In January a European publisher called Deep Silver paid $22.3 million for the game developer Volition and the rights to the Saints Row franchise. This is the series whose last game, Saints Row: The Third, let you play as a toilet. Not a toilet with arms and legs, or a guy in a toilet suit, but a literal toilet that can fire disembodied guns, hurl itself through car windows and parachute off buildings. That’s serious money for something so completely ridiculous.
I’ve always had a weakness for art that takes a joke too far. Musicians like Harry Nilsson, Sparks and Trans Am come to mind; so does a movie like Dead Alive (or, if you want to get highbrow about it, Andy Warhol’s Empire). It takes gall to try and make an artistic joke on such a scale, and a manic, almost visionary single-mindedness to see it through to the degree necessary to avoid making fools out of the work’s creators. To the extent that an AAA video game can embody this quality, the Saints Row series (excluding the first one) nails it.
However, where most of the above examples consist of an artist concocting a joke and then taking it far beyond predictable standards of pacing and scope, Saints Row is a little defter. The creators of the series noticed a creative void in a work that was already in place—namely, that nobody in their right mind cares about the portions of the Grand Theft Auto games that attempt to take themselves seriously—and did everything in their power to turn that void inside out. They’ve transformed their series into an ode to everyone who’s ever watched someone else play GTA IV and said “Why can’t you just ________?”
As a result, the second and third Saints Row games are some of the most authentically weird and funny AAA video games ever made. They’ve got a clear-eyed, almost methodical way of carrying out an absurd, unhinged logical conclusion of a vision. While far from the scale of your Calls of Duty or your Maddens, they’re runaway financial successes. Volition, the company behind Saints Row, had every reason to expect a steady course for Saints Row IV, the latest sequel, which arrives on August 20.
Then, in November of last year, Volition’s parent company THQ went bankrupt. Suddenly the Saints Row franchise was unmoored, and Volition were forced to sit on their hands.
“I was on Christmas break from THQ when I got an email that said ‘Hey, come into the office, we’re going up for auction’,” says Steve Jaros, studio creative director at Volition. “It was New Year’s Day, actually. That’s when I read the email.” Volition spent the month of January in limbo, seeing potential buyers come and go. Reception to the singular weirdness of Saints Row varied from buyer to buyer, but Deep Silver, a subsidiary of Koch Media best known for publishing the Dead Island games, seemed especially interested. The deal was done by the end of January. After a month in limbo, the fate of Jaros’ job and Saints Row IV were no longer in jeopardy. Says Jaros: “There would be no Saints Row were it not for Deep Silver.”
In spite of Volition’s acquisition, they were not out of the woods. There are tonal subtleties in the Saints Row series that needed to remain intact. Again, this is a series that lets you play as a toilet. This is a series that lovingly ridicules every bad videogame cliché and parodies an increasingly shallow and celebrity-obsessed culture. Jaros needed creative control from new owners who were, at the time, a total unknown quantity. “You can’t not be nervous,” he says. “You spend years working for another company, and you kind of get your flow going, and all of a sudden it’s like you’re moving to a new school, you know?”
Jaros’ anxieties were understandable; his company and product were completely uprooted and replanted over the course of just a few weeks, and he was expected to carry on making Saints Row IV as if nothing had ever happened. Luckily, Deep Silver did their best to help Jaros along, which is to say it seems like they did very little at all. “It’s been amazing. They’ve been very hands-off,” says Jaros. “They’ve been really trusting of us, and we’re really grateful for that. As a creative partner, Deep Silver has been a dream.”
Not to take away from Deep Silver’s laissez-faire approach to management, but by the time of Volition’s acquisition, the Saints Row IV project was only six months from being finished. It seems probable that Deep Silver knew what they were getting into, and were content to simply let Volition do their thing. Even before Deep Silver laid eyes on the game, Jaros and his cohorts had already implemented an admirable amount of weird Saints Row stuff. To hear Jaros tell it, the only way for Volition to surpass the toilet-skydiving, Hulk Hogan voice-acted insanity of Saints Row: The Third was to simply throw up their hands and give the player superpowers. From there, he suggests that the rest of Saints Row IV’s scenario practically wrote itself.
“Once we had superpowers in play and they felt good,” he explains, “the next question becomes ‘What is an enemy that is worthy of you fighting them with superpowers?’ You can’t really fight a gang member, you know what I mean? So you start ratcheting things up, and you have aliens. What do aliens do? Aliens abduct world leaders. In the first game, you’re a gang member, and in the second game you’re a gang leader, and then in the third game you’re a pop culture icon. Where do you go from there? Well, aliens like world leaders. You’ve got to be the president.”
Rather than meddling with what’s turned into a successful series (and risking not getting what they paid for), Deep Silver opted to give Jaros absolute freedom to give the player absolute freedom. Essentially the only things that are set in stone about the main character of Saints Row IV are that they’re immensely well-respected, they’re the President of the United States, and they have superpowers. Everything else, from the character’s appearance to the person they opt to sleep with, is up to the player to figure out. When I asked Jaros what made him most proud about Saints Row, he noted that Volition has “created a game [that] really celebrates the player being who they are.” He added, “I love that you can have your protagonist be a man or a woman of any ethnicity, of any body type, wearing whatever they want, and they’re treated with respect and kindness. You’re the coolest man or woman that walks into the room.”
For all of Saints Row’s over-the-top qualities, it’s true that there’s something radical about being able to play a mainstream video game title as a 300-pound mohawked drag queen and have the game’s systems treat that character in exactly the same way they’d treat a character who looked like The Rock—and also have that drag queen be the President of the United States of America . “It’s not like we ever set out to make a social issue game,” says Jaros. “That was never our intention. It’s just a game that was supposed to be about empowering the player. But when you think consciously about people, and try to make the people feel good, and you want them not to be judged, a byproduct of that is that you make something that’s socially responsible.”
As Jaros talked about imparting something as nuanced as social responsibility into the Saints Row series, it became clear just how much of a coup Volition has executed since THQ’s liquidation. Over the past year, Saints Row IV has weathered a bankruptcy, gotten acquainted with a new publisher, and preserved the pitch-perfect, intentionally stupid, absurdist urban playground on which it hangs its hat; in short, it seems to have come out the other side intact. However, aside from the fact that their product is way weirder than most studios’, Volition’s situation was hardly unique. With the industry, and mid-sized publishers in particular, in a state of financial upheaval, being able to clear these types of hurdles will come with the territory for teams working on large-scale games that aren’t guaranteed blockbusters.
When asked what he’d say to developers who found themselves in the position he was in last January, Jaros’ voice strains. “I don’t know,” he says. “I honestly don’t.” He adds: “If you’re somebody in a position to be sold, all you can do is show that you can create excellent product and that you believe in what you’re doing and that you’re committed to excellent work.” Even that, though, is no guarantee that a given studio won’t get the rug pulled out from under them. For a lot of companies like Volition, security is a thing of the past. “Seeing our company go bankrupt was a scary thing for everybody at the studio” says Jaros. “You want to believe that everything is going to be okay, but you just don’t know. As successful as Saints Row was, there was a chance that no one could have came knocking. Luckily, Deep Silver did.”