It's impossible to talk about this game without talking about some Rockstar games, so I'm gonna do that a bit.
I'm not a game historian and I haven't got the time right now to go look on Wikipedia or google an inevitably insightful article called The History of Rockstar, but with my broad brush I'm going to paint a picture: Rockstar is a developer which used to make games about killing people. Now they make games about individuals who are mired in the ethical quandries of killing people, and some people think this is art.
The argument goes that, despite not being very good either as narratives or games, these titles at least display an intention to have something to say, and so should be commended for going above and beyond games that don't 'say' anything. This is wrong. These are games in which the player is in control of the protagonists retarded brother, a la Lenny in of Mice and Men, interrupting the protagonist's personal journey for redemption or peace of mind with a single-minded desire to murder people by shooting them in the face. In Red Dead Redemption, tortured cowboy John Marston is looking for the man who betrayed him and left him for dead. It is convenient that in order to do so he must kill hundreds of people with lots of finely-tuned weapons and a machine gun mounted on the back of a horse-drawn carriage.
Some people figured it out: Call of Duty isn't about politics or patriotism or anything like that. It's about finding an excuse for the elation we feel when slaughtering humanoids. It's almost comical the lengths the game goes to to justify what it is you are doing: THE RUSSIANS THEN LIKE TOTALLY INVADED EUROPE AND BLEW UP A CHILD AND SHOT UP AN AIRPORT THOSE DICKS. Games like Red Dead Redemption provide nothing more than a strong excuse. Marsden's quest for redemption and reconciliation is an internal justification, which contextualises the actions of the player as necessary for the advancement of Marston as a chess piece in a series of events constituting a 'narrative'. Don't let this distract you from the fact that these games are still juvenile power-fantasies as have existed for aeons in the pantheon of videogamedom. These games are lying to you.
Saints Row: The Third only lies to you a little. The majority of it is absolutely bananas, so tonally it can accommodate you playing the game for the story or playing the game how you want (that is to say, like a maniac). There is a mission where you play as a toilet. You run up to people and melee them and you play the same animation as usual, except you are a toilet. The lid flaps up and down. If you cannot see the genius in this then really don't know what to say. To list all the similar bits I liked would ruin the only part of this game worth talking about. Whilst the game is a succession of inventive contexts, the gameplay remains consistently only just above average the whole time; not well designed, just well written.
I thought this was charming at first. It was a game that liked fast cars because they go VROOOM. It was a game that liked guns because they go BANGBANG and make people fall over. It was a game that wallowed in itself, yelling proudly from the rooftops 'I symbolise nothing!'
Once I'd finished the game's missions, I searched it's overworld for more of this insanity. After a short while I realised what I was actually doing was playing this other, really boring game where you go from one floating 'for sale' sign to another pressing the y button to make various numbers go up and down. If the number that I needed to be up wasn't up enough I could go into the pause menu and make it go up automatically, an ability I had received as a reward for going up to signs and pressing the y button. If I really wanted something to do there were mini-games to play, but I only put up with that shit in No More Heroes because it was necessary for progression and satirical. This is neither. This is doing a number of activities just as much as I want numbers to go up. Do I want that? Should I want that? All I know is that I wanted to play this game a whole lot more when it was lying to me.
Let's talk about Grand Theft Auto again. I was eleven years old when I 'played' San Andreas. Usually when I say I played x, I mean 'having engaged with the content of x in a manner of which the developer intended'. I don't classify using the disk to hold my page in a book as 'playing' it, even though I paid for the disk and I could do that with it. Neither do I 'play' Alan Wake when instead of moving to the next trigger I try hopelessly to jump off a bridge. Though I say I 'played' San Andreas, I never touched more than like two missions. I played this other game that was there on the disk, where I put all the cheats on and ran around killing a whole lot of people, usually in really fucked up ways.
There's a lot of moral outrage about that kind of thing, but lets forget the question of whether those games were right or wrong because that question is always boring*. Let's consider for a moment why people were outraged: this was a game that let people engage in violent acts, and for many was a kind of implicit endorsement of said acts. Now I dont tend to think that the folks at rockstar want people to buy a sniper rifle, find a good spot and kill as many police officers as possible, but I think they're well aware of the nihilistic power fantasy it represents, and they've gone to lengths to accommodate that.
