I’ve been playing the video game Saints Row: The Third (Volition/THQ, 2011), which hits the screen like a whippet-huffed version of Grand Theft Auto IV. To articulate this comparison in more technical terms: although the core mechanics and urban milieus of the games are similar, the aesthetics of SRTT and GTAIV engender different psychological affects in the player. GTAIV pairs the ludic struggle with a deadly serious protagonist (Niko Bellic), who metes out justice in the gritty alleys of Liberty City. SRTT, however, turns your gangsta loose in the neon, urban jungle of Steelport, stuffed in a bunny suit (if so inclined—this game has big closets) and wielding a giant, lethal phallus like a sword. It’s a Freudian field day.
SRTT gleefully wallows in brash, crass, and absurd storylines and gameplay. And this is all for the good. Perhaps more games could juxtapose—as SRTT does with wild abandon—the ridiculous and the sublime, offering players the very excesses of hilariously bad taste and neck-snapping contradictions we (sensibly) would otherwise reject, and (hopefully) would never encounter in daily life in the first place.
Of SRTT’s many incongruous lunacies, one that fascinates me is the tension between a song found on the in-game soundtrack and the player’s escalating collection of futuristic, military-grade weaponry. As The Saints increase their stranglehold of Steelport, you invariably tangle with STAG, an anti-gang, paramilitary squad decked out with some of game’s best (and most extreme) weapons and vehicles. Having completed the main quest and effectively neutralized STAG, my cribs are stockpiled with STAG-brand airplanes, helicopters, laser weapons, and other military-grade hardware.
The hi-tech toys intoxicate with destructive possibilities. Barnstorming Steelport in a STAG Vertical Takeoff and Landing (VTOL) aircraft, for example, and raining down laser fire from above has its vertiginous, lethal charms. The player’s spatial relation to Steelport—a warren of day-glo canyons—changes dramatically when taking to the skies; the city’s horizontal, planar maze becomes navigable vertically, opening up new opportunities and hazards.
One such hazard is an increased dependence on technology that proves rather fragile—and often fickle. For example, with the touch of a button on your player’s cell phone, you direct your gang’s homies to deliver various vehicles (planes, helicopters, tanks, cars) to your position anywhere on the map. Those homies, however, aren’t always too keen on risking a drop in a combat zone. They sometimes hover tantalizingly overhead, until they’re either shot out of the sky or just fly away, leaving you stranded in the middle of a firefight. In at least one case, an incompetent but well-meaning pilot parked my VTOL sideways in an effort to evade gunfire:
I can only helplessly pose in front of my stranded craft, acting as if everything is cool. Nothing to see here….
Returning, finally, to the song. If glitches and other game imperfections occasionally disrupt our delirious technological dependencies, a track by the industrial band KMFDM titled “WWIII” (2003) curiously disturbs them. The song’s machine-gun rhythms blast from the stereos found in the game’s various vehicles (a la GTA; a common conceit of video games is presenting diegetic rationales for the inclusion of extra-gamic, “real-world” audiovisual objects). The song cycles through on heavy rotation (at least on one radio station), and its sonic assault certainly makes for good accompaniment while murderously cruising the streets and skies of Steelport.
But the lyrics tell another story. A critique of American geopolitics and military policy post-9/11, “WWIII” turns the state’s authority to declare war into a hyperbolic rebuke of various abuses of power— and their detrimental consequences to mind/body, culture, and world. Sneering the refrain “World War Three! Be all that you can be!” the vocalists “declare war” on a laundry list of nefarious political and cultural policies and practices:
“WWIII” lyrics (or listen on YouTube):
I declare war on the world
War in outer space
I declare war in a nutshell
War all over the place
I declare war on every government
War against all odds
I declare war on your inner sanctum
On your bloodthirsty gods
[Refrain] World war three – be all that you can be
World war three
I declare war on the axis of morons
All out war on complacent consent
I declare war on the war against drugs
Rape and slaughter of the innocent
War on big brother
Warmongers and profiteers
War on your dogma dubya
War in a heartbeat
I declare war on so-called civilization
World trade globalization
War on ambassadors of pretense
War on MTV and CNN
McDonald’s, Walt Disney, and Bethlehem
On Christina, Britney, and Eminem
I declare war on the world of anti-choice
On violent unilaterality
On the amassment of murderous hi-tech toys
And all crimes against humanity
War on the moral majority
On corporate dot com imperialism
On mindlessly bumbling stupidity
And police-state terrorism
By ignoring the lyrics—or changing the channel—the magic circle of the game completely enables and encourages the player’s blissful development into a “bloodthirsty god.” But juxtaposing playful mayhem with a real referent to Bush-era policies and ideologies complicates the persuasiveness—and pleasure—of this alternate universe. Of course, the game’s playful spell isn’t completely broken by a slight brush with reality, but its firm, demented grip on the imagination relaxes, allowing authentic concerns about violence and power to seep in. Even if the player overcomes the cognitive dissonance of the song’s indexicality—its critique of real power and violence—one must then ask: what is this song raging against within the game? To whom in Steelport is this outrage being addressed? As the player’s “amassment of murderous hi-tech toys” mounts, there is but one logical answer: oh, that would be me.
Games often confront such contradictions between ludic requirements/possibilities and player reactions–between a game’s aesthetic effect and its psychological affect. Typically, mainstream games (as opposed to art games) manage adverse affect by presenting the player with an (often flimsy) alibi for carnage and lawlessness. More recently, games have flirted with the simulation of morality (with mixed results) and given players consequential choices. The Saints’ overriding objective in “organizing” Steelport, however, is to expand their operations in various corporate spheres (media, fashion, even sports drinks)—not exactly the kind of stakes that let one off the hook for, say, killing all residents dressed in animal costumes (an incentivized side quest). Players can take pity on the furries walking around Steelport, but the main objectives are non-negotiable: the only real choice in SRTT is whether to declare war on a rival gang mano-a-mano or soar overhead in a STAG-acquired death machine. Decisions, decisions.
As a video game player and media scholar, I have little patience for moralizing about games—recall that the object of Monopoly, for example, is to financially crush another person in the name of almighty capitalism. But moralizing situated within gameplay presents a curious effect/affect worth further investigation. By adding “WWIII” to Steelport’s airwaves, the game designers have—unwittingly, perhaps—planted a thorny rose in the garden of licentious mayhem. Considering the abundance of provocative—and phallic—perversities SRTT delivers, the prick of conscience may be the most messed up one of all.