Hollywood comedy is in the shit. That’s been obvious for years, but it really hit home during my last visit to the movies where I had to endure trailers for Grown Ups 2 and a Jennifer Aniston flick called We’re The Millers. Even in snapshot form, they’re both agonizing, gurning black holes where laughter goes not just to die, but to cease existing entirely. They’re movies designed purely to sell whatever products the stars are holding; hellish, paradoxical non-comedies.
Saints Row 4 makes a mockery of Hollywood comedy. Ostensibly, this is the first triple-A gaming comedy since Conker’s Bad Fur Day (a game it owes a debt to in many ways, actually), and it’s an absolute riot. It doesn’t pander to an imaginary audience of middle-of-the-road wet blankets who snigger at the sight of a joint or fall about themselves when a moose pisses on Adam Sandler. This is game that breaks rules, takes chances, offends, parodies and even forgets what it was ever doing in the first place before laughing maniacally and jumping a hundred feet into the sky.
It’s monumentally daft but pin-sharp in its intelligence. Volition has built a world free from restraints and rules, and completely let itself off the leash in doing so. Fans of Saints Row: The Third will be pleased to hear that the most outlandish sections of that game form the entire basis of this one - you literally do not know where you’re going next.
So why compare it to Hollywood? Well, gaming’s always been chastised for its lack of comedy – the one genre it’s never managed to tackle. GTA has been satirical, sure, and Tim Schafer’s games are funny – but out-an-out comedy? Games designed to make you laugh first and foremost? They’re rare, and often awful. Yes, we’re looking at you, Matt Hazard.
With that lack of expectation and freedom from genre convention, though, is opportunity. Volition has slotted into the role of comedian with surprising ease – this is clearly a funny and confident bunch – and Saints Row IV is being allowed to craft gaming comedy in its own image.
Fundamental to its success is an acute understanding of both the medium and people who play it. Through four Saints Row games, four Red Faction games, and whatever vast experience team members have gathered elsewhere, the developer has grasped the very essence of the modern gamer: the lightly desensitised, mildly anarchic digital thrill-seeker who is far smarter than the world likes to give him or her credit for.
Hollywood doesn’t think that person exists. It imagines a world full of beige, and propagates that construct by consistently selling to it. The self-fulfilling prophecy. TV has stolen much of its audience by refusing to dumb down (Arrested Development, Community), and it feels like gaming could be ready to snatch another chunk.
That Hollywood attitude has crept into games of course. COD’s often called-out for its yearly recycle, but it’s the wannabe games that are truly guilty (Fracture, Inversion, Fuse). Volition knows that it’s not that gamers have short attention spans, it’s that we refuse to listen to rubbish. It’s why Saints Row 4’s dialogue is clippy and fast, why the president shuts down exposition and jargon as soon as its starts. It’s too busy having fun to get bogged down in its own mythos.
Where Saints Row 4 truly kicks Hollywood into orbit and lands a shin square in its prone nutsack, though, is in its bravery. Volition has (pretty much, at least) shed the series of its slightly grimy, hoes-and-AKs pimp dreaming, and instead pushed the boundaries of concept and form. There are things that happen in this game that people will talk about for years.
Beautifully, too, Saints Row 4’s commitment to open-world superheroism allows it to be spontaneously funny, as well as deliberately so. This has always been the genre most ripe for humour, and Saints Row 4 just rams more potential into its world. As I write this, I just came from a ten-minute battle against S&M wannabe aliens, spanning a city block, destroying everything in sight, all while listening to What Is Love? by Haddaway. With Keith David.
Saints Row 4 is a victory for everything that is good about videogames. Not videogames as they might become, or videogames as some would want them to be, but videogames as they are right now. It’s proud of its stupidity; it revels in its genre conventions, wrapping a thick, friendly arm around your shoulder and yanking you into the party with it.
I long for a day when a Hollywood movie, let alone a comedy, could be as brave and outlandish as Saints Row 4. Remember, this is no small project, it’s a multi-million dollar blockbuster, one launching less than a month before one of the biggest releases of all time, in the same damn genre. Ballsy.
Imagine if Adam Sandler came back with that sort of move. A comedy that threw out the rule-book. That didn’t have Rob Schneider in it. He’s got it in him, I’m sure, but why would he bother when beige sells, Pepsi product-placement pays the bills and people keep going to see it anyway.
Why bother? Play Saints Row 4 for 60 minutes, and ask that question again. It might not be a perfect game, but it’ll be one that’ll live long in the memory. Here’s to you, Mr. President, and to a second term in office. You bloody deserve it.