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The Self-Sabotage of Saints Row: The Third
by Taekwan Kim on 07/22/13 11:00:00 am   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


One hopes that the fundamental harms of trivializing sexual slavery and violent disempowerment of women (literal voice silencing via neck snap in one case) are rather self-apparent. Plus, I’m pretty sure that that topic in relation to Saints Row: The Third—and why it should be taken specifically seriously in a game that already trivializes mass murder for profit—has been covered quite thoroughly by authors more qualified than me.

So I’d like to use this post instead to take a slightly broader approach and discuss how SR3’s insistence on misogyny breaks engagement by shattering thematic focus. That, despite frequent protests to the contrary (that somehow SR3 wouldn’t be SR3 without it), it is indeed a contextual problem. And of course, I am thinking in particular of the entire Zimos chain of missions and activities.

But first, I need to talk about what makes SR3 so good.

The thing with SR3 is that it’s about the unconditional power and impunity of celebrity. It’s a distillation of the fantasy, made ever more visible and possible by the substantial financial successes of YouTube posters and tweeters-turned-screenwriters, that one’s “personality” and “special uniqueness” alone can build six figure incomes (never mind the diligence that went into those successes). It’s our generation’s American dream, the logical conclusion to the morphing of that dream from “the pursuit of financial security through diligence” to “the pursuit of instant and massive wealth”. Celebrity has become the most readily monetizable product of the day.

It’s a strange kind of commodity, too, when the more common it becomes, the more desirable and valuable it becomes, the greater the illusion becomes. And SR3 renders even this in superb fashion, and it does so mechanically, where the more levels of reputation the player achieves, the more nonsensically overpowered the player grows—an inspired harnessing of the paradox that the highest levels of agency in a game are the most desirable, and yet that unlimited agency conversely removes all meaning from gameplay.

Which is to say that SR3 captures the zeitgeist in a way that the GTA games never did. And this theme of the bi-directional spiraling of celebrity culture is communicated vividly from the very opening sequence.

Let’s analyze that opening sequence. The game begins with a “mock” bank robbery (real guns and explosives are brought anyway) that is also a publicity stunt and movie making exercise. In-game TV celebrity Josh Birk is tagging along, ostensibly to research his part in an upcoming movie featuring the Saints. He boasts about how his method acting demands he keep it “real”, then promptly trashes his method by trotting out media clichés of bombast instead of quietly observing the pros do their work.

Meanwhile, the criminals disguise themselves as themselves, donning franchised merchandise masks of their own likeness, from their own mass market brand, and comparing the making of “Japanese commercials” with grand larceny in terms of ease of profit. And the “work” consists of signing autographs and taking photos with fans.

Straight away, then, manufactured, Hollywood “authenticity” and the dictates of personality commodification overtake everyday logic, where even the police feign familiarity and request signatures in the middle of lethal shootouts (“Please autograph, and then put down, your gun”). It’s a blurring of the lines between in-game reality and in-game filmic fabrication (an idea bookended even more explicitly by the “Gangstas in Space” finale), and it plays on the idea that celebrity culture as modern day blood sport is concurrently both “intimate” and distanced.

Mechanically, this convergence is communicated by the helicopter and free fall sequences—what would, in any other situation, just be on-rails events. Instead, the conscious and overt placement of the player in heavily scripted scenes that so carefully follow the hyperbolic posturing of summer blockbusters, while giving the player the artificial invulnerability of action movie heroes, underlines their nature as rhetorical devices. They establish the protagonist’s status as an action hero made in-game flesh, while pointedly mocking this construct with amusingly unchallenging—that is, un-game-like—play. Thus, in just a handful of minutes, the game deftly equates stardom with omnipotence while mechanically satirizing that equation (and, by extension, aspiration) as a delusional farce.

The combined result is a tour de force encapsulation of the rapidly disappearing distinction between natural and constructed realities/identities, between celebrity (perceived) and (real) power, between the private and public spheres.

For a newcomer to the series like me, it’s a truly explosive introduction, and one that had me suddenly far more interested in SR4 than GTA5. In an age where Obama’s purported status as “the biggest celebrity in the world” is wielded against him, where he must carefully manage too frequently appearing with media stars just to avoid accusations of a presidency founded on celebrity alone, the leap in SR4 to that office is eminently logical—perhaps, genuinely relevant even.

But all this is what makes the “casual” sexism that ramps up to full-blown misogyny such a jarring thing. Where the rest of the game at the very least tangentially concerns itself with the power and ubiquity of fame, (social or other) media presence, and public relations—essentially, the commodification of the (conceptual) self—the first half of act 2 suddenly becomes about the power of sexual violence and the commodification of others (exclusively, women).

That makes Zimos's mission chain a non sequitur, as out of place, slip-shod, and tacked on as the zombie sequence later in the game. Even Kinzie’s arc pertains to constructed identities, revenge against a sabotaged self-image, and escorting informants of image destruction. Her obsession with privacy is the same as Angel’s obsession with regaining his mask—empowerment through a strictly, jealously guarded line between private and public egos. In stark contrast, the logic behind Zimos basically boils down to vengeance (against women) for his emasculation.

