The room is smothered in white and purple drapes; it feels like walking into a giant piece of candyfloss, which is just as well, since the Saints Row games have been anything but savoury in their unending quest to treat the NPC very badly indeed. I’m the last interviewer to see these upstanding gentlemen from Volition Inc. and I’m also quite eager to find things to talk about that nobody has thought to ask them.
The gentlemen in question are Senior Producer Jim Boone and Design Director Scott Phillips, who both look remarkably comfortable considering they’ve been interviewed about thirty times today. Given what the studios under THQ’s wing have had to endure – the uncertainty, the dissolution of game projects – enduring a few interviews about an upcoming game release is likely a pretty damned comfortable place to be.
“We’re pretty pleased to see that Deep Silver understands the crazy brand of game that we do and are totally supportive of it, so we haven’t had to make any changes during that process of going from THQ to Deep Silver.” Boone tells me when I enquire about the transition from one publisher to another, “I still think it’s the over-the-top crazy game that people know us for. Whether or not they’ll be expecting what we’ve done in Saints Row IV I don’t know, but in terms of changing publishers that hasn’t had an effect on what we’re doing in Saints Row IV.”
Before being separated for interviews, groups of journalists were rounded up into this room of purple silk, lilac lighting, and comfortable chairs, and given a brief overview of Saints Row IV’s premise. We were expecting what Boone calls “over-the-top crazy”, but it goes without saying that the insanity bar has been lifted substantially higher with the plot.
“The setting is that you’re the President of the United States of America,” Boone says, almost completely straight faced, “which is a completely logical transition for the leader of the Saints, we think. He’s continued his climb of conquest throughout the world. So you guys start off right before he becomes President and you quickly get into the presidency, and then of course is when the aliens invade.”
I smile and nod, as if I have a clue where this is all going. Phillips, sat next to his colleague, is watching the conversation unfold and smiling as Boone reveals the major plot points.
“We have the ‘Zin’. They’re these galactic aliens that go around conquering planet after planet, and what they do is they abduct people and then they try to break their will, and ultimately in order to kind of swell their ranks they assimilate them. So what happens to our favourite gang leader is, he gets abducted along with a number of his cabinet members who are also comprised of former Saints – along with some new people – and they put you in this very twisted version of Steelport. It’s a simulation of Steelport and they’ve removed all references to the Saints, and their intent is to break your will and make the President of the United States one of the Zin.
“Unfortunately for them,” he concludes, “the player is the kind of psychopathic maniac who decides to rebel instead, and then it’s about resisting them and freeing yourself and all of your friends.”
Okay then…It’s a bit of a stretch, but I get the basic idea. The gameplay we’ve all been shown is taking place in a virtual reality environment within the already quite surreal ‘reality’ of Saints Row.
“There’s times when you’re in Steelport and that’s the more virtual sort of area,” Boone confirms, “but sometimes, like earlier in the game when you’re in the White House, you’re in the real world. And you’ll see things that are happening in the ‘real world’ – I can’t reveal exactly what these are yet – and that’s where you’re ultimately taking the fight to the Zin, because inside the simulation you’re working to break out and work your way through that. In the real world you have to fight ‘Zin Yak’, who’s the leader of the Zin.”
There’s a substantial pause after this statement, followed by laughter from all three of us. The whole thing sounds so ridiculous it’s absurd to think how Saints Row IV could have survived a pitch to investors. Apparently lots of people bought Saints Row 3, though, and the story for that was hardly what could be called ‘restrained’ with Burt Reynolds as Steelport’s philandering Mayor, zombie plague, and flying tanks, to name a few things. It’s hardly a surprise that Volition Inc. is going for broke with Saints Row IV’s setup.
I ask where a design team even begins to attempt to top the kind of lunacy we saw in Saints Row 3. Where do you start with what can and can’t be done?
“I was in that same sort of mindset at the end of Saints Row 3,” admits Phillips, “We’ve got zombies and that spaceship the STAG Group brings in, and you fight on Mars. I didn’t know what to do! And then a couple of months into development we decided we were going to put super powers in the game.
“A lot of weird ideas just sort of came up, bubbled up from the team and then they sort of gelled together, and in the end we created this cohesive narrative. Somehow it all just works out for us with the sort of craziness we bring to the game.”
But being the President of the United States? Fighting aliens?
“Well, we needed an enemy you can fight with super powers and…Aliens!” Phillips grins, “That sounded great. Later on it became, well, if the aliens are going to come then the player needs to take a step up as well; he can’t just be a celebrity anymore, he’s got to be something beyond that. So the President of the United States of America seemed like a logical step.”
Listening to Phillips and Boone talk about the creative process behind Saints Row IV makes me wonder if there’s anything they didn’t consider. All this stuff about going beyond celebrity, making the President a super hero, fighting against brainwashing aliens intent on destroying the world through virtual reality…Is Volition Inc. taking the piss just a little? It sounds as if the game is being set up as a parody of the way we perceive the world through the media.
