Spoiler Territory: Saint's Row: The Third

Site contributor Tyler Martin has come up with a great concept for a series of articles. By it's nature (and as you can tell from its title), this will deal with spoilers for Saints Row: The Third. You've officially been warned.

Ask any writer: endings are hard.  To create a conclusion that feels satisfying after hours of investment by the audience, an author needs to reward the diligent, paying attention to every clue without punishing the more mild and passive consumer who may have missed a step along the way. It’s a problem in nearly every story-telling medium and possibly even more so in games. If a game isn’t fun, players likely won’t bother to finish it, regardless of the narrative. Not only does a developer need to tie up all the loose story threads, they need to do it in a way that is challenging and fits with the gameplay style. Games should finish in a way that is satisfying from a narrative and a design perspective; if either is lacking, then the ending feels anti-climactic — or worse, it can make the player feel cheated. And the developer must do all this while often leaving room for a sequel or franchise expansion to satiate their publisher. Because of the high degree of difficulty and number of plates that must be balanced, games that get the ending right deserve to be praised. One such game is Volition, Inc.’s 'Saints Row: The Third.'

On first glance, the ‘Saints Row’ games look like a ‘Grand Theft Auto’ imitation with excessively sophomoric humor. The game reaches a superb balance, however, and in the open-world action genre, hilarious bugs, absurd A.I. routines and responses are a regular occurrence. What Volition did was create a setting and a narrative that matches the absurdity of its gameplay and design.

A common flaw in open world titles is the game-breaking moment that ruins the player’s immersion, either through some bug  or cognitive dissonance between the story and play style. The ‘Grand Theft Auto’ and ‘Elder Scrolls’ series are rife with moments like these. In Saints Row, these moments are all but impossible. The setting of Steelport could never be confused with an actual locale; it isn’t a place, it’s a digital playground. A criminal gang are national celebrities with soft drinks and bobble-head figures, a local game show is centered around killing sprees perpetrated by individuals in mascot costumes, and the mayor is Burt Reynolds. From the start, nothing is sacred and nothing will ever be taken seriously.

It was a risky proposition, as Volition created an experience where they constantly needed to keep upping the ante, crafting more insane missions that were equally impressive and entertaining. There are two possible endings, and Saints Row: The Third succeeds in creating fantastic game endings in both.

The setup for the story is such: martial law has been declared in Steelport and war has broken out between the protagonist's Third Street Saints, rival criminal empire The Syndicate (who are at this point in the game luchadores) and the federal defense agency S.T.A.G. (Special Tactics: Anti-Gang). The war has reached its breaking point, and the player is left with a choice: pursue Killbane, leader of The Syndicate and the game’s primary antagonist, as he attempts to leave the city by jet; or prevent S.T.A.G. from destroying a local monument, pinning the blame on the Saints as domestic terrorists. Both of these choices come with secondary missions to close out the campaign.

Should the player choose to go after Killbane, S.T.A.G. destroys the monument and is given authority to bring in a destructive airship, the Daedalus, to attack the Saints. The player must then fly to the ship and destroy it. Success cripples S.T.A.G. and the Saints take control of Steelport. They announce on television that the government response will be treated as hostile, and the player is the new mayor of the Steelport city-state.

If the player protects the monument, Killbane escapes — but the Saints are greeted as heroes and become celebrities again. The follow-up mission features the Saints pursuing Killbane and the Syndicate to Mars. It’s called "Gangstas in Space," though this is revealed to be a movie. Though the latter is the more creative of the two, both are ridiculous yet wholly appropriate for the story and tone established in the game — but, most importantly, they’re both fun and provide satisfying resolutions.

At the start of the game, the Saints are adored, despite their obvious criminal activities. Members are asked for their autographs *during* a bank heist; however, the Syndicate rolls in and cuts off their cash supply and throws them into a region where they have no control. The focus of the campaign then is to rebuild the Saints and get revenge in the process. Narratively, both endings close with the Saints in a position of power, but in a way that makes the potential of a sequel compelling. The compelling difference between the two finales is that one is closer to the status quo in setting and the other in it’s narrative finish. What makes both of Saints Row: The Third’s endings different from other games is the way they expand upon the tone of the game without a needlessly frustrating final mission — while still presenting new ideas.

Far and away however, my favorite part of the entire sequence is the music. Saints Row uses real world, non-orchestral music in its story better than any game since Bioshock played Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker piece “Waltz of the Flowers” during a confrontation with deranged artist Sander Cohen. During the penultimate mission, in which the player chooses their ending, they must drive to a specific point on the map to make the choice. During the drive, Bonnie Tyler’s seminal 1984 hit from the film ‘Footloose,' “Holding Out For A Hero,” plays over the radio. It’s a ridiculous moment in a game filled with ridiculous moments, but it somehow doesn’t feel out of place. That is what makes the entirety of Saints Row so satisfying: Volition created a world where anything can happen and nothing feels out of place, but what does happen and exists in the world fits so perfectly, it makes for a more enjoyable experience.

I like most of the games I play, but I finished Saints Row: The Third with a smile on my face, and that is not something I can say about many others.