Is Saints Row a Beacon for Gender Equality?

I randomly ran across an article this week that essentially had one of the developers for the Saints Row games saying they hoped Anita Sarkeesian examined their games as part of the “Tropes vs. Women” series because they felt they’d done a good job representing women.  If you’re unfamiliar with the backlash storm surrounding Mrs. Sarkessian & her series, the long & short of it is that she started a Kickstarter project to examine the various clichés surrounding female videogame characters.  Why everyone got so upset about someone pointing out what’s been blatantly obvious was beyond me, hence why I’ve never watched her series.

(And before anyone starts ranting, yes, I know most videogame characters are essentially made up of various tropes, clichés & archetypes, regardless of gender.  The issue is that most of the clichés for male characters are empowering & positive while, with notable exceptions, the female cliches are degrading & insulting.)

But that’s not the point of this post, because I’ve already done a post on my opinion on the matter.  This is about Deep Silver/Volition’s comment of representing women well in their games.

My first reaction upon reading this was to laugh it off.  This is Saints Row, after all.  A series of games glorifying the gangsta life.  Between the prostitutes & the ability to make a female character that looks like she’s smuggling water balloons in her bra, it’s an understandable reaction.

But then I actually stopped to think about it.  And crazily, they might have a point!  Because for all the over-the-top craziness, the Saints Row games don’t treat male & female characters differently.

Let’s look at the Boss, first of all.  In the first game, you could only play as a male character.  But in the rest of the games, you can make the Boss male or female.  And regardless of how you choose to customize them, they play out the same (usually like a borderline sociopath) & none of the other characters treat them any differently.  Not only that, but you can make any sort of character you want, with any combination of gender traits.  Your male Boss can run around in a slinky cocktail dress & heels, while your female Boss can sport a five o’clock shadow.  And going back to the water balloons from earlier… yeah, it looks completely ridiculous.  But what didn’t the give the men for Sex Appeal?  A customizable bulge in their shorts.  You can’t tell me that doesn’t say Volition knew it was ridiculous & embraced it for both genders equally.

Also, the game isn’t affected in any way by which gender you pick.  Even in Saint’s Row IV, when they poke fun at RPGs with their “romance” options.  You’re not limited by gender on who you can “romance.”  In fact, at no point does the game acknowledge which gender the player’s using.  In fact, the only portion of the game that (thankfully) changes based on your gender is in the Ho-ing diversion in Saints Row 2, where the gender of your client is the opposite of yours.  And again, men can ho just as readily as women.

… there’s a sentence I never thought I’d say…

Now let’s look at the side characters & NPCs.  All of the female side characters are as capable & unique as their male counterparts.  Shaundi, Kinzie, Viola & Asha… all memorable characters.  And while the Boss does have to save them on occasion, they also save their male counterparts as frequently.  Also, in regards the Shaundi, she goes through a bit of a development arc when it comes to needing to be saved.  In her first appearance in the second game, Shaundi’s portrayed as a party-girl who, while useful for her chemistry & tech skills, needs to be saved on several occasions.   In Saints Row: The Third, not only has she become more business savvy, but thanks to Gat’s sacrifice, becomes resentful at needing to be saved all the time & becomes this sort of stone-cold hussy.

As for the strippers & prostitutes everywhere… well, I suppose that’s part of the life of a gangsta.  However, you can also customize your gang so that the random NPCs you can recruit off the streets are male gimps, so I’d still argue there are efforts to make things equal in that regard.  I personally found a lot of amusement in driving around the city in my pimped out convertible with a posse of gimps at my command.

That’s not to say the game’s perfectly equal.  There are a few slip ups if you’re playing as a female character that broke my immersion.  All of them revolved around my straight (in my mind) female Boss getting hit on my other women.  There are two scenes in particular that stick out.  In Saints Row 2, at the beginning of the final act, a female bartender makes eyes at the Boss, & the Boss seems to be equally interested.  And in Saints Row: The Third, during the party scene a female stripper hits on the Boss.  If you’re a guy playing as a woman, you probably didn’t see this as an issue.  But as a woman playing as a woman getting hit on by a woman, it’s a bit jarring if you’re not viewing yourself as playing a lesbian.  Which I wasn’t.

So yeah, it’s not perfect.  But I do think the devs made a conscious effort to let gamers play as whatever sort of character they wanted & not have the experience limited by gender.  I always felt a sense of equality in the game, where everything is portrayed as an exaggeration.  The games all felt very inclusive.  Not perfect, but a step in the right direction.

- GamerDame

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Gaming Lessons in Loneliness; Or Why Can’t Developers Leave Me Alone?

