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Ask Chris #130: ‘Saints Row The Third’

Over a lifetime of reading comics, Senior Writer Chris Sims has developed an inexhaustible arsenal of facts and opinions. That’s why, each and every week, we turn to you to put his comics culture knowledge to the test as he responds to your reader questions!

Q: Calling Saints Row: The Third the best game ever is a tall claim. What makes you say that?@kenlowery

A: Technically, I said it was “the greatest game in human history,” but I guess what matters is that I have a love for Saints Row: The Third that borders on religious fervor. I have some vague idea that maybe Saints Row 4 Life or Saints Row 5 Ever might someday surpass it, but for now, I’ve come to terms with the fact that there may never be another video game as good as SR3. Finally, Rockin’ Kats for the NES, you may lay down your burden.

But it’s tough to explain just what it is that makes it so good, because when you get right down to it, it’s everything. There are a lot of games out there that accomplish what they set out to do, but SR3 did exactly that in a way that did nothing short of reflecting what’s great about an entire medium. Or at least a pretty huge chunk of it.The thing about Saints Row is that you can’t really look at it in isolation, because a lot of what makes it great is a direct reaction to everything that’s going on around it. The biggest influence on the franchise — and on a pretty solid percentage of modern video games — is, of course, Grand Theft Auto. In fact, that first Saints Row game borrows so many themes, ideas and mechanics from GTA that it’s hard to see it as anything but a knockoff that was made in an attempt to capture that same level of incredible critical and financial success, but in a way that had had a little more Keith David. I think we can all agree that this is an admirable goal.

But there’s a point where those two games diverge pretty drastically. Even at its silliest and most over the top — San Andreas, a game where a hardened young gangsta can drive from the streets of Fake Compton to Fake Area 51 and steal a jetpack to use against rival gangs during drive-by shootings — GTA still clung pretty tightly to a certain kind of “realism.” I mean, that’s a game that culminates in this weird version of the LA riots, and as much as it’s played as a big action movie farce that involves the main character killing slightly more people than the bubonic plague, it’s still meant to be taken pretty seriously.

And when the series continued to Grand Theft Auto IV, most of that goofiness was pretty much removed from the franchise with a scalpel. Silly mechanics like being able to stuff CJ’s face with burgers until he got morbidly obese and had to waddle around getting into gunfights until he worked off the extra weight were replaced with bits like Niko wandering into an internet café to write depressing missives to his mom or get endless phone calls from Kate, his charming girlfriend who would constantly yell about what a horrible person he was while you took her down to the bowling alley.

It’s probably unfair to say that the focus had shifted from gameplay to story because GTA4 was (and is) an incredibly fun game to play, but it was definitely a game designed to make you want to play it in a certain way. Niko as a character was realized well enough that going on those stress-relieving rampages that took up so much time in its predecessors didn’t really fit with how he worked, and — in my favorite example of a game getting snippy with the player for doing something that is actually a part of the game — he’d start complaining out loud about his lot in life if you ever sent him driving around with a hooker.

Grand Theft Auto IV was a game that actively discouraged you from playing certain parts of it because they didn’t fit with the narrative they were trying to construct, and that story was far more grounded in “realism” (and a lot more pretentious) than those games had been before that.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing, and I ended up really enjoying the story the people at Rockstar wanted to tell, but it is a nice example of a trend that seemed to dominate a lot of games. There are a lot of games out there that seem to want to cloak themselves in the idea of providing a “realistic” experience and stripping out the more fantastic elements. Even Arkham City wants to mix brutally realistic bone-crushing MMA fighting moves in with its story about a guy in a giant bat costume gliding around trying to stop a giant clay monster from blowing up a prison with fully stocked natural history museum or whatever.

And then you have Saints Row, which goes in the exact opposite direction.

It’s not just a reaction to other games, either, it’s something that builds organically throughout the series. The Saints Row games tell a continuing story, and in each installment, the stakes get bigger, by leaps and bounds. The first opens with a gritty battle between street gangs, and the second escalates that into a larger scale war with cartels and multinational corporations, with monster trucks and underground lairs thrown in for good measure. By the time you get to The Third, things have gone full-on looneytoonsian, with armies of bulletproof clones, the S.H.I.E.L.D. Helicarrier, chainsaw luchadors, a zombie outbreak and Burt Reynolds. Each time, it gets bigger in every sense of the word, pushing this out of the realm of possibility just a little further. Once that first game is over, they stop looking at Grand Theft Auto as a goal and instead use it as a place to start.

