Most games based on the Grand Theft Auto formula of creating an open world, in which a player in the form of a criminal is allowed free reign to explore and dominate a world, have a tendency to attempt to distinguish themselves from this forerunner in some fundamental kind of way. Games like The Godfather or Scarface have attempted various ways of changing up the open world formula by grafting area control and economic development elements into the mix of shooting and driving components that form the basis of GTA-style gameplay.
These additions to gameplay are welcome enough to fans of this form of crime fiction. They also seem appropriate given that the player is taking on the role of a criminal and being allowed to play out the “business” of being a member of an organized crime syndicate or gang seems a sensible choice for building a more complex gaming system.
However not all GTA clones have sought to make major innovations in the genre. Realizing the successfulness of the series lies in the experience of ripping off cars and creating mayhem alongside its generally satirical and absurd tone, THQ’s Saint’s Row (while sometimes making some subtle improvements to certain weaknesses of the GTA-style “thug simulator”) has largely chosen to adhere to the basic gameplay concepts and generally parodic qualities of its source of inspiration. This tendency has led to a number of folks observing that the game is something of a GTA “clone” (a truly dreaded term given its usual implications of merely being a rip off of a more successful original).
Nevertheless, I would argue that the Saint’s Row series does distinguish itself from GTA in some subtle ways that are perhaps more related to some of its presentation of criminality than in its approach to gameplay. While GTA games tend to focus on a kind of central and largely solitary protagonist, there is a greater emphasis on collectivism in Saint’s Row that is interestingly very much antithetical to exclusive individuality as its gang culture is rather radically inclusive.
Now the notion of radical inclusivity should at once raise some eyebrows when discussing gang social dynamics. Seemingly much of the gangster lifestyle can be equated to a kind of tribalism that may be related to territorial interests or even hereditary or biological ones. Gangs form around territory and shared interests, and thus, gang members surround themselves with fellows of similar socioeconomic backgrounds as themselves. Or gangs are organized, like the Mafia, around family units that similarly have related social and economic interests that they wish to defend. In either case, most gangs have a tendency towards homogeneity rather than towards recruitment of a diverse membership.
The original Saint’s Row certainly represented this tendency clearly through the gangs opposed to the 3rd Street Saints. Los Carnales, the Westside Rollerz, and the Vice Kings all had a pretty homogeneous racial make-up (race being a relatively easy visual marker for representing such commonality) as each was largely made up of Spanish, Asian and white, and black gang members respectively. Curiously, the gang that the player’s avatar finds himself a part of distinguishes itself from these three gangs through its racial diversity rather than its racial and ethnic homogeneity. The Saints colors, purple, are the only color that marks this group’s unity unlike its opposition whose skin colors were largely as common to one another as their chosen gang colors (the Westside Rollerz represented some slight degree of diversity with their seemingly biracial make-up, however, the Rollerz social class represented by their more suburban territory might serve as a further homogenizing element).
Given the positive valorization of racial and ethnic diversity in contemporary Western culture, the Saints embrace of inclusivity has a subtle effect on the player’s perception of the gang. They are clearly the most civilized of these warring tribes of thugs, since they are so progressive and open minded. Unlike the radical individualism that marks and perhaps romanticizes the protagonists of Grand Theft Auto, Saint’s Row succeeds in creating a positive response to the Saints through their representation of them as a gang of slightly more thoughtful, slightly more opened minded thugs.
The gang’s leadership is similarly marked with this commitment to diversity as the Saints’s leader Julius is black and his lieutenants are Asian and white (though there are no major hispanic leaders). This inclusive make-up is even helpful to the gang, since its members find themselves more capable of slipping moles into their rivals ranks; they have members that “look like” their rivals. Diversity here is not simply a mark of the civilized, but it also demonstrates how such a strategy of inclusivity is advantageous and “smarter” than racial homogeneity.
Of course, some of the reason for the racial diversity of the Saints might be attributed to THQ’s decision to give players of Saint’s Row considerably more freedom in creating an avatar of that player’s own design. Unlike Grand Theft Auto, whose characters are necessarily defined by the game’s narrative, Saint’s Row contains a fairly robust character creation system that allows the player to design their ideal criminal’s appearance, including racial characteristics.
Indeed, the race and ethnicity of GTA characters are deeply wedded to the storyline that Rockstar has in mind for each installment of the series, and thus, the sort of freedom that Saint’s Row is looking for in crafting a character seems unlikely given the significance of various characters’ backgrounds. Tommy Vercetti’s Italian heritage links him to his Mafia roots, CJ Johnson is a young black man from a Los Santos ‘hood, and Niko Bellic hails from an unnamed Eastern European country that has been devastated by war and left Niko with an axe to grind and a killer instinct. The story of an inclusive gang allows Saint’s Row to give the player more freedom in crafting a racial identity of their own without interfering with the story.