If you’ve been keeping up with recent game releases, you may have noticed a rising trend in multiplayer & other social aspects.  Of course multiplayer gaming experiences are nothing new.  From its humble origins, most games allowed two players to compete with each other.  But with the expanding internet infrastructure, more people are able to be connected with others all around the world all the time.  Gaming in particular has benefited from this trend in many ways.  Thanks to online multiplayer, gamers can meet & compete with people from all over.  And sites like Youtube & Twitch have both passive & active social aspect that allow even single-player games to take on a multiplayer vibe.  And while I think this is all well & good, I can’t help but feel that people are taking things a bit too far.  I don’t want to be connected with everyone all the time, even with my best friends.  Maybe it’s just my introverted nature, but sometimes I just like being in my own little world.

But this is starting to sound like a sin to game developers.

It seems like every game nowadays has to have some sort of multiplayer aspect, even if the previous iterations were single-player only affairs.  Either there’s cooperative multiplayer, competitive online modes, gamer rankings, status updates, or online stores to purchase “special” equipment to make the experience easier.  And I’m tired of it!

Well, perhaps that’s a bit too harsh.  It’s not that I have anything against multiplayer games in general.  Some games it just makes sense to add multiplayer, like in shooters.  And I have nothing against games being exclusively multiplayer, like Team Fortress 2.  But there seem to be a lot of games recently that have included multiplayer components that just didn’t make sense.  At least when not examined from a profit viewpoint.

The most recent game that brought this to my attention was Dragon Age: Inquisition, where BioWare announced that there would be a co-op experience separate from the single-player game.  This isn’t BioWare’s first foray into the co-op arena, of course.  Mass Effect 3 had team-based multiplayer that, while admittedly fun in small doses, they tried to shoehorn in to the main game.  Originally, in order to get full “Galactic Readiness,” (which need I remind you affected the sort of endings players could get) players had to compete in team matches in multiplayer mode.  Winning matches increased your Galactic Readiness, which improved the endings… arguably.  Essentially, players who didn’t play multiplayer couldn’t get the “best” ending.  And while I believe this was dropped with the Extended Cut DLC, which dropped the Readiness requirements for each ending to a level obtainable in single-player, it’s not something I easily forget or forgive.

I think, ultimately, that’s my problem with multiplayer in games that are supposed to have a strong single-player experience.   It feels shoehorned, & a lot of times I can’t help but think the resources used to make multiplayer content that doesn’t fit & no one asked for could be better spent improving the main game.  There’s a difference between a title like Call of Duty, where the multiplayer is a crucial aspect of the game’s development (perhaps even more so than the single-player campaign), & Dead Space 3, where the previous two games were solitary experiences.  It just doesn’t feel coherent &, at least to me, seems like a ploy to suck more money out of games.  Especially when you consider on some consoles you have to pay to play online with others.  So I end up having to pay extra to make full use of a game I already paid full price for.  But I can’t really blame that on the devs, as that’s more of a console thing rather than their policy.

From the devs’ standpoint, I can understand trying to extend your game’s life by giving players something to come back to.  But I don’t think multiplayer is always the way to go.  Even the most dedicated fans will eventually move on to something newer, & from a technical point of view the servers needed to maintain multiplayer games can’t last forever.  It’s just too expensive.  But if you give players a memorable, fun & rewarding experience, even just through single-player, they’ll keep coming back & avoid the Used Game Market the industry seems to dread.  Do you know how many times I’ve replayed all of Mass Effect (& by all I mean the story, all side quests & explored every planet), Jade Empire, Indigo Prophecy or Saints Row 2?

I honestly don’t even think it’s worth adding multiplayer to a lot of games that have, for some unfathomable reason, chosen to include it.  Take the multiplayer modes in the Tomb Raider reboot.  While I haven’t gotten around to playing it yet, all reviews I’ve seen praise the game… except for the multiplayer portions.  They really did seem to be added just for the sake of having multiplayer.  Gamers can tell when something gets tacked on like that, & the reviews for the game can suffer for it.  Not to mention all the added money that has to go towards these tacked on modes.  Hence why, despite selling 1 million copies in the first 48 hours of release (est. $60,000,000) & 3.4 million by the end of the month (est. $180,000,000), not to mention being one of the fastest selling games ever, Square Enix said that the game hadn’t met projected sales targets.  Results like these have a trickle down effect.  If publishers want devs to spend extra money to add content that drags a game down, then that means we’re less likely to see sequels to games that deserve it & are less likely to take chances on uncertain projects.  And we all suffer for that.

But as loathe as I am to admit it, I fear this is the way the industry is headed.  Especially with companies like EA saying they won’t take on projects that are solely single-player affairs & the rise of microtransactions to filch people out of even more money.  Not to mention being inundated with social media & “interconnectedness.”  Surely I can’t be the only person who had no interest in comparing myself to a bunch of random strangers that I’ll never meet in my lifetime.

I hate to sound like a pessimist.  And like I said, I don’t hate multiplayer.  But there has to be a way for single & multiplayer to coexist without one taking over the other.  Because when it comes right down to it, they’re both very different gaming experiences that serve very different purposes.  Single-player games are a way to escape & get absorbed in an engaging story.  Multiplayer games are for fun with friends & competition.  A good business plan would provide an enjoyable experience for both types of gamers that’s not at the expense of the other.

- GamerDame

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