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.