Surrealist Row IV
The Saints Row franchise has had an interesting trajectory – it started off as a relatively straight-forward clone of Grand Theft Auto, but with each iteration has evolved into its own very unique entity, primarily by pushing the boundaries of expectations and humor. After all, a baseball bat shaped like a giant purple dildo isn’t exactly the most common sight, even in a genre full of crazy weapons. But Saints Row IV delivered something else entirely – it was both a natural gameplay evolution in the series and a revolution in terms of the overall package. Saints Row IV is a surrealist masterpiece of a game, delivered in an odd, yet accessible package that could have a lasting impact on the industry.
A quick refresher on surrealism
I’m no expert on the surrealist movement; in fact my knowledge of it was minimal to start and remains minimal as a whole. But as I thought about Saints Row IV, I struggled to find the right terminology to describe my experience. I started with absurdism, as much of the story, events and actions could certainly be described as absurd. Absurdism though is more about the futile efforts of ascribing meaning where there is none (see: the works of Albert Camus). I contemplated satire, and although there’s plenty of that in Saints Row IV, it wasn’t encompassing enough. Eventually I landed on surrealism as the likely best fit, and the more I read about the movement, the more it felt appropriate. So for those out there, who are as limited in their surrealist knowledge as I was, here’s a quick refresher on the key elements of the genre according to Wikipedia:
“Surrealism is a cultural movement that began in the early 1920s, and is best known for its visual artworks and writings. The aim was to “resolve the previously contradictory conditions of dream and reality”. Artists painted unnerving, illogical scenes with photographic precision, created strange creatures from everyday objects and developed painting techniques that allowed the unconscious to express itself.”
For those unfamiliar with Saints Row IV, here’s the quick synopsis: after the player, a notorious gang leader, is elected president of the United States, aliens invade and blow up earth. The player wakes up in a 1950’s style simulation without violence, only to have the world collapse around them because of a distinct lack of reality/believability. Zinyak, the alien leader, changes up the simulation to better reflect the world the player grew up in, only for the player to gradually hack the simulation, gain superpowers (super sprint, jump, glide, stomp, telekinesis, etc.) along with a host of weapons, both usual (pistols, SMGs, rifles, shotguns) and unusual (alien versions of the usual weapons, a bat shaped like a tentacle called “the violator,” and my personal favorite, the “dubstep gun” which blasts deafening dubstep music that makes people and objects dance until they explode). Once the player hacks enough of the simulation, they can leave and visit a spaceship that houses their non-player character (NPC) allies to conduct rescue and assault missions in reality. To re-enter the simulations, the player enters a kind of virtual reality plug-in pod and off they go.
Resolving dream and reality
From the moment the game kicks off, Saints Row IV is set up as a 1:1 analog for exploring surrealism. The simulation represents the dream state of the player – the area where the player can exceed their normal human abilities by gaining a variety of superpowers, running faster than cars, jumping over buildings, gliding through the cityscape, grabbing throwing items with the powers of their mind and using otherwise inconceivable weapons to defeat a litany of alien enemies.
The events outside of the simulation serve as reality. The player loses their superpowers and must rely on their natural abilities to defeat enemies, except in special cases where they can use a mech suit to regain some of their super strength, speed and leaping abilities. The difference between the superpowers and a mech suit is in the fluidity of the motions. The mech suit, of course, feels more cumbersome to control, has longer recharge times and can suffer damage.
Luckily, the player spends most of the game within the simulation gaining new skills and mastering how to use them – essentially, the simulation serves as a training ground to master the use of these powers so they’re primed and ready for the final battle against Zinyak via the mech outside of the simulation.
If surrealism is about reconciling dream and reality, the final battle against Zinyak is just that. Every skill and power acquired in the dream state (simulation) is now at the player’s disposal for a real life battle (reality).
Great, Saints Row IV is a surrealist video game, why should gamers and developers care? Because as I thought about my video game experiences, I struggled to pinpoint many other surrealist games from AAA developers which was odd to me as big budget video games seem perfectly suited for exploring one of the major art movements of the 20th century – after all, what other medium enables players to actively participate in the exploration of otherwise unreachable worlds or scenarios? Of course I can think of a few, including American McGee’s Alice: Madness Returns and Junction Point Studios’ Epic Mickey, but sales figures show that neither had the pull of Saints Row IV (Alice: 586,000 copies sold, Epic Mickey: 2 million copies sold), which has sold 3.6 million copies to date.
