The day-to-day workings of society are lubricated by lies. You pretend to like your coworker’s new haircut. You feign credulity when your buddy claims that he only watches Swamp People ironically. Video games are greased the same way. Some of the lies they tell are mild, like the elevator rides you have to endure while a game loads the next section of a level. Others are more gratuitous, like a sidekick’s insistence that you have to “Hurry!” from a towering inferno when you know the script doesn’t call for the place to burn down until after the next cutscene. Saints Row IV avoids this low-level fraud by following the tradition of all great observational comedy: It spotlights the lies and takes them to their logical conclusion. You’ll rarely play a game that’s so full of shit, or one that’s so honest about it.
Prior to its release, the fourth entry in Volition’s open-world gang-warfare game was touted as a presidential affair, complete with a “Commander In Chief Edition” label on the box. This is a characteristic bit of monkeyshines: The game has very little to do with the Oval Office, as your presidency is sidetracked by an alien invasion that enslaves the human race—which includes you and the rest of your Saints gang, who had taken their own roles in the White House. The space jerks drop you into a vast simulation that looks like the urban playgrounds of past Saints Row games, with a veneer of Blade Runner neon and haze. You have to fight your way out.
The computer-sim storyline means that the city of Saints Row IV has even less obligation to verisimilitude than its already wacky predecessors. One upshot of this is that you can “hack” the system and give yourself superpowers. It’s like the world comes with a Game Genie built in. You can run at superhuman speeds and up the sides of buildings. You can leap so high that you might as well be flying. These locomotive wonders turn the entire city into a plaything and make cars obsolete. Gods do not wait in traffic.
The designers of Saints Row IV realize how dumb their premise is. More to the point, they revel in it. Early on, the hero expresses confusion over what seem to be huge plot holes until he (or she—I played as a dude, but you get to choose) resigns himself to just playing along. “It’s probably better that way,” your sidekick says, and she’s right. Having established in this early scene that nothing you see is going to make much sense, Saints Row IV pivots and, for the remainder of the quest, attempts to make sense of itself in increasingly ludicrous fashion. You get the earnest directive to murder a hundred big-headed kittycat mascots, for instance, with an explanation that this will give your techno-geek friend time to upload a virus into the mainframe. Obviously.
As you rescue fellow gang members from the simulation, they each bring their own idiotic narrative justifications to your high-caliber frolicking. Your vice president enlists you to smash up an intersection because it’ll be just like old times on the campaign trail. A throwback character from Saints Row 2 points you to a local batch of alien enforcers who need murdering because she needs to prove that she’s more than just a party girl. All of the side quests are a mélange of the same mini-games no matter who’s giving them to you. There are about 20 variations on the basic killing/smashing/racing/hacking themes. But even as the activities stay the same, the premises change, such that they’re as much a part of the comedy as the zany mayhem itself.
Saints Row IV hones this blunt silliness into pointed commentary when you explore the more involved missions of the main quest. Having cast a bright spotlight on its own stupidity, the game sends you into simulations inside the simulation that riff on the subtextual lies of other video game blockbusters. One such holodeck excursion is a thinly veiled sendup of the Metal Gear Solid series. Your partner for the mission tells you to shoot out the overhead lights before you kill the poor fellow standing guard, in the interest of “stealth.” Your pragmatic hero responds by wondering why he’d waste two bullets on light bulbs when he could just go ahead and shoot the guy in the head. This game is dumb, Saints admits, but are the other games you play really that much smarter?
Of all the games (and movies and TV shows) that the developers at Volition lampoon, the Mass Effect sci-fi epics come in for the most stick. The middle section of the game is modeled on Mass Effect 2, as you pick up friends to populate your spaceship and fight the outer-space threat. Saints Row IV even has a twist on Mass Effect’s coy “romance” options. Your hero is liable to walk up to a crewmate and ask, “Hey, you wanna fuck?”—an unsparing distillation of Effect’s stilted foreplay. (The romantic conversations also lead to the first portrayal, to my knowledge, of hoverdroid-on-man fellatio in a mass-market video game.)
The Effect structure provides more than gag material. It also gives Saints Row IV its heart, as you reconnect with your crew on optional side missions. At best, these “getting to know you” excursions add a layer to cracker-thin characters. At worst, they keep Saints Row IV from being a cynical enterprise. The threads of emotion can be hard to discern amid all the slapstick, so the heartfelt story isn’t more than an accent piece. It doesn’t change the fact that the game is best consumed in small doses. Play for too long in one sitting, and the sameness of the activities will gray out the liveliness of the comedy.
Supporting characters sometimes accuse your hero—and, by extension, the game—of sociopathy. That’s a bum rap. The mayhem isn’t driven by nihilism but rather by a comedian’s instinctive distaste for bullshit pretense. The contrivances of games and other fictions serve their purpose: They invite us to suspend disbelief and to explore the deeper truth of a story. But a work like Saints Row IV that holds those contrivances up for ridicule—mocking the lies we tell ourselves—has its purpose, too. When we laugh at the paucity of our existing ideas, it sets the stage for new ones.