This article was initially posted to my blog at kevinjameswong.com
In the initial moments of Saints Row: The Third, irrelavant backstory is introduced with the Star Wars Title Crawl to the tune of the 2001: A Space Odyssey. The game then cuts to a gang assault in an urban basketball court, which turns out to be a Japanese energy-drink commercial, being watched on a character's cell phone as they prepare to rob a bank. The bank-robbery turns out to be a film shoot. One of the gangsters remarks, "ultra-postmodernism, I love it", dons a giant mask of himself, and begins shooting up the building.
Ludonarrative Dissonance: I Promise this is Relevant
One problem I have with sandboxy-action games like Grand Theft Auto and Red Dead Redemption, is that they suffer, more than any other genre, from ludonarrative dissonance. Simply put, ludonarrative dissonance is a problematic phenomenon in video games when a game's mechanics thematically contradict the game's narrative. This is mostly caused when game developers try to tell a specific story using the wrong genre.
Game genre is more than a box of mechanics and design decisions used to codify a game, game genre also determines the type of behaviors and emotional responses that designers want to promote in their game worlds. A slow, graphic-adventure game like The Walking Dead promotes a wildly different set of behaviors and emotions than a cooperative first-person shooter like Left 4 Dead. While both games deal with surviving in a zombie apocalypse, their respective genres each promote the telling of radically different types of stories. The Walking Dead's slow, methodical mechanics are intended to promote a melodramatic and introspective narrative, while Left 4 Dead's mechanics are intended to promote frenetic excitement and panic.
Which brings me to what frustrates me about sandbox games in general: the types of behavior that the genre promotes fundamentally contradicts the types of stories that developers attempt to tell with them.
Genre Confusion in Sandbox Games
Red Dead Redemption is the story of reformed outlaw John Marston's attempt to come clean with his past, his quest to bring his former gang members to justice, and his salvation in the love of his family. Over the course of his adventure, he will kidnap maidens and strap them to railroad tracks, rob banks, and shoot up entire towns before riding off into the sunset on a stolen bronco.
If this seems confusing or problematic at all, blame Red Dead Redemption's confused choice of genre. Red Dead Redemption's somber character drama of salvation, inner-turmoil, and the quest to find peace clashes violently with its genre, making it perhaps the single most frustrating example of ludonarrative dissonance in recent memory.
The sandbox genre promotes a very specific set of player behaviors and emotions. As an open space for freely constructed play, the sandbox-game lends itself to the creation of freely-formed challenges. Powerslide for a hundred meters, jump 200 feet into the water, collect three diamonds to build a pickaxe, run over as many pedestrians as possible, survive as long as you can as cops pursue you. Simply put, the sandbox game promotes spontaneous, free-form play in the form that Callois would call "paida".
The playful behavior that the sandbox game promotes is fundamentally incompatible with the deep character dramas that games like Red Dead Redemption and Grand Theft Auto IV try to tell. This owes itself to the fact that said playful behavior mostly manifests itself as attempting to drive muscle cars into incoming pedestrians. But if John Marston is really trying to redeem himself and Niko Bellic is trying to escape the demons of his past, why is it that their respective games promote behavior such as driving stagecoaches off cliffs? If Wei-Shen from Sleeping Dogs is an undercover cop, why does he take pleasure in slamming civilian's heads into car doors? The silliness that these sandbox-games encourage is contradictory to the serious stories that these games have.
Which (finally) takes us back to Saints Row: The Third. Here, narrative and genre exist in perfect harmony. Unique amongst contemporary sandbox games, ludonarrative dissonance is not a problem to Saints Row. The game's world, characters, visuals, and narrative operate with the game's mechanics as a cohesive whole. While Red Dead Redemption's world was populated with incidental collectibles, minigames, and animals meant for hunting, Saints Row's world is populated with spontaneous challenges such as hidden ramps, wide-open roads for powersliding, and narrow alleys for running pedestrians over.
Its also fitting that Saints Row is juvenile, filthy, and ridiculous. Gang leaders are worshipped like celebrities, criminal organizations operate like record labels, and the civilians of Steelport live in a strange mix of veneration and fear of the Third Street Saints, as quick to run away from the player as to beg for an autograph. Phallic imagery bounces about from weaponry to in-world advertisements. Minigames range from throwing oneself into incoming traffic to collect insurance money to riding about in a flaming ATV trying to set pedestrians ablaze. Intertextual references are too numerous to count. Everything about Saints Row's fixed narrative frames the player's behavior in Steelport's sandbox in an appropriate manner.
All this extends to the game's mechanics, which both expect and reward free-form, "paida"-type play. "Respect", which amounts to experience points, is rewarded for successfully completing the spontaneous challenges that players may set for themselves, such as bowling over pedestrians with power-slides, surfing atop moving vehicles, and dodging between incoming traffic, leading to character upgrades and other extrinsic rewards. Saints Row is cognizant that players are going to behave in violent and silly ways, and thus structures itself to reward such behavior.
All that I'm saying here is that Saints Row provides a rare example of an open-world crime game actually making sense narratively. Perhaps this owes itself to the game's self-proclaimed "ultra-postmodernism", which becomes particularly blatant after the "http://deckers.die" mission. Ultimately, the silly, self-aware humor of the game creates the only kind of narrative appropriate for the sandbox genre. In retrospect, perhaps games like Red Dead Redemption and Sleeping Dogs would have benefitted narratively by limiting player freedom or picking out a more fitting genre for the kind of story that they try to tell.