And then there is Asha, a walking parody of the Metal Gear games. And while both Shaundi and Kenzi are highly sexualized, it is always on their terms as characters (and their sexualization is contrasted with Asha’s lack of sexualization).
I never would have expected that the game where you run around hitting people with a dildo bat would be the one that was also about positive female representation, racial diversity and harmony, and embracing sexual orientation. But that’s the point. Nothing about what made the game great was sacrificed in order to achieve those goals. It is still the game franchise where you run naked out of a sex club and hop into a tank shaped like a penis and then blow up a city. And that’s why Saints Row is such a special franchise. It is loopy and hilarious and wacky and fun, but the barriers that would prevent people from embracing it for joyous violent experience it is are completely gone. It is a game for everyone.
And the game ends with Soul Train dance line! Including the main villain of the game doing the worm! Still the best ending in all of video games.