Alan Wake also comes to mind, as the story centers around the player trying to find Alan’s wife and trying to survive events from his new novel, which he doesn’t remember writing. Alan Wake sold more than 4.5 million copies. Prior to Saints Row IV, could Alan Wake be considered the first commercially successful surrealist AAA title? I can’t say that with certainty, but with so few surrealist AAA games coming to mind, whether it is the first or not isn’t as important as that it was a commercial success. Saints Row IV seems to be the only one to follow in Alan Wake’s footsteps.
Of course there have been a number of smaller titles and studios which explored surrealism. One of the earliest games I downloaded for my PlayStation 3 was Echochrome, a puzzle platformer all about manipulating a camera to solve seemingly impossible puzzles by making barriers visually disappear – a very M.C. Escher approach to game design and problem solving by emphasizing the value of perspective. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Bastion, which is arguably in my top five games of all time. In Bastion, you play as “the Kid” who ventures on a journey to build a device which can rewind time to before a catastrophic event known as “the calamity” occurs, but there’s no guarantee that going back can prevent the events from happening. Both of these games strive to reconcile the irreconcilable, which is at the core of the surrealist movement.
There are a number of smaller and indie titles that have surrealist themes at their core (check out lists here and here), and a AAA titles like Far Cry 3 have used dreams/hallucinations to provide surreal moments within their games, but few AAA developers have used surrealism throughout the entire game. Why is that?
It’s a financial risk
I’m not the first person to ask that question. In fact, about this time last year, Brittany Vincent dove into this topic on Destructoid, noting (emphasis mine):
“With the incredible power of today’s computers and consoles, there’s a definite push for realism in videogames. Some argue that we are on the cusp of producing photorealistic graphics, and while we’re not there yet, it’s impossible to deny just how good some of these big-budget games look. With that power has come the push for narrative gravity to back it up. In recent years, the story of a game has become a very large focus, with series like BioShock and The Last of Us drawing critical acclaim for the complex and emotional tales they weave.
In an industry that seems to be trending toward the use of cinematics in gaming, it likely seems a big risk to try and approach things from a different angle. A title like Playdead’s Limbo, the silent and unsettling tale of a boy lost in the woods, likely doesn’t trigger the same mass appeal that more conventional, realism-centric games have.
The game industry is a gigantic money-maker. It has grown from a child’s plaything to a behemoth catering to a largely adult demographic. Like any business, it’s profitable to produce what people want. Right now, the trend is heavily weighted toward big-budget titles that cater to online play. These games sell, because mainstream gaming has changed from a single-player experience to a social one.”
Make no bones about it, surrealism is a different angle, and one that likely sends executives and big-budget developers and publishers running for cover.
But if anything, Saints Row IV (and Alan Wake before it) stands as proof that AAA surrealist games can achieve critical and commercial success, even in the midst of the “push for realism in videogames.”
Hiding in plain sight
Perhaps the key lesson that Saints Row IV taught us is that for a surrealist AAA game to succeed, the surrealist elements, while always present, are hiding in plain sight, rather than constantly slapping the player in the face. A quick look at some of the surrealist indie games list above shows that surrealism is the primary focus of the game. Back to Bed is a Salvador Dali painting brought to life. That approach can certainly work, but it’s less of a risk to try that approach with a small game then to throw it full force into a large-budget AAA title. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons that Alice: Madness Returns met with middling results after being an highly anticipated sequel to the beloved American McGee’s Alice.
Yes, the structure of Saints Row IV is decidedly surrealist, but the game also unmistakably still a Saints Row game, complete with the combat, open world exploration, wacky character customization and over-the-top story that fans of the franchise have come to expect. The two elements were expertly blended together so that they were inseparable from one another, making for a unique-yet-familiar, entertaining experience. Maybe that’s why I struggled as long as I did to identify surrealism as the label to perfectly describe Saints Row IV. And maybe that’s the key for other AAA game developers to begin creating surrealist video games.
Here’s an interesting take on surrealism in Super Mario Bros. for your enjoyment: