The Japanese ad for The Saint’s Flow Energy Drink shows Pierce, the hip and youthful face of the Third Street Saints brand division, being mercilessly beaten on a basketball court by armed punks. The situation looks bleak, until an anthropomorphized purple can of Saints Flow descends from heaven and gives him the strength to throw off his attackers, unleash a savage volley of fists, kicks and a clothesline before shooting a Ryu-style fireball from his hands and performing an atomic dunk with a basketball that appeared out of nowhere to a shower of neon stars. The Third Streets Saint’s lifestyle has been canned and is ready to be swallowed.
Great art is transformative. In videogames history, the titles that take advantage of the interactivity of the medium attempt to use our actions to expose a truth that lies hidden within us. While you may learn of deluded obsession in Braid, guilt in Shadow of the Colossus and Hotline Miami and of manipulated destiny in Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty and Bioshock, their messages can be too abstract to easily be anything more than reflective. They require that players understand the lesson and then actively apply it to a future behavior.
Like the brilliant Asura’s Wrath, Saint’s Row the Third as an aesthetic work isn’t a treatise on philosophical concepts but the explicit application of a productive world view the player can observe and put into practice.
Art is the tangible representation of a philosophy working within reality. For story, various philosophies manifest physically as characters that act in accordance to their own values. As they interact with each other in regards to the goal of the plot, each moral code goes from being a theoretical system to a perceivable and practical way of life.
The Third Street Saint’s open the game by robbing a bank wearing the mask of their famous macho badass Johnny Gat, using the giant shades-wearing bobble heads as a tool for publicity rather than anonymity. When even the arresting cops want the gangs autograph, you know the world has chugged them some Saint’s Flow.
It’s not hard to see why. Where the usual crime story MO has the protagonist rising through the ranks, SRtT places you at the lead of a brash, arrogant and fearless gang of misfits that have a penchant for executing an elbow drop from turnstile on the corrupt, the power hungry and the dickish. Instead of being about growth, the game is about setting your direction, moving forward and not letting anything get in your way.
Unfortunately, the bank is owned by the Syndicate, a new coalition of criminals seeking to step in on the Saint’s turf in Stillwater. Now finding themselves in the city of Steelport, the crew needs to build themselves back up. Within an hour, you’re standing at the door of a helicopter, about to jump into the night above the city’s skyline, a parachute strapped to your back while Kanye West’s ‘Power’ surges through the air.
The Saint’s insane, balls-to-the-wall bravado is not only expressed directly through their actions in the story’s plot but in the gameplay and systems to pursue it, from missions that have you falling through the sky unloading clips into dozens of enemies to a deployable predator drone other games would relegate to a scripted sequence and talent tree upgrades that flip the restrictive notion of balance the proverbial bird by giving players infinite ammo, no reloads and invincibility all without making them feel like dirty cheaters for it.
The games perfect tone is the result of a careful balance of contrast between the Third Street Saint’s puckish attitude and the thousands of mundane pedestrians and neighborhoods that comprise Steelport. Yes, they’re absurd and larger than life but that’s why their behavior is so believable and attractive. Regular, everyday life ends up looking comatose by comparison.
In action games, mechanics are stuffed with characterization. Saints Row may have the traditional open world trappings, but as the Saint’s boss, your actions are imbued with the gang’s self-assured cockiness. The inclusion of the ‘Awesome button’ alone adds more personality than the vast majority of games can manage in their 8-10 hour length. A sprint modifier that allows you to dive through windows to steal cars rather than pull their drivers from their seats and sidewalk surf on enemies rather than punching them, this awesome button adds speed and character to otherwise rote mechanical functions. You experience their lifestyle rather than imagine it.
Saint’s Row accepts you no matter who you are. It doesn’t care about the color of your skin or what you pierce through it- doesn’t care what’s between your legs or what you do with it. It knows that even if you like dressing up like fuzzy animals, are a disgraced pro wrestler or a kink-loving former FBI hacker, you’re a person first and deserving of respect. It loves you (but that won't stop it from teasing you).
And the true test of a game's love is in the respect it shows for your time. SRtT knows you would prefer to warp to shore than swim to it, that you want your missile spewing attack chopper delivered to you more than you want to run across town to grab it from your skyscraper's helipad and realizes that you probably play open world games to screw around so allows you to call off your heat because you’re bored of testing your giant purple didoes durability on pedestrians faces. Because it knows your life is finite, it regularly drops cash in your account, rewarding your play regardless of how you spend it.
But you’ll spend it well. There’s a mission where you and your homie start singing along to Sublime’s ‘What I Got’ while cruisin’ the streets in your purple convertible. The scene has the two of you messing up the lyrics, losing the beat and laughing together on a sunny day. There’s honesty here. Saint’s Row is about music and adventure and friendship and playing and silliness and dancing and good-natured rough-housing and self-confidence and chaos. The Saints are what the Muppets would be if they all developed debilitating crack problems.
Saint’s Row doesn’t believe that there’s more truth in opaqueness than clarity, that reflection and introspection, seriousness and solemnity are somehow more spiritually enriching than over the top, life-affirming madness. Through the philosophy of its gang and made-to-break mechanics, SRtT says that life is yours for the taking and gives you the means to make it happen. The result is absurdly empowering, wonderfully optimistic and gloriously inspiring.
That’s important because when we live in a world where bricks of frozen poop can fall out of the sky and through the engine block of an acne-scarred nerds beater Chevy as he’s picking up the school’s head cheerleader for their first date, causing him to careen off a cliff and through an orphanage’s wall, sometimes knowing that happiness is attainable if you go after it can give you the sense of purpose you need to get out of bed on tough mornings. Saint’s Row the Third is a 20oz shot of guarana, taurine and ginseng directly into the soul. It’s the kind of art that makes you a better person. (Attention: Saints Flow is not available in California)