This sharp intrusion in the game’s thematic progress subsequently causes every incidence of careless discrimination and “benevolent sexism” to become constant reminders of that thematic failure. It becomes increasingly impossible to dismiss such lapses as poor characterization, and each break adds to the creeping suspicion that maybe SR3’s “kitchen sink” approach is actually the more egregious “throw anything at the wall until it sticks because we lack ideas” approach. The player ends up questioning whether the entire game wasn’t in fact just a hap-hazard, chance result. (This, of course, is not even mentioning how such persistent and blatant sexism mangles the experience anyway.)

That is to say, it undermines confidence in the deliberateness and quality of the game’s construction, which makes continuing to invest in it needlessly harder. It makes every other aspect of the game feel that much more loose, that much more disconnected. And it’s a sad situation when a well-crafted game starts to seem like a “lucked upon” one.

The problems don’t end there, however.

The blockbuster action hero is a male gendered entity. In other words, it’s not specifically sexualized. The player’s ability to play the protagonist as a female is therefore especially powerful, in some ways overtaking the considerable accomplishments of Commander Shepard herself, because of the unmitigated potency of SR3’s protagonist. It’s a set up that allows female Boss to handily out-Ripley Ripley; even that groundbreaking action hero ultimately succumbed to a forced maternalistic story arc of needing to protect a surrogate child.

The point here isn’t that the player should or needs to play female Boss so much as it is that, at least initially, doing so actually has the effect of strengthening and amplifying the theme beyond what can be achieved with male Boss. Again, the omnipotence of stardom trumps all other socially imposed values and hierarchies. The Boss’s authority is simply accepted by default.

But the introduction of sexual power in Zimos’s specifically misogynistic (as opposed to, for instance, generally misanthropic) manner insidiously warps the protagonist from one that embodies action hero conventions into one that’s just an embodiment of chauvinistic masculinity—a projector, if not receiver, of sexual objectification. By once again prioritizing male gender (or, at least, female objectification) as a prerequisite to power, this intrinsically damages the player’s engagement with its exercise, because now its source has been adulterated—it’s no longer about the power fantasy of fame. And player agency just doesn’t feel as concentrated moving forward.

Misogyny in SR3 is thus a crack in both the construction and the fiction of the game. And its dissonance threatens to bring down the whole dam. (And again, this is before we even take into account the inherent odiousness of sexism.)

At least, that was my personal experience with SR3. What began as a thrilled surprise at my tremendous mistake of assuming the game to be as terrible as it made itself out to be, eventually became a sincere disappointment that the game took it upon itself to be as terrible as it made itself out to be. It says a lot for the game, then, that I still stuck around until 90% completion, and I’ll probably go back for a co-op playthrough—that’s how enjoyable the gameplay was, a small indicator of how truly amazing and noteworthy it might have been.

Surely, in this day and age, SR3’s slavish adherence to the chauvinistic male perspective is costing as many, or more, fans as whatever gains it has generated. And the truth is that it’s precisely this which kept me from picking up the game—indeed, had me pretty much ignoring it—until it went on sale for $5 the other week (hence, the timing of this post).

It’s baffling that SR3 is so reluctant to appreciate its own merits, and its ill-defined, insecure need to “differentiate” itself ultimately results in self-damaging content. It’s not that the game needs to adopt a more serious tone and characterization or whatever—that actually would not serve its purpose. It’s simply that SR3 loses efficacy by diluting its satire. A game that could easily stand on its own two feet ends up selling itself short in the most unnecessary ways, and one can’t help but coming away feeling like the imperatives of (bad) marketing overtook the imperatives of design integrity.

A real shame.

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Michael Joseph
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SR is shameless in it's violence and chauvinism but the cyberpunk/VR/Sandbox angle and the blurring of the lines between performance and play, seem to offer a compelling interactive experience. It's over the top whacky-ness reminds me of SmashTV/Idiocracy/5th Element/WWF in a GTA IV engine.

Despite all it's depravity, one has to admit it has more than it's fair share of creativity and inventiveness. SR is not afraid to just color all outside of the lines and use the wrong colored paint on things and then let the player add their own colors to the canvas too.

Erin OConnor
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Does anyone know what the word SATIRE means?

Michael Joseph
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I do. But I guess if this was satire I missed it. I'm still missing it to be honest but it could be because this article with all it's big words is above my reading level. :D

Charles Battersby
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This article seems to be excellent satire of feminist rhetoric. Whatever fellow wrote this did an uncanny job of capturing that distinct phrasing used by college freshmen parroting their Intro To Feminist Theory professor. Of course he took it a little too far, even the most pretentious of feminists would never really say something as silly as "Embodiment of chauvinistic masculinity—a projector, if not receiver, of sexual objectification"

Taekwan Kim
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Yeah, sorry about that guys. I try, but my writing is still pretty terrible. Not exactly the most readable, its true.

Vin St John
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Great points, and I am glad you wrote this. This is actually the first bit of negative criticism of SR3 that I've read. I haven't gone looking for it, so I'm sure it's out there. I've just been disappointed (or at least, confused) by the incongruous messages I've seen about the game.

