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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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A Gamer’s Retrospective on Saints Row

Whether you’ve read the articles on it or not, once you’ve played Saints Row IV you’ll likely come to the conclusion that this is the last game in the franchise.  The whole premise of the franchise has been to be bigger & crazier than the last.  But just look at what you’re doing in the game.  How can you top becoming President, fighting off aliens with super powers & saving the world?  Anything that follows directly from this would be a step down.  Volition has sort of painted themselves in a corner.  They’re in the same position Nintendo finds themselves in with the Mario franchise, at least when it comes to making brand new games & not rehashes.  How can you top Super Mario Galaxy?  Making Super Mario Galaxy 2 just delayed the inevitable.  Maybe Super Mario Universe?  Super Mario Multiverse?

Volition hasn’t actually said there won’t be any more Saints Row games.  However, it’s clear they realize they’ve gone as far as they can story-wise with the current arc.  In an interview with Gamereactor, design director Scott Phillips stated:

We’re definitely considering Saints Row IV sort of the end of that saga of this character and the Saints as they are.  So if there’s any more future Saints Rows – which you know we always hope there will be, we hope there’s fans for future games like that – they will probably continue in a different direction.

So clearly while Volition hasn’t ruled out a Saints Row 5, but it’ll have to go in a different direction.  Which I’m okay with.  Look at their competition, the Grand Theft Auto series.  While there have been sequels that continued from the main game, most of the had their own self-contained stories that just follow the GTA formula.

But whether or not Volition makes a fifth game, I wanted to take a look back at my own experiences with the Saints Row franchise.

I admitted this in the review, but I never played the first Saints Row game.  To me, it looked like a GTA clone, & I’ve never played any of the GTA games.  I just don’t have an interest in the whole gangster lifestyle.  I have a general knowledge of what happens in the first game, & quite frankly I don’t care enough to go back & play it.  Playing games in reverse order can be a bit iffy, since mechanics you like in later games may not be present in older games.

1324325587_005So my first experience with the franchise was with Saints Row 2.  And I’ll be honest, the whole reason I even paid attention was because they announced you could play as a female.  Obviously I don’t mind playing as a male character (otherwise my pool of games would be very limited) but when given the choice I always play as a woman.  After this announcement, I started looking into the game & figured it might be worth checking out.  And I’m very glad I did.  SR2 is a fantastic game.  The story is well written & compelling, with interesting characters.  At least to my knowledge, it’s a realistic portrayal of gangster life, although I’m sure it’s more over the top than real life.  It’s not always pretty, & the boss spends as much time doing horrible things as having horrible things done to them.  But they’re still presented in a relatable manner, showing that they do have loyalty & care about the people in their crew.  The game also has a great sense of humor, with the surreal aspects being just crazy enough to be hilarious without seeming implausible.  It’s also a really good open-world game, with lots of activities & diversions.  Tired of killing people?  Why not drive an ambulance around & save people’s lives?  Not only do you get respect & money, but completing them may also give you special items.  The customization options are also very extensive.

My only real problem with the game is that, while you can play as a woman, the game rarely acknowledges that you are one.  It takes me out of the experience when my lady Boss (who I imagine as heterosexual because I am) makes comments about strippers when there are only female strippers in the game or is making eyes back at a female bartender who’s hitting on her.  It’s only a small thing & doesn’t affect the overall game, but it’s annoying when the game comes across as being made for guys  & it’s letting you play as a female to cater to guys who want to get off by running around as a nude woman or playing as a lesbian.  But to the game’s credit, at least in the Ho-ing diversion it automatically makes your customer the opposite gender.

0Saints Row: The Third was a step in the direction of totally mental for the series.  While SR2 was quirky fun based in reality, SR3 seemed to do everything it could to be over the top.  But it wasn’t always to the game’s benefit.  My overall impression of the game was that, while it’s still a good game, it’s not as good as its predecessor.  I love the humor & the variety of missions (the final mission against the Deckers was my favorite), but a lot of it seemed crazy just for craziness’ sake.  Reality is gone completely out the window.  I also found the story wasn’t as good as before.  I think the main problem is with the pacing.  It doesn’t really feel like you’re taking on three gangs.  Hell, you kill the main leader by the end of the first act.  I also didn’t like how, if you played the activities before the story mission that introduces them, you lose all context for the reason the activity exists in the first place.  The personalities of the characters are really strong & the dialogue between them is good, & I like that the game gives you some choices in how the story plays out.  But overall it just felt less polished & trying to too hard to be funny.  The fun is over too quickly, & once you’ve played the missions there’s not much reason to play around in the world.

Also, why did Volition take out the ability to replay missions you’ve already completed within the same save file?

7With Saints Row IV, we get a return to the excellent writing with the added craziness that somehow feels more grounded this time around.  Although the story is by far the most over the top of the three I’ve played, all of the craziness that happens feels like it’s for a purpose rather than just to be there.  The banter between party members is always amusing, & the missions where you save your crew or earn their loyalty have a great variety.  The world is once again fun to play around in thanks to the new weapons & super powers you gain, but they do make some aspects of the game seem unbalanced.  The humor is… well, I don’t want to say sophisticated, but much less crude than in SR3.  And I love the homages both the series’ past & sci-fi in general.

SR2 & SR4 are both great games but for different reasons.  SR2 has a great storyline & while taking itself more seriously than the other games, isn’t afraid to have some fun.  SR4 is very different from its origins & is less a crime simulator than a super hero one.  But it’s still a heck of a lot of fun to play.

I don’t know if there will be a Saints Row 5, or if there even should be one.  While I always enjoy seeing more of my favorite franchises, I also think it’s okay to know when to end them.  There’s nothing worse than seeing your favorite games get run into the ground by publishers hoping to milk every last penny from you.

But for now, I’m going to enjoy replaying SR4 & keeping an eye out for any DLC content to extend the experience.

– GamerDame

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