Interestingly, this same system’s expansion in Saint’s Row adds an even more radically progressive inclusivity to the identity politics of Saint’s Row. Since the protagonist of the first game was badly burned in an explosion on a yacht at the conclusion of the first game, Saint’s Row begins by allowing the player to once again select this character’s appearance. The attempted assassination of the character becomes a useful conceit for justifying this change as reconstructive surgery. What is especially radical about this chance to “update” the character’s look (assuming the player played the first game) is that not only can the player choose to change up the character’s hair and eye color alongside his race, but it is that the main character’s gender can be reassigned as well.
To my knowledge, no other open world crime game has allowed the player to play as a woman, let alone as a transgendered character.
Before considering this decision’s implications for the player, though, it should be noted that Saint’s Row 2 largely maintains its distinctions between the “good gang” and the “bad gangs” through racial unity and diversity. Saint’s Row 2 concerns conflicts with a Japanese gang and an Afro-Caribbean gang. A third gang, the Brotherhood, is interestingly more homogeneous in nature, which is especially interesting because they initially attempt to form a truce with the newly reformed Saints, suggesting, perhaps, that this more inclusive style of gang membership does lend itself towards more peaceable and civilizing tendencies.
Returning to the reconfiguration of the player’s avatar, though, players who adopt a new racial identity may certainly note how easily they are once again adopted into the Saints despite their change in appearance, but a player who adopts the role of a transgendered gangster will likewise find that their former colleagues have managed to maintain an extremely progressive stance towards identity, which might be surprising given the radical nature of their change
Now, I don’t want to make too much of the scripting that acknowledges identity and identity change in the second game as it is largely played as a joke, but I find it notable that the nature of the joke largely changes based on the player’s choices in reshaping their identity and their choices made during the prior game. In that sense, Saint’s Row exhibits a really interesting consequence of a medium that allows its audience to alter the course of the narrative. While a script is in place for the game regardless of those choices (the linear narrative will remain regardless of the player’s choices about character creation), the way that those lines are interpreted by the player are directly affected by such choices and thus do alter the message of the text because the context in which the lines are understood changes their signification.
The notion that meanings need to be reconsidered under certain contexts are common enough in literary works. For example in Natheniel Hawthorn’s Scarlet Letter, Hawthorn acknowledges a symbol’s meaning can change given its context in a number of ways and that when such changes occur that their consequences are meaningful whether that meaning be intended or not. The Scarlet Letter A itself is intended by the Puritans to mark Hester Prynne as an adulterous. However, since Hester is allowed to design it herself, she sews an emblem that is highly decorative and ostentatious, something potentially beautiful. When she emerges before the Puritan women with the A on, they are offended by its message, both because it is emblematic of Hester’s sin but also because it is so ornate and beautifully made that it also suggests a defiance in its wearer (probably very much an intended message on Hester’s part). Later in the novel, a Native American visiting the Puritan community sees Hester’s A and assumes that she is a personage of great honor and power. This alternate reading of the A results in an unintended message that nevertheless has consequences as it alters the way that he chooses to behave towards her.
To illustrate what I mean in the context of the Saint’s Row series, players who choose to play both Saint’s Row and Saint’s Row 2 as a man are likely to find Johnny Gatt’s comments (Gatt is a former lieutenant in the Saints) to be mildly amusing when he notes that the player looks like he has changed in some way and asks the protagonist, “Did you do something with your hair?” If the player has altered their race, this comment takes on an understated and ironic tone However, the joke reads even more differently when the player has chosen to adopt a female role for the second game. Gatt’s wildly, understated comment is all the more ironic in this context, but it is also serves as a kind of reassurance that Gatt still recognizes and is not rejecting the appearance of the character.
Thus while joking, Gatt still seems pretty accepting of a big, big change in the character. In this context, the superficiality with which he treats the transformation becomes a kind of acknowledgement of an essential respect for the character, especially because this comment is one of the game’s few acknowledgements of such a radical identity shift. Gatt’s interactions with the character then revert to something resembling the general camaraderie that his character showed towards this same individual towards the close of the first game. Thus, unlike just choosing a new eye color for a character and having Gatt shrug it off, Gatt’s joking acknowledgment of radical identity reassignment, followed by his resumed comfort with the character speaks quietly but clearly to a sense that the character’s essential self is respected regardless of what physical changes have been made to the character.
There is little else to say regarding the gender reassignment possibilities in Saint’s Row 2, and while it may well be that the game’s developers didn’t bother to seek to explore the complexity of this issue in the game’s script, the near silent acceptance of such transformation tends to speak volumes in the context of the game’s commitment to accepting and embracing diverse identities. Maybe it is just a character creation thing but curiously that mere mechanism sends rather interesting messages whether intended to do so or not about the nature of assigning identity through appearance.