Dumb Fun Has a Place

THQ’s new president believes Saints Row: The Third developers Volition can “make something that isn’t embarrassing”. Is Saints Row something to be embarrassed about, and is there a place for games like this?

[Clarification: Rubin has since claimed on Twitter that he did not intend his comments to be directly aimed at Saints Row: The Third. Brian Crecente also noted that this was not the intention — though the quote referenced in this article is still present.]

Jason Rubin, founder of Naughty Dog and the newly-appointed president of beleaguered publisher THQ, recently told Polygon that he considered Saints Row: The Third to be “embarrassing”.

“Why couldn’t that be a Red Dead Redemption or a Skyrim?” he asked. “I look at that title and I say, ‘who cares what it is and why it got to be what it is? From that team we can make something that isn’t embarrassing.”

Supposedly Rubin backpedaled somewhat after the interview, noting that he actually loved Saints Row: The Third but believed that the team was capable of more.

Interviewer Brian Crecente noted that he “wouldn’t want to be caught playing [Saints Row: The Third] by his wife or son” because it would be “embarrassing”, and Edge Magazine referred to the game as a “fratboyish endorsement of crime and female degradation, devoid of any conscience or commentary.”

Moral issues surrounding gaming are a hot topic right now, particularly given misogynistic articles from high-profile members of the press and vitriolic responses to female commentary on the medium. So it’s perhaps understandable to see people like Rubin and Crecente cast a sidelong glance at Saints Row: The Third and think “hmmm.”

Here’s the thing, though: Saints Row: The Third was great, and a lot of people agreed. With four million copies sold, it’s not like it can be called a failure. Were it not for THQ’s ill-advised uDraw Tablet fiasco, reports suggest that the title’s performance would have been enough for the publisher to break even rather than be in the dire straits it is right now.

This is Cardinal Sin. No further explanation is required, really.

Rubin’s attitude is somewhat worrying to me. Red Dead Redemption and Skyrim, the two titles he specifically calls reference to, are both indisputably well put together games — but I didn’t make it through either of them. Why? Because I got bored. Both of them took themselves so seriously throughout and were such heavy going that I eventually lost interest. The fact that neither of them were particularly interesting or fun to watch for my girlfriend, either, was also a contributing factor.

Saints Row: The Third, meanwhile, wears its heart on its sleeve. It’s loud, crass, brash, gratuitous and ridiculous. It lampoons everything that is stupid and dumb about “gangster” culture, consistently raises the stakes to new levels of utter insanity and, to boil it down to the most important fact that kept me playing (and my girlfriend happy to watch) — it is just plain fun, pure and simple. It has a story, sure, and quite an entertaining one, too — but the main point is to hoon around town having fun. It’s a playground like the old Grand Theft Auto titles used to be, and I wouldn’t change a thing.

This is why I find Rubin’s attitude disconcerting. In wanting to produce titles that he equates to Red Dead Redemption and Skyrim, he is devaluing “pure fun” titles like Saints Row: The Third and suggesting that they are less “worthy”. These titles have a place. They break up the relentless bleakness and brownness that makes up a lot of the triple-A space, and provide us with some much-needed levity. Going by the sales figures for Saints Row: The Third, too, plenty more people feel the same way.

Saints Row: The Third may not be a paragon of virtue. It may not provide deep, cutting social commentary. It may, at times, slip into “pandering to teenage male demographic” territory (though at the same time features a number of strong female characters — including, if the player desires, the protagonist; it also passes the Bechdel Test with flying colours) and it may be gratuitously offensive to almost everyone on the planet. But it does so with a song in its heart and a knowing wink to the player that it most certainly should not be taken in the slightest bit seriously.

I defy you not to laugh like an idiot when firing someone out of a “man cannon”.

We need diversity in this industry. We need titles like Red Dead Redemption and Skyrim that push the boundaries of storytelling and technology. But we need titles like Saints Row: The Third, too, to lighten things up — just as we need titles like Geometry Wars to show that “pure gameplay” experiences sans story still have a place, too. The gaming medium is constantly growing and changing and to specifically want to limit it only to titles that R SRS GAEM is incredibly short-sighted.

It makes me a little concerned for the inevitable Saints Row 4, if I’m honest. The Grand Theft Auto series lost its lustre for me somewhat when it started taking itself seriously, and Saints Row: The Third was noteworthy specifically for the fact it called to mind the over-the-top excesses of Rockstar’s PS2-era games, and provided evidence that there were some triple-A developers who haven’t forgotten how to be self-consciously silly.

I don’t want to lose that.