Walking the line – Volition on courting controversy, gender equality and Saints Row IV

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The fourth Saints Row game completes the series’ mutation from brazen GTA ‘tribute’ to all-out caricature. Where the first game attempted to throw players into an openworld based around gritty gang warfare – effectively sold to players as a stopgap until GTA IV came along – this fourth game takes in alien invasions, US presidents with superpowers and alternate worlds.

The slowly-escalating ludicrousness of the series has been matched by a steadily improving reputation. Associate producer Kate Nelson notes that in years gone by, people were a little afraid to say they actually liked Saints Row. “I think now people are now having fun and laughing along with us,” she tells me.

I wonder whether this is deliberate – high profile console games have little time for humour right now, so is Saints Row IV some small attempt to redress that balance? “A lot of games tend to be more serious because that’s where the audience is gravitating – ‘hey, this is selling let’s keep making more of them’  – we’re trying something a little bit different,” says Nelson.

It’s genuinely refreshing to encounter a large-scale console game so unconcerned with chasing some vague notion of credibility; Volition hasn’t drafted in a Hollywood scriptwriter for its plot, or released trailers full of epic, sweeping vistas soundtracked by Inception-alike orchestral pieces for Saints Row IV. It has embraced Saints Row’s status as the consoles business’ clown, though some aren’t so forgiving of dildo bats and alien anal probes. Volition and publisher Deep Silver have had difficulty getting the game through Australia’s famously fussy ratings board, and during the press event at which I met Nelson, I wondered whether the provocatively-dressed poledancers hired to gyrate at those in attendance might cause yet another sexism-in-games storm. How far is too far with Saints Row?

“I did not always love how much THQ put an emphasis on porn stars,” says Nelson. “In Saints Row 2 and Saints Row 3 there was an emphasis on the penthouse girls, and earlier Tera Patrick. I think it’s important in marketing games to make sure that the essence of the game is what’s being marketed, and I think the porn star angle didn’t really fit in with what Saints Row is at heart, which is a parody. We like to poke fun.”

Nelson is keen to point out that, in terms of its portrayal of women, Saints Row IV is a little more progressive than previous games. But that might not have come through in how the game has been portrayed thus far. “You can be an important female character – you don’t have to have a D cup either,” she says. “You can be large woman, a small woman – you can be blue. You can be who you want to be in the game and you have powerful female characters written into the narrative.

“I think our game actually does represent women in a positive way, but the press will focus on, oh hey, there are strippers, or there’s a dildo bat – it’s unfortunate from my perspective that that doesn’t come through. Because I hear women talk on panels and they’re like ‘there are no people that look like me in games’. Well, actually in my game [the main character] can look like you as our customization system is so extensive. We don’t get that across in our marketing or in the press because it’s difficult – we only have 30 seconds to explain.”

THQ’s promotion of Tera Patrick as a ‘special producer’ on Saints Row 2, in particular, was a move that some at Volition “didn’t appreciate,” says Nelson.

“Saying that someone who had no industry experience was in a role that is sexualised as a producer of our project, or saying the penthouse girls are our QA staff – I just…I can see the humour in that angle of promotion but for me that’s the line where it gets into reality.

“Saints Row, in lots of ways, has empowered minorities and empowered women, which I think is important to get across.”

Though it might protest, Volition’s fourth Saints Row game won’t ever be held up as some bastion of gender equality or, indeed, good taste. But that doesn’t make it any less legitimate as a piece of entertainment – a guilty pleasure of a videogame, sure, but one which its associate producer insists doesn’t ever cross the line. How it is marketed might be a different matter altogether.