Evolving over the years from an unremarkable Grand Theft Auto-esque also-ran into a stand-out comedy series, Volition's Saints Row franchise has taken the concept of open-world humor and turned it into a personal brand.
Its latest installment, Saints Row 4, serves as a self-aware upending of its own sandbox, into which it has inserted superpowers, aliens and deliberately glitched NPCs. Gamasutra sits down with Volition creative director Steve Jaros and principal designer Scott Phillips to talk about the philosophy of the Saints Row franchise: its humor, its empowerment of players, and searching for a note of difference within the triple-A industry.
"When you're just trying to be fun and whimsical, you can be fun and whimsical.""The basic principle is that Saints Row relishes in the fact that it is a video game," says creative director Steve Jaros, who has served as lead writer on the franchise since its first installment. "We don't have pretense of being anything other than what we are, and there's a certain amount of freedom that comes out of that."
"A lot of the ideas end up coming up organically," explains principal designer Scott Phillips. "There's definitely a core sort of structure that is set early on, but then we leave ourselves mentally open to the idea that something's going to come in partway through the process to change how the thing feels; change the nature of it."
Jaros cites a particular example regarding the opening tutorial mission of the game, which serves as a homage to a number of shooter franchises and action films. Toward the end of the mission, the player character must disarm a nuke as it's flying toward Washington, D.C. -- typical over-the-top Saints Row flavor. However, the team decided it needed something to tie everything together.
Someone suggested inserting Aerosmith's "Don't Want to Miss a Thing", from the film Armageddon.
"This was coming in at pretty much zero hour," says Jaros. "[We didn't] know if we could get the money for it... So we brought in [senior producer Jim Boone]. 'Oh, fucking do it!' he said. And then he just walked back out of the room."
"In a weird way it's become this sort of Dadaist wonderland," Jaros continues. "I enjoy making something that's able to celebrate what it is... When you're just trying to be fun and whimsical, you can be fun and whimsical. So I think that's one of the advantages that we've had, that we're not trying to be this overtly serious piece."
Pop culture as character building exerciseThe Saints Row series is filled with licensed music like the Aerosmith homage. In addition to giving the franchise a note of polish and popular accessibility, it also serves as a way to connect the player with characters. One cornerstone of the games from the second installment onward is a "sing-along" section with one of the supporting characters.
"A lot of effort goes into finding the perfect sing-along [track]," says Jaros. "We wanted to do another one in SR4, [but we agreed] that if we're going back to the well again we need something that feels different. So we wanted to make it feel more like a back-and-forth between the player and [support character] Pierce."
There are actually multiple sing-alongs in the mission, with a later one being interrupted -- via not-exactly breaking the fourth wall -- by the game's main antagonist.
"I also think the writers did an amazing job of taking what could've been a one-off 'oh well, it's the sing-along mission' and turning it into a mission about Pierce and the player talking about their relationship," says Phillips. "They actually made it into a deeper element of character-building."
"In my opinion one of the biggest strengths of Saints Row is that it is the same characters [in each game]," Jaros adds. "They grow and talk about things that happened in the past. When you're doing that, not only is it fun to write missions for, but as a player you're seeing your old friends. And that was the kind of thing we wanted Saints Row 4 to be: it was a hug."
"The loyalty missions were an interesting thing because, developmentally, it's difficult to get yourself past the idea of 'well, not everybody's gonna see this, and not everybody cares about these characters, so do we want to do this?'" Phillips poses. He notes that in Saints Row the Third, the development team decided against any sort of loyalty mission feature for that reason. "On SR4 we sort of changed our minds. In a way we're bringing this group of characters to a finale, so let's let the player spend some time with them, get to know them a little more, learn what happened to them."
The interactions are generally lighthearted and humorous, but also reveal a heart of gold within each character. The team was particularly interested in bringing emotional closure to a relationship between the player's character and series favorite Johnny Gat.
"We took the approach of Saints Row 4 to be all about fanservice," Jaros says frankly. "And part of fanservice is letting people spend time with characters that they like and also making whatever they're doing with them enjoyable. Basically everything that we do in Saints Row 4 stems from that."
Keeping that fanservice within the momentum of the gameplay was also important to the team. "That's where we sort of excel," Phillips says. "It's not just simply that you can go to the ship and just talk to [team members], which I think most games would tend to rely on. We try to take that dialogue delivery, and that character building, and wrap it into an over-the-top, crazy, fun, enjoyable mission."
"Can we have a fuckbuddy system?"One of the features added to Saints Row 4's more space-themed setting is a "romance" option for each of the player's teammates. It's sure to remind more than a few of Mass Effect and similar games, for which the romances often involve carefully buttering up a character by saying the right things.
"The ship [as a main hub] lent itself very easily to something akin to what [BioWare] had done in regards to friendship," says Phillips. But where Mass Effect involves a roster of obligations -- "you gotta talk to someone for several missions, you gotta get all the dialogue options just right, you gotta talk to them at just the right time in order to possibly get into this romance situation" -- this title takes a more direct road to gratification.
"Our attitude was very, nope, this is Saints Row, you push the button and you're having sex," Phillips declares.
The idea for the push-button sexual gratification -- which in years past might have registered as a television news scandal but nowadays pales in comparison to some of Saints Row's other features, like an enormous baseball bat-shaped like sex toy -- emerged during project meetings with the core team. It was initially proposed by art director Stephen Quirk.
"He said, 'hey, can we have something like a fuckbuddy system?'" Jaros recalls. "And we went, 'oh my god, that's the best idea we've heard.'"
Despite the name, the scenes run the gamut from very casual propositions to tender moments between long-time comrades. "I think it's interesting what we were able to go and do with the romances," Jaros reflects. "We have players who are bi, or gay, or straight, and it doesn't matter if you're a man or a woman, you have the exact same romances as everybody. I love that. It allows people to bring their own wants into their own experience, and I think that's pretty fucking cool, actually. It allows a lot of interesting things to come out as a result of that."
Broadening the emotional range of games"I don't know if as an industry we need to be playing it looser and be funnier. I think the market decides what we should be making more or less of. Since Saints Row has been successful, clearly there's a desire for that," Phillips says matter-of-factly. Saints Row 4 moved one million units in its first week and at time of writing remains near the top of the charts at various retailers.
"I think anything that keeps everything from feeling homogenous is a good thing," adds Jaros. "It's great to see different points of view and different takes on things. Anything that's different and refreshing is a wonderful thing."
Jaros praises recent releases including Naughty Dog's The Last of Us and Telltale's The Walking Dead for broadening the emotional range of triple-A games. He maintains that the player can get any sort of emotional reaction from a game, and that as long as developers aren't turning away from exploring that range of emotion and experience, the outcome will be a positive one.
"It can be serious, it can be funny, it can be whatever. As long as it's just not doing the same shit that everyone else is doing, then there's something interesting happening and that's what art's all about."
"I'm glad that there's a whole group of people who are trying to dig deeper into games, why we play, how we can do our medium better," Phillips continues. "I think games are probably the fastest changing and growing medium. We don't really rest on our laurels very often."