More Saintly than Stained
For my money, Saint’s Row is the finest Grand Theft Auto rip off to date.
Borrowing from the style and game play of Rockstar’s super successful franchise has become the norm for many game publishers. Yet, so few of them seem to really be able to capture GTA‘s beautifully blended essence of free form game play, urban style, and clever parody. Unsuccessful pretenders like The Getaway and True Crime immediately spring to mind. They have attempted to be the same kind of game as Rockstar has made while lacking the soul of Rockstar’s series.
However, a number of recent licensed games like The Godfather and Scarface have been more successful in taking the more integral elements of Rockstar’s formula and building games similar to Rockstar’s but with enough new and more interesting elements (I am thinking here of The Godfather‘s interesting area control through extortion gameplay elements, or Scarface‘s drug trafficking simulation) to advance the genre and generate reasonably unique games in their own right.
Like The Getaway and True Crime, Saint’s Row is more in the realm of a pure rip off of the GTA formula and lacks any really substantial innovations to make it something more unique like The Godfather or Scarface. However, unlike The Getaway and True Crime, the developers of Saint’s Row seem to have better understood the soul of the games that they were emulating. Honestly, while playing it, I felt that it reasonably could be a sequel in the GTA series—albeit a sequel with a great deal more visual splash.
Strangely enough, while Saint’s Row gets much of the successful elements of GTA right (good or even great voice acting, a well told and engrossing crime story, great mood with a strong sound track, and reasonably witty parodic dialogue on the radio), it is chiefly the next-gen shininess and slick graphics that make its few differences from GTA clear and that are, perhaps, the only thing that developer Volition has in some sense “gotten wrong.”
A chief criticism of GTA has often been its washed out and somewhat ugly graphics by comparison to games that have come out alongside it. But, in viewing the free form, go anywhere, maim anyone I want environments of Saint’s Row through its glossy, high def images and often beautiful scenery and character models, something felt sort of wrong to me.
It’s too pretty.
The ugliness and griminess of GTA‘s Liberty City, Vice City, and San Andreas are in part what helps to establish the ugly and grimy feeling of playing as a really, really bad man. While its fun to play around in the shoes of men like Tommy Vercetti and CJ Johnson, let’s face it—they are not the most heroic or even likeable of individuals. The visual ugliness of Vice City and San Andreas in part serve as a reminder of the greyness of the morality of these worlds and these men, perhaps, in the same way that the black and white, grainy film quality of noir bespoke the morally ambiguous characters it tended to represent (check out the film quality and odd off kilter shots of a film like Orson Welles’ The Third Man to see what I mean).
Given Saint’s Row‘s similarly morally “ugly” cast of characters, they seem undeserving of the super slick and shiny coating that a next-gen graphics engine and more thorough attention to detail has given their world.
Oddly enough, or maybe appropriately enough, that same facade of shiny, chromed beauty is not merely a visual element but a thematic one as well. While GTA rarely makes apologies for its presentation of ethnic and racial conflict or the amorality of its characters, Saint’s Row seems interested in developing an urban crime story with characters more saintly in some senses than stained.
Given that the game—much like GTA—is concerned with the story of an individual (in this case the nameless, voiceless protagonist that you play—very reminiscent of the nameless, voiceless Claude of GTA III) clawing his way up the hierarchy of a criminal empire there is a certain weird nod given to multiculturalism and even an effort to excuse criminal behaviors that GTA has more honestly, though, often to their detriment in terms of critical ire, never bothered to apologize for.
The city of Stillwater, in which the neighborhood called Saint’s Row is included and in which the game takes place, is presented as a multi-ethnic urban environment run by four major gangs—your own gang the Saints, the West End Rollerz, the Vice Kings, and Los Carnales. Each of the opposing gangs have a marked racial identity. Los Carnales are obviously a hispanic gang. The Vice Kings are black. The West End Rollerz are a bit mixed as they appear to be made up of whites and Asians, though, it is the whites that are at the top of its hierarchy. The Saints—being ostensibly the “good” gang, since your character who can be any of the four races depending on your selection in character creation—are curiously inclusive. As if to show the progressiveness of your own gang, its membership and leadership looks like the bridge of Rodenberry’s Starship Enterprise. Its leader is black, while his lieutenants consist of a black man, an Asian man, an Asian woman, and a white man. Curiously, a hispanic presence is missing in the hierarchy, though, in my game, this was made up for the by the fact that my own character was hispanic.
This oddity is not necessarily an overt one, as none of the gang’s ethnic makeup is generally emphasized (with the exception of, perhaps, Los Carneles who often speak a mix of Spanish and English in cut scenes and whose language differences are noted in a running joke between the black and white lieutenants in the Saints) but the general camraderie of the Saints and their lack of internal strife is interesting in regards to the other more homogenous gangs.
If this romanticized view of racial unity is rather shinier and slicker than the grimmer and more racially divisive realities of Vice City or San Andreas, so too, is ganster morality given a romantic sheen in Saint’s Row. It is especially in some of the closing scenes of missions against the West Side Rollerz and most especially a speech from Julius, the Saints’ leader, assuring you that all the murder and mayhem that was necessary for the Saints to take over Stillwater was, indeed, preferable to the strife and conflict that would inevitably result if the Saints had not gained the upper hand. He actually claims that without the Saints’ more benign presence, more people would have died than I managed to murder during my time playing the game. Given the amount of prostitution rings that I got started, drug trafficking that I supported, and hit contracts I fulfilled during my tenure with the Saints, I could only laugh when Julius gave this explanation.
I had meted out an enormous amount of death and human suffering during my time in the Row, and, frankly, I am not sure that glossing over it is entirely necessary. If GTA is ugly—morally and graphically—I think that I can stomach its honesty at the end of the day, moreso than this romantic tap dancing around the ugly world presented in the many shiny colors of Saint’s Row.