I was surprised to discover that Saints Row 2 was one of the best games of the last generation. I expected a simple, rather dull GTA clone with none of the budget. Fortunately for me, I had a friend who assured me I was mistaken, and encouraged me to play. What I found was a sharp, interesting, compelling GTA clone that did GTA better than GTA did. I also found that I could play as a girl, which I began doing; The Boss is to me what Femshep is to some people.
A big issue with gaming today is the idea that the gameplay and the story aren't the same thing. A lot of people, developers and audiences alike, treat them like two separate entities. In short, a game where your character is presented as a thoughtful pacifist in the cutscenes might feature a raging psychopath in the gameplay; the two kinds of storytelling are ultimately dissonant.*
Stop right here. If you haven't played Saints Row 2, The Third, and IV, you should do that before finishing this piece. I don't care much about not spoiling games, but the Saints Row series is one of the few exceptions.
Saints Row 2 says "okay, you want to be a psychotic murderer? Cool. Here's a story to suit that." All the story beats, particularly in the Maero arc, are all about making sure that the gameplay and the story connect in a meaningful way. When the guy who busts you out of prison ends up being kidnapped and dragged behind a car, and you have to follow in your own car, trying to save him, it sets you up emotionally to get your revenge later on in the game; you don't feel bad dispensing justice. You feel right.
Then came Saints Row The Third, which... was really odd. My understanding is that THQ had Volition cut a lot of content from the game, fearing it was too dark. As a result, the story's kind of a mess. It's a fun, ridiculous game, amping up the crazy factor by about a million, and the gameplay and story are still two sides of the same coin, but I dunno. It doesn't feel quite as connected, because the only emotionally potent moment in the game is when Johnny Gat dies at the beginning.
It feels weird. Cheap. Wrong.
The entire game, I found myself in denial. Johnny couldn't be dead. He was integral to the series—to The Boss!
Johnny Gat's my main man. The first mission in Saints Row 2 is to rescue Johnny, though, when you do, he doesn't really need rescuing, because he's Johnny Gat. He's The Boss' best friend. He's a confidante. Before I knew he was into Aisha, I assumed he and The Boss had some sort of Bonnie and Clyde thing going on; watching her die didn't mean much to me, but watching him react to her death, knowing he cared for her, meant that I went and killed a whole lot of gangsters in vengeance.
So when he died, it felt like losing a limb. Johnny actually meant something to me.
That's why, when I heard Saints Row IV was going to bring him back, I was ecstatic.
Mass Effect is kind of bad.
Bioware's entire idea of relationships is deeply problematic—in Dragon Age 2, for instance, I found myself in a romantic relationship with a character because I'd crushed her life's dreams, extremifying her emotions so much she found me irresistable, apparently. Oops. The Mass Effect games are deeply problematic in that the relationships, which are deeply flawed and completely unbelievable, also never... like... matter. Have a relationship with Ashley in one game, and you won't be able to in the next to, though you can have a relationship with Miranda, and... hm. I'm not sure who you're supposed to have a relationship with in the third. The Liara romance in the first game is ignored in the sequel, then resurrected in the third.
Saints Row IV notices this and decides to poke fun. Casually asking one character results in almost immediate gratification, another refuses no matter what, still another is literally A Robot That Treats Everything As If It's In A Bioware Game And Thus Everything Is Quid Pro Quo.
Throughout the game, you go on missions, rescuing your teammates from their alien prison. One of these missions puts you back on the plane where Johnny died. The buildup to this is The Boss' insistence that Johnny is on that plane. Most people doubt you, but you're so sure, and then it isn't. The plane is Shaundi's prison, not Johnny's. She lost Johnny too.
And for a while, the Saints Row IV lets you stew on this.
But then you get another lead, and this time, it is Johnny. His prison is unlike all the other prisons you've encountered—together you fight your way through a bunch of goons to save Aisha in a retro 2D beat-'em-up. And she dies. And it's painful, because here you are, trying to rescue Johnny, this awesome, cool, best friend... and he doesn't realize where he is. He's just reliving his memory of his lover's death.
She dies again.
You get mad.
You change things. Get to play again. You win this time, freeing Johnny from his prison, letting him feel, at least one time, like he managed to save Aisha. And then you've got to go rescue him in real life, in a thrilling mission where you drive a giant mech and go blow a bunch of aliens up to 'rescue' him, though, of course, the environmental storytelling—and eventually the voiceover—starts to convey that you may not actually need to rescue Johnny, considering all the bodies he's left everywhere.
Meeting up with him is thrilling. I'd post a screenshot here, but I had my hands raised and clenched and was yelling YES and just so happy that I'd finally met him again.
I don't know the details as to why Johnny Gat didn't show up in Saints Row The Third. I've heard rumors, but I've also heard that they weren't true. What I do know is that the emotional impact of his return in Saints Row IV was heightened, not by having him die at the end of one game and return mid-way through another, but by spending two years thinking I'd never get to see him again, and then... finally getting to rock together.
And then comes the icing on the cake.
Saints Row lets you 'romance' Johnny. It's great. Johnny is absolutely Johnny in that scene, and The Boss, at least with the voice I was using for her, had this great, awkward confession that felt way more natural than some robot-smooth dialog in Mass Effect. It was great. It was cool. It felt awesome.
So yeah. I think that's one of the best relationships in gaming, in large part because the gameplay and the story work together to create one cohesive experience. They're not at odds with each other. You're never locked in one room sitting there listening to characters gab on at you about the lore. You're never stuck clicking dialog options to max out some character's attraction meter. You're never clicking a bunch of robotic dialog options for random exposition.
You're doing things and the things you do affect how you relate to people.
And that's really awesome.
And it's why Saints Row IV is one of the best games this year. Because it's not prescriptive; it doesn't say "this is the story; this is how things are." It nudges you in all the right directions, makes suggestions, gives you choices, and ultimately gives you consequences for those actions. It's way, way better than most of the other highly-praised games I've played this year.
I really think it deserves to be talked about a lot more.
Sorry, this one's short. Have a busy day today; gotta turn in a screenplay, prep some other homework, trying to find a better means of income so I can afford rent over Christmas break, and all that jazz. As usual, you can find me on Tumblr, Twitter, and #TAY on IRCHighway, or use the DocTalk tag here on Kotaku.
*This is where the term 'ludonarrative dissonance' comes from. It means, roughly, "play/story difference." A lot of people have argued it's a bad term, but those who do tend to be the sort of dumb people who make fun of smart things because they don't want to seem dumb. It's not to say people don't invoke the term improperly, but the term itself serves a very specific purpose.