In Decadent, we explore two games united by a common theme and separated by time—specifically, by a decade or so.
Saints Row IV is a strange animal. It’s a game at once unique and completely derivative, a post-Dadaist triumph of refashioned parts and random scraps of juvenilia. Nearly every piece of it was scavenged, quite intentionally, from a shard of pop culture detritus; Grand Theft Auto, Mass Effect 2, Leave It To Beaver, and They Live are equally integral parts of the structure and story. None of these touchstones figure in as heavily as the concept at the heart of The Matrix trilogy.
It’s a fitting tribute because The Matrix is itself a barely concealed assemblage of bad science fiction, a Philosophy 101 survey course from your local community college, and too many Sunday mornings sitting around watching badly dubbed kung fu films. The story goes something like this: In the future, robots are using humans as batteries but need a way to keep them permanently sedated. The machines create a virtual reality—called the Matrix—where humans continue their life functions but don’t realize they’re slaves. Some humans, when made aware of the situation, rebel. A singular hero emerges to lead humanity to salvation. There’s a lot of punching and kicking and whatnot, but the humans are ultimately put down, and the cycle repeats. It’s a story as old as time—an everyday Harry Potter figure plucked out of obscurity, thrust into a beleaguered fantasy world, and cast in the role of reluctant, doomed Messiah.
But really, there’s nothing so wrong with being derivative, provided you do it right. The problems start when the thing attempts to be more than it is; the seams holding together the whole flimsy tapestry unravel, and the lack of original ideas at the heart of the story are exposed. The creators of The Matrix, seemingly infatuated with the seriousness of their borrowed mythology, found it necessary to fashion a movie tie-in game that would function as an integral complement to their plodding and nonsensical followups. Enter The Matrix uses extended cinematic cut scenes with the voices of the movie’s actors to represent life outside the Matrix and fills in some minor plot holes, but the game does nothing to alleviate the world’s inherent shallowness.
Enter The Matrix puts you in control of either Ghost or Niobe, secondary characters pulled straight from the films. Ghost quotes David Hume on causality before plugging in to the virtual world, as it applies to loading his guns. (Because he’s one deep-thinking assassinator guy.) Things are a little less cerebral inside the machine construct. Within the Matrix, you run from place to place, wildly flapping your arms and karate chopping everyone in sight. Here you can also run along walls, slow down time, blast dudes with your gat, and do some pretty sick jump kicks. Occasionally, you’re forced to flee in a getaway car, with Niobe driving and Ghost riding machine gun, spraying bullets all over the synthetic cityscape.
In Saints Row IV, rather than being locked in an existential battle with self-aware automatic can openers, humans are banished to a digital world controlled by hyper-advanced aliens intent on running some kind of intergalactic zoo. But where those trapped in The Matrix’s Matrix are doomed to live in a stale and oppressive synthetic environment full of rain and office buildings, the Matrix of Saints Row is (at least at first) a happy place, like something out of My Three Sons, an idyllic suburb full of slow-moving cars and Andy Griffith-approved whistling. In the first Matrix film, we’re told that the machines once made a similar Mayberry habitat for humans to live in, but the organic ingrates were unable to accept a program that put them in a magical land of sunshine and rainbows. Things prove no different in Saints Row, and soon enough you’re laying waste to the local Barney Fife contingent in an effort to get free of the hellish tranquility.
The anti-Mayberry world of Enter The Matrix is a depressing place, filled with violence and square tires and darkness and superpowered enforcers known as Agents who are intent on your immediate murder. The basic rules governing this world remain fairly static throughout and your relationship vis a vis the machine overlords running the show never changes. In Saints Row, continual disruption of the alien system results in increased chaos, which conversely bestows more control and powers on your character. You’re practically a god by the end of the game, an apex predator with a love for dubstep and running super fast around the city shirtless and rocking a karate headband (at least in my case).
And it’s fun! Everyone in Enter The Matrix, it seems, adheres to the dark glasses and black trench coat style of complete sartorial autonomy. If I could construct a digital version of myself, it’d probably be something that better celebrates my illogical humanity. What’s wrong with giving yourself maybe a breathable Tommy Bahama button-up and some lightly stained Philadelphia Eagles Zubazz pants? That way, when you’re running up walls and kicking ass in slowmo, you’re totally adding insult to injury. This outfit says, “Yes, I’m an unstoppable martial arts master, but I’m also a totally unpredictable color-blind maniac.” Ghost and Niobe have a few things to learn about élan and psychological warfare.
Saints Row IV gives you that freedom to be yourself. You can put women’s clothes on men or men’s clothes on women. Swinging around a lightsaber has equal effect as swinging around a giant dildo. In a world where anything goes, why the hell not? During some challenges, you’re actually forced to throw yourself around like a rag doll in traffic for several minutes because this somehow disrupts the system’s internal logic. Does this make a lot of sense? No, it doesn’t. Does Saints Row care? Not even a little bit.
As President Of The United States and part-time superhero, your character in Saints Row whoops and hollers and cracks wise no matter the situation, not once giving in to the despair permeating the world of Enter The Matrix. If humanity is going out, it’s doing so on its own terms. Instead of quoting William James, as Ghost does at one juncture, your indefatigable Commander-in-Chief might reference some insane, homicidal mantra from their mentor, Johnny Gat. In Saints Row, you can call up your homies any time and have them fight by your side or just hang out in full superhero regalia and crack wise. In Enter The Matrix, Ghost and Niobe barely crack a combined half smile the whole time. What this tells me is that no matter how their mission turns out, the machines have already won.