Michael Santora
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It's great to say something is a joke, but where is the humor in Zimo's missions or the general missions around prostitution? I'd say the only mission that makes a good joke out of it is early in the game when the "bitches" are brought around for the Saints party, and they all turn out to be assassins. The joke there being that just because you paid for someone, doesn't mean you know them or own them.

I very much like Saint's Row 3 as a game, but I am definitely on edge about a number of the things it portrays and the manner it chooses to portray them.

Mu LaFlaga
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The humor is in the gameplay itself - the core of the experience. IIRC you're riding in a helicopter shooting rockets at enemy vehicles all while the "hoes" are dangling out of a shipping container. Then there are missions where you're picking up hoes and taking them back to your safehouse for points - and killing their pimps in the process.

Sometimes a joke is just a joke, and a game really is just a game. I'm not sitting around wondering about the ramifications of collecting these fictitious hoes once they're at my safe house. I'm not wondering about whether the one I accidentally ran over now has a son I've orphaned, or how the fat one will earn her keep, or whether they've all been checked for STD's.

The reason for my pristine conscience stems from the fact that the things SR portrays and the manner in which it portrays them are always downright ridiculous. Even the devs who worked on the game continuously said in their interviews that their only focus was to make a game that put fun above all else.

Being that it's a sandbox where you play as a criminal (one that was much, much worse in part 2), I don't understand how people can get offended. If the humor or subject matter isn't for you, that's fine, but the game never made itself out to be anything it wasn't advertised to be.

...actually it was a lot smarter than it let on, but there was nothing in the game that shocked me to the point of revulsion because I expected it going in.

Nathan Ware
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Those assassin bitches are exactly the kind of thing that should have taken place at the end of "Ho Boat." I think that level in particular missed a chance to make their comedy more three dimensional.

Humor about sex and sex trafficking is only really funny if it's not making fun of the victims, and I would much rather have seen the hoes picking up rocket launchers from the other crates and blowing up all the boats and helicopters with you.

Nathan Ware
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I think, actually, your interpretation of Zimos as a character is off base. In your characterization of his missions as tilting the context of the game away from empowering the player toward disenfranchising women, I think you miss the context that Zimos himself brings to the game. Pretty much all of SR3 has fun at the expense of its characters' depictions of fame and success, and in Zimos' case they made a fake, slimy, clown out of the stereotypes of the sex trade. His outfit is the kind of pimp costume 14-year-olds buy at halloween stores; he smokes out of his tracheotomy hole; he can only talk through the use of his pimp cane, and the audio of his voice is horrendously auto-tuned. Though he commoditizes women all the time, he acts more as a foil for the main character, who refers to the women as 'employees' rather than 'hos.' Zimos as a character pokes fun at the entire identity of the misogynist, and the partnership he and the player have is an off-putting necessity.

I will admit that the coup-de-grace volition could have used would be to have the women themselves defy the stereotypes of prostitutes (or go even more over the top). Especially in the "Ho Boat" mission, where the player releases his/her rival gang's prostitutes for personal gain, their quips when the player releases them are all cries of trauma from their situation. If later in the mission, all these women had armed themselves and helped players fight back, then the stereotypes of the helpless courtesan would have been foiled.

It was a necessity that Volition had to touch on the sex trade in a game about and international crime syndicate. it could have been much worse, and I don't think you're entirely on the money as far as narrative disconnect goes.

Taekwan Kim
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Hi everyone. Firstly, I want to express my appreciation for the time taken to consider and respond to this post. Obviously, the subject matter is rather loaded, and it means a lot to me that effort was made to digest what appears to be (my) minority opinion.

I also want to say that I wrote this post because I actually care about the game. Despite what are, in my opinion, some serious problems, there are also many aspects to it that are genuinely amazing. Part of the purpose of this post was to try to work out for myself the internal conflict and ambivalence I experienced in my 50 hours (thus far) with the game. That is to say, it's not meant to be a blanket condemnation.

Lastly, my aim here was to argue that, we can actually ignore the degrading impact of sexism and _still_ it would remain problematic, because its inconsistent usage as a primary instrument of power conflicts with the main theme of _celebrity_ as the overriding instrument of power. Of course, whether or not my reading of the various power dynamics has merit is debatable (and thank you, Mr. Ware, for specifically arguing against that reading).

Heliora Prime
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I like the game, one of the very few I finished after playing Dark Souls (I had that dilemma, what to do after Dark Souls, because it made almost every game look bad).

And frankly, I wasn't that disturbed by all the so called misogyne going on since I used a muscular female with russian accent to play through. I laughed my ass of at times, humor is so over the top.

But I do agree, there's some objectification, but don't forget all the male prostitutes (the bondage slave dudes). And there was that big guy they found hanging nude etc. The game clearly says that the whole "hoes and sex" stuff is ridiculous. And don't forget, there are also plenty of female soldiers shooting and kicking.

I would like a bit more realism and challenge in the gameplay, no health regeneration & 44 ammo clips.

I think the game is just an over the top mirror of reality. Because sexism and objectification is EVERYWHERE.
If it wasn't such a big deal in real life, the game couldn't try to make jokes about that aspect of modern society.