[23 November 2011]
PopMatters Multimedia Editor
A feature abandoned in Grand Theft Auto IV, sex appeal was a quality that was represented by a meter in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. The meter measured the sex appeal of the protagonist of that game, CJ Johnson, which was a quality that the player could alter through the manipulation of various stereotypical representations of his avatar.
The better dressed that CJ was, the higher his sex appeal meter. Likewise, a sex appeal bonus boosted the stat temporarily when CJ exited cars. Exiting a pick up truck would fail to impress the opposite sex much. However, pick up a date in a sports car, and you could expect a favorable response to the character.
What was interesting about CJ’s sex appeal meter was that it had an effect on both the game world built in San Andreas, as well as a seeming effect on the outcome of the dating-sim-like side quests in the game. If CJ’s sex appeal was high or low, passing bystanders reacted to his physical presence, responding appreciatively to a dapperly dressed man or mockingly to a slobby CJ. Likewise, initiating “dating quests” in the game was contingent on controlling CJ’s appearance. Some women would not respond at all to CJ unless certain expectations of what made a man sexually attractive to that character were met.
Like many things in Grand Theft Auto, CJ’s sex appeal was an opportunity for Rockstar to satirize stereotypical cultural expectations about gender and sexuality. Saints Row, ever the slightly less subtle imitator (and by “slightly less subtle,” I mean “subtle like a sledgehammer to the face”) of the GTA series, has once again borrowed an element from GTA and tried to make it their own.
Like San Andreas, Saints Row: The Third features a sex appeal meter. However, there is no subtle manipulation of this meter through considering how a character is dressed or how driving an expensive vehicle might alter the ethos of a potential suitor. A sex appeal slider is instead offered to the player to do with as he wishes right from the character creation screen.
Like many titles that feature the ability to design the appearance of a character, Saints Row: The Third offers a variety of tools to alter the skin tone, facial features, and the body type of the character that you want to play. No matter how thin or fat, though, that one makes the character, these alterations of other physical characteristics change the sex appeal slider in no way at all. Instead, the slider, which begins by default with what I assume to be a description of the percentile range that your character’s sex appeal might start in (it is only the number 50, but it can be decreased to zero or increased to 100, so I’m assuming that it is something like a 50% sex appeal rating), affects only one physical characteristic of the player’s avatar.
Drag the slider to the right towards 100% sex appeal and a female avatar’s breasts balloon. For a male avatar, his crotch grows to gargantuan proportions.
That’s it. There are no other alterations that occur in any other part of the body: hips and rear ends don’t change, nor do faces, musculature, etc. All of those qualities can be changed, but they simply have no bearing on what the game is calling sex appeal, the quantification of which can apparently only be represented by a woman’s secondary sexual characteristics and a man’s primary sexual characteristics. That’s the joke.
It is also Saints Row: The Third‘s most subtle joke.
Now I realize that those accustomed to discussions of body representation in video games, especially female body representation, are likely not going to feel that there is anything subtle about such a “joke.” Outrageous bodily dimensions and hypersexualized female bodies seem to be the norm for video games, and they hardly seem to be funny at all. A little sad, perhaps, a little desperate, a little offensive, but not funny. The bodies of the female cast of the Dead or Alive series or those belonging to, say, Ivy or Taki of Soul Calibur are absurd cartoons that seem to be intended to draw the attention of hetrosexual males because, well, supposedly these bodies are supposed to have sex appeal. They have awfully big breasts, after all.
That being said, absurd as Ivy and Taki’s bodies are (and they really are), what Saints Row is offering here are breasts that would make Russ Meyer say, “Dude, that’s a little much.” Frankly, I feel like Russ would blush when the sex appeal slider reached about 80. 100 is beyond “hypersexual,” with breasts that are merely freakishly grotesque cartoons that have little to do with the erotic and more to do with the “art” of drawing penises on the wall of a men’s room when you are 13-years-old.
Indeed, unlike the often outrageous, but frequently clever satire of the GTA series, the humor in Saints Row has historically been of a sort that reminds me of a third grader yelling “penis” as loud as he can and waiting for his fellow classmates to roar with appreciative laughter over his subtle wit. I actually think that the sex appeal slider is in fact a bit more clever than this, as it actually evidences a satirical quality (by diminishing sexuality to the “language of video games,” something like acknowledging that games make a simplistic assumption that humongous breasts or an exceptionally large penis is all there is to sexiness—that the sex appeal meter “does nothing else” in the game seems to further represent this notion). However, given the rest of Saints Row‘s “yell penis in a crowded room and see who giggles” approach to humor, this one satirical moment is eclipsed by what I always seem to find in Saints Row, a series of leaden jokes with punch lines that are meant to shock without bothering about whether such shock has any humorous context.
Saints Row seems desperately to want to be Bayonetta or Shadows of the Damned, games that use sexual and sometimes scatological humor in service of satirizing the player and the medium, or using cinematic examples, to be something like Machete or Planet Terror, movies that do the same for that medium. However, ironically, to do these things well, even brash humor calls for a bit more subtlety, a bit more thoughtful construction of the outrageous and the salacious. The sex appeal slider actually almost comes close by mocking the tendency to see “boobies” as sufficient examples of the erotic in a medium most often targeted to young men and boys—as if a developer can simply pump up some balloons in order to satisfy “their audience” and then just call it a day. But in a game that tells so many jokes with no real content (“HA! The Saints are at a BDSM club!” “HA! That weapon is shaped like a penis!” “Get it? Ummm… get it?”), even a modicum of subtlety gets lost in its clamor to “please, please, laugh at me.” I wish that the game were a bit less desperate in its humor and a bit more deliberate in its satire.
You can follow the Moving Pixels blog on Twitter.