“Well,” Phillips responds, “I’d definitely say the first step is whether or not this is going to be fun; is it going to be fun from the moment the player steps into controlling the character; is this going to be something that they enjoy? And then the next step is finding concepts to wrap that in. What will the player laugh at, what’s going to make them feel cool?
“We also built a lot on top of what I guess have become the franchise pillars of ‘Embrace the Crazy’ and ‘Fun Trumps All’, so we were always pushing ourselves to do better. Anything we do an homage to from another game or poke fun at with ourselves or other things, we always try and put a twist on it. We don’t want to just straight up put something in there, we want to acknowledge that, yes, we’re referencing ‘this thing’, but you’re kind of in on the joke along with the player character. So it’s us having a communication with the player and sort of joking with them.”
Looking at the gameplay footage it was hard not to see the funny side. The player character, dressed in an immaculately thuggish costume based off of the ‘Uncle Sam’ persona, was running rampant amongst the NPC populace demonstrating some of the game’s new and improved arsenal, including rocket launchers disguised as guitar cases, a ‘Dub Step Gun’ that sends everyone into a dancing frenzy, and ray guns that blow up character’s heads like mascot balloons.
Phillips likes talking about the weapons. “We’ve brought new weapon customisation so you can ‘costume’ your weapons as well as your character. So if you want to look like somebody out of the Wild West you can dress up in your cowboy outfit and make your AK47 look like a repeater rifle, and do a little role-playing. Beyond that you can upgrade them in a more granular way than you could in the past, and then there are brand new over-the-top weapons.
“There’s the ‘Dub Step Gun’, which we love. As you pull that trigger the music starts pumping and people start dancing; everyone in the city dances, cars start jumping like they have hydraulics, car windows shatter, and enemies you kill have that sort of forward/reverse fluid motion to them. So it really makes you feel like you’re affecting the world and just having fun with it.”
Boone is emphatic on the superhero player attributes: “The super powers also translate into things like offensive abilities. So you’ve got stuff like telekinesis, where you can grab people and throw them around. ‘Blast’, which lets you freeze things and you can shatter it into pieces. There’s a tremendous amount of variety that I think people would expect from a Saints Row game, and I think that’s easily the biggest thing, mechanically, that sets us apart from anything we’ve done in the past.”
As good as all of this sounds – and by this juncture I felt like I’d been swallowed by an ocean of unfettered ridiculousness – I am compelled to bring it all back to the gameplay and how it can work to keep the player interested. If all the knobs are turned up for maximum insanity and the player is a super hero, able to blaze through the streets at the speed of sound, leap a thousand feet high or more, and freeze people and objects solid with the power of their mind – where’s the challenge?
“The variety we have with those aliens is pretty extreme,” Boone tells me, “both in the way they look and the way they function. You’ve got your base units, but the scale goes all the way up to more sophisticated ones that have super powers themselves. You have the ‘warden’, which can also do the super jumps, it can also use telekinesis against the player, so there are some enemies which are legitimately a challenge even when you have super powers to fight against them.
“There are moments when the guys do a lot of balancing and pacing between missions and there are times when we want you to feel like a badass, and there are times when we want you to feel like you have a little bit of a challenge.”
Phillips is slightly less enthusiastic about the problems that can arise by imbuing the player with super powers: “Fixing or solving those AI problems of how you can even fight a player who moves that fast were some of our biggest issues; I think we’re still working through them. Beyond that it’s about enticing the player to use certain super powers by giving enemies vulnerabilities to certain things, enemies that fight you in different ways. We have these hovercraft that can follow you wherever you go, enemies that have super powers and shields so they can only be fought in a certain way, little remote drones that fly around and shield other enemies. There’s a ton of new variety that the aliens have allowed us to bring into the combat that allows us to really mix things up.”
I finish up the interview by asking Phillips and Boone what their favourite things in Saints Row IV are, because if there’s one thing for certain it’s that they have a lot to choose from.
“Ah…” Boone smiles, “Unfortunately I can’t tell you about my favourite one. It’s one we’ve not shared!”
“Second favourite?” Prompts Phillips.
“How about this: out of everything we’ve shown I love the super jumping! I’m one of those people that will spend an hour just jumping around, collecting things, moving through the world. It’s just incredibly addictive, so that’s probably the biggest one for me.”
“I’d say telekinesis is mine,” Phillips says, “You know, because the world is full of stuff like people and objects and cars; it’s just a target rich environment where you can pick up a car, throw it at a mascot, pick up an old lady, throw her across the city. It’s a very nice way to let of some steam, have some fun. You can also pick people up and drag them across the ground. It’s just a lot of good, clean fun.”
I can’t help chuckling. “’Good, clean fun,’” I repeat.
Wouldn’t that statement make a great tagline for the advertising campaign?