The cities in these games weren't intended to be simulations. Policemen didn't get called from the station and drive there. Citizens weren't rushed to hospital. Hot dog stand owners didn't have wives to feed. So when people in the games media call these 'living breathing worlds' they are stupid and maybe indicating there is something wrong with their brains. The minutia of these worlds are clearly generated as you turn the corner of every street. Go up a crane and look below, and the sollipsism of these worlds is patently obvious. These worlds gain their power from how they superficially represents an urban environment, not how the game simulates one. Each story mission occurs in the same environment populated with enough agents to make a car chase exciting as you rocket past them. My eleven year old self was perverting this.
I mean what was I doing, really? I was living out the fantasy of going out into the street, stopping a taxi in the street and shooting him through the windscreen**. This city to me was a crude representation of human activity that I could use to live out violent fantasies without the consequences of being shot dead or being arrested or even having it reflect on my character. I wasn't a person who did violent things in the real world, even though, and despite the fact, I had some desire to.
So in Saints Row 3 if you shoot a random civilian they flip through the air ridiculously. The police show up and after a few minutes you begin to notice that the civilians aren't there any more. It's just a load of buff dudes with guns shooting at you. Same with gangs. I used to get into fights with the police in GTA, but there I was going fucking crazy in a city to scare people and have the police come after me, and then I get to bazooka a police car, because that caveman part of my brain thought that was so fucking cool. Eventually the army would show up: the army! I'd kill them too, steal their tanks, it was pretty cool. Getting the gangs to hate you in Saints Row 3 causes them to send big muscled dudes who can flick cars away, a guy with a flame-thrower, and Ramona Flowers from Scott Pilgrim. The decision to have being in trouble feel like that probably came from a slide in a Powerpoint presentation early on in development titled 'enemy variety', but what it means is that going crazy in a city doesn't feel like going crazy in a city. It feels like playing a video game where enemies keep attacking you, especially when you get flying motorcycles with gatling guns or tanks with laser beams. This isn't a call to realism, it's a call to representational simulation, you feel me?
When I was enjoying this game, as a series of well-designed linear missions set in an interesting world connected by at the very least outlandish narrative tissue, I noticed that his game loves its toys but cant think of anything interesting to do with them, so it just kinda gives you them and asks you to figure it out. This would be cool but, like I said, going crazy in this world has no representational value, and frankly has no game value either, since the coolest things are usually aerial vehicles, and enemies can't really effectively attack you while you're up there. There is also no opportunity to, say, come up with a strategy of using the flying motorcycle you got to complete this mission faster. So you get all this cool shit that's no fun to use in this world and impossible to use in this mission. This is reason #2345 this game is not as good as Volition's previous Red Faction Guerilla, which I'm now content to write off as a fluke.
Saints Row The Third superficially resembles a kind of heightened GTA III, but inside it's rotten core of a heart it's just a GTA III that's divorced itself from reality so completely that it violent escapades aren't so provocative. It doesn't appeal to that fucked up part of my brain that wants to just randomly murder people, and accusations of encouraging violent behaviour seem trivial*** in the face of it's absurdity. Beyond attitude it's not really a very interesting game. Do you want that? Are you looking for that? Or are you looking for a game that doesn't lie to you as much as play with you, nodding and winking at it's own adolescent absurdity? I don't know. Who are you? Why am I asking you again?
* The answer is neither! I am a philosophy student and am qualified to say this.
** was this only added in GTA IV? I can't remember
*** Accusations of sexism + a severely fucked up sense of sexual morality are not however. Women in this game are constantly parading themselves around with little more than two strips of fabric placed over their giant swinging mammary glands. There's also an explicit division between men and women's clothes that largely hinges on how much cleavage was programmed into your character at the outset. The only way to not look ridiculous as a woman is to wear men's clothes, and while I appreciate that they give you that option (as well as the option for men to do vice versa), I'm made more than a little uncomfortable by the suggestion that women are creatures whose sexuality must perpetually be on show.
And MY GOD is this game afraid of sex. It is full of sexy characters who are supposed to be adults but the only things implied to actually be doing it are varieties of basically mute sex workers. The only explicitly sexual act reference in the game is when a man is anally raped repeatedly by leather clad gimps in an S&M club. In the world of Saints Row sex is a means be which people control each other, and a form of violence perpetrated by sick, crazed individuals. My understanding was that this game was developed by grown-ups but I'm not quite sure.