After all, the point of a video game — at least the way I look at it — is to give you the experience of doing something that you can’t do in any other medium. That’s why the idea of a interactive storytelling is so important, because they’re designed to give you a feeling of accomplishment that you can’t get anywhere else. I don’t think I’m blowing anyone’s mind here when I say that it’s impossible to go back in time and parkour around Rome until you get into a fistfight with Pope Alexander VI, or wander around a post-apocalyptic Washington DC getting shot at by Super Mutants, or to fly around space fighting the Reapers and convincing Seth Green to totally bang a robot, or to fight Dracula with a whip and a magic stopwatch, and as much as it pains me to say it, Pikachu isn’t real and I’d probably be allergic to him if he was. But I’ve had those experiences, or at least a version of them that was enjoyable enough to stick in my memory. In that respect, the closer you get to “realism” and the more weirdness you filter out of a game, the further they get from this ideal that I have of how things should work.

It’s the same way I feel about a lot of comics, actually. I like quiet personal stories and realistic crime comics, and history on those rare occasions where comics delve into that, but the things I really love tend to be those big loud idea books. That’s why I’m such a big fan of Jack Kirby, because he made books where there were no limitations, where the notion that it was just lines on paper and a splash of color fell away because the ideas and emotions at work were so much bigger than everything around them. Why would you want to see Superman walking across the country when you can see him flying out to space and carving messages of hope into the moon with his heat vision? When you have a medium that can do anything, why wouldn’t you try to do everything?

Saints Row The Third is a game that’s built on that philosophy. It’s a video game that embraces everything that being a video game means, and then amplifies it to a take it beyond even that.

It’s hard to pick a favorite moment because there are so many, but the one that really defines the game comes right at the beginning. The Saints are gearing up to rob a bank, and as a disguise, they put on these big advertising mascot costumes of one of the Saints that’s used to promote their business, make a wisecrack about it, and then set about shooting people with machine guns. It’s one of the smartest things I’ve ever seen in a video game.

It seems like a throwaway sight gag designed to hide the main character’s appearance until you get around to customizing her after the opening, but it’s more than that. It’s the Saints dressing up as themselves — as video game characters — but bigger. It’s the literal version of the metaphor at the heart of the game, that you’re taking on the role of a character who is herself taking on the role of a character who’s even more larger than life. And then you go rip a vault out of a building with a helicopter and ride on top of it while the cables snap in the middle of a gunfight.

And just so we’re clear on this, this is the very first thing that happens in the game. The second thing is that you jump out of an airplane without a parachute, fight guys in mid-air, crash back through the airplane in a different direction, steal a parachute in midair and then land. These are pretty much the tutorial missions.

Every level of Saints Row The Third feels like the last level of another game. They’re all that crazy and frantic. It’s a testament to how well the game was written and designed that they it manages to sustain that level of energy through the whole game, let alone doing it by swerving into different genres. There was a moment in this game where I had to get to a wrestling match where I helped Hulk Hogan battle against the evil luchador who stripped him of his honor, but I was on the other side of the city with a walled off island overrun with a minor zombie outbreak between us. Fortunately, I’d unlocked the flying motorcycle, so it wasn’t really a problem.

If you tried, I’m sure you could figure out some flaws in this game, but it’s never boring or static. It’s relentless in throwing new ideas and situations at you, and does a phenomenal job of raising the stakes to match what you’re doing and reflect your choices. The city itself changes as you play and move from one goal to another. And it also has Kinzie. Kinzie is the best.

Everything in the game reflects that idea of going bigger because they can, from the weapons (giant fists that blow up cars and floppy purple phalluses stuck onto the end of baseball bats are your melee options) , and even the mini-games are built around video game ideas that are magnified to the next level — Professor Genki’s Super-Ethical Reality Climax is the entire shooter genre in miniature dressed up in lurid Japanese game show lighting, blowing away gun-toting guys in fursuits and boss monsters with miniguns for cash and prizes. It’s a game that tells a story — and an enjoyable one — but is free of pretense. It doesn’t play out like a movie, it plays out like a video game, and one that’s beautifully done at that.

Seriously: it’s about one Bulbasaur away from being perfect.

That’s all we have for this week, but if you’ve got a question you’d like to see Chris tackle in a future column, just send it to @theisb on Twitter with the hashtag #AskChris, or send an email to chris@comicsalliance.com with [Ask Chris] in the subject line!

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