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The experimental art house antics of Saints Row IV's 'Enter the Dominatrix' Exclusive

The experimental art house antics of  Saints Row IV 's 'Enter the Dominatrix'
November 26, 2013 | By Kris Ligman

Gamasutra contributing editor Kris Ligman presses Volition creative director Steve Jaros for the real story behind the Saints Row IV's recently released 'Enter The Dominatrix' DLC, which began life as a Saints Row the Third expansion pack and ended as a work in experimental interactive cinema.

Gamasutra: So let's get this cleared up right from the start: how did 'Enter the Dominatrix' start, which game was it meant to be part of, and how did it get to be a Saints Row IV DLC?

Steve Jaros: Okay, this is actually really fucking complicated.

So, 'Enter the Dominatrix' started as DLC for Saints Row the Third. It was a kind of expansion pack that we wanted to go and do. And while that was happening, we were working on Saints Row IV. And we realized we had basically everybody working on those two things and no one was working on other stuff, so we killed Saints Row 3.5, which was going to be a bridge between The Third and IV. We shoved some of 3.5 into IV and killed the rest of it, looked at what was left behind and used that stuff for the theme of our first DLC pack, which was 'Enter the Dominatrix'.

So it started as an expansion pack, it became DLC, there were a whole lot of messy things that happened in the middle, and the next thing you know you have a reality show and the soda can prop and the raptors.

It's interesting to look at the final result, because EtD wears its rough edges with pride, I would say. It is very much aware of its own muddy history and looks and acts like an internal design document sometimes. And in that fact it's really showing the average player something that actually happens all the time in game development, but which the player rarely gets to see: all these different evolutionary paths a game could have taken. What drove the studio's decision to release it this way?

SJ: Because Saints Row is a comedy game it affords us the ability to operate without boundaries. So it was just kind of a fun way to go and address some of the players' questions about what happened with 3.5, for instance.

The things in 'Enter the Dominatrix' were, obviously, touched up. We're not just going to go and ship something that was two, three years old. But the spirit of it remains true. Donnie, for instance, was indeed the hero of EtD. The entire game was about Donnie's journey. Donnie was Morpheus, teaching and training you, helping you through these scenarios. And Lin was in it. There are a bunch of things that were very different. For the DLC, clearly it was impractical for all the cutscenes to play out how we'd originally conceived them, so we had the interview section of Donnie complaining that he got cut, and so on. It was a fun way, in the end, to revisit what we did before, show a bit of how the sausage is made, while still making it new and interesting.

Speaking of sausage making, that was one of the more charming aspects of the DLC for me: when you use animatics (animated storyboards) in place of some full-motion cutscenes. Were those actual internal sketches, or created specifically for this DLC?

SJ: Oh, those were created just for this! That was just us having fun. It speaks to truths, of things that happened, of course, but we put our own spin on it to have a little bit more fun with presentation. No one wants to see monochromatic people in T-pose sliding around, it doesn't really work [for an audience], but if you add a little more whimsy, some colorful pictures, it makes it a little more palpable.

How about the DLC's framing device, the behind-the-scenes featurette-styled interviews? When and how did that come about?

SJ: We were looking at what we had and asked ourselves: what is the methodology for introducing this stuff that 'used to be' but 'isn't now'?

In my mind there wasn't a really good way for us to incorporate this and have it be a part of the main story. Particularly because we were taking the highlighted moments [of the initial planned expansion pack] and tweaking them around a little bit. We were distilling down to the exciting stuff, cutting away the boring things, and having it be this confessional, an opportunity to go and play, to joke about things that used to be or didn't necessarily happen. It creates a whole lot of opportunities for stories and more whimsy, which I'm a fan of, in general, in my life. I want more mirth.

It's also, perhaps inadvertently, reminiscent of this growing trend in games to offer audio commentary modes and other behind-the-scenes features. Did you ever entertain the idea of going completely outside the fourth wall and address players as the developers?

SJ: You know, it's weird. We talk about that every once in a while, because we think it'd be really fun. It just never ended up happening or we didn't have enough time to go and do it. I also question who would want to hear me drone on and on. But it is interesting, and there are a lot of fun stories that come up when you're in development -- sometimes truth is stranger than fiction like that.

In my view the DLC is very experimental, in the way we call some films experimental. The defining moment for me was the live-action puppetry you use in place of a cutscene, filmed with a soda can and a toy spaceship. Part of it, I imagine, was for reasons of budget, but was there more to it?

SJ: We actually did a prototype of that cutscene with some of our fans here, puppets and everything. In the end [rather than model it in the game engine] we decided to actually go and film it like that. I sort of wish we went with something more in keeping with their original prototype, with a Coke can they had colored over in purple and stuff -- it was hilarious -- but it would have been recreating something that had been made in earnest, you know?

I follow you. So, looking forward, there's another Saints Row IV story DLC on the way, 'How the Saints Saved Christmas'...

SJ: Oh, man. This is my favorite fucking thing that I have ever written. It will be experimental as well, but not in the way that 'Enter the Dominatrix' is.

The way I would put it is to think about the genre that we're trying to play with. 'Enter the Dominatrix' was a DVD feature. You have storyboards, behind-the-scenes commentary, interviews, deleted scenes, unfinished assets, and all that plays into those conventions. 'How the Saints Saved Christmas' is a Christmas story, and as a result there are conventions and moments that are tied to that, and that is what we're celebrating.

It literally is Saints Row as a Christmas parable. That opens up so many wonderful, stupid things that are just a joy. We're like giddy children over here. Working with the actors on it has been like constant evil giggles.

There is one part of it I can talk about, because we didn't end up using it. It kind of speaks to the way that we looked at it. With sincere earnestness, we investigated doing something in claymation, like, can we have it feel like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer? The answer was no -- we couldn't do it for the budget, it wasn't feasible. But that was the sort of thing that we looked at. You'll see it soon.

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