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Saints Row IV and gender issues
Bar Harbor
Yeah, gender issues in gaming has been on my mind a lot in the last few years. Lots of voices out there calling for improvement, and pointing out that we don't *have* to be as sexist as we (regrettably) usually are. Case in point: Saints Row IV. If you're only a little bit familiar with the Saints Row series, a mayhem simulator which started life as a Grand Theft Auto copycat, you might expect me to be about to lambaste the latest installment for being a typically misogynistic mess. And you'd be wrong.

Saints Row IV is getting lots of great (and well-deserved) reviews, the tone of which can be summed up as "Gloriously dumb". But this SR4 is *not* the sort of dumb made by dumb people, or the sort of so-bad-it's-funny dumb; no, this is well-crafted dumbness, made with deliberate care by extremely smart people. It's the sort of dumb that takes many tired videogame conventions and turns them on their head, with never-ending (if silly) meta-commentary, and turning gameplay limitations into advantages by being clever about how their deliberately silly fiction is crafted.

And one of the ways that craftsmanship is on display is that this game, while being full of over-the-top violence and crude sexual humor -- actually manages to avoid being sexist. I mean, it's not 100% perfect, but it's *way* ahead of the pack on this.

It starts with the player character. There's a wide variety of customization options. You can be male or female, and there's even a slider for "sex appeal" that adjusts the size of your package/breasts. You can choose from a wide variety of voices, male and female, and of several (implied) racial backgrounds. There's a vast array of clothing available, in a wide variety of fashions and gender-coding. Crucially, the game is almost completely agnostic to your choices in this regard. Male, female, transsexual, transgendered -- mix and match as much as you please. The game insists that the protagonist is an Awesome Badass with a long history of violence, but everything about their sex life is up to the player.

You can "romance" certain NPCs (in a system that is a hilarious parody of how Bioware games handle such matters). Again, the game doesn't care which gender you are presenting when you do it, you'll get the same results. When you ask Pierce for some casual sex, he'll reply "I don't normally swing that why, but what the hell," regardless of what gender you are presenting at the moment.

Perhaps more significantly, they manage to avoid some classic trope traps, but discussing those is a bit spoiler-y, so have a cut:

Most notably, they do their best to avoid the infamous Damsel In Distress, in a game whose plot would naturally support multiple instances of such a trope. Near the start of the game, all of your gang (and yourself) are trapped inside virtual reality prisons. The first major development is that you, the protagonist (frequently played as male), get rescued by a woman. The two of you then must, over the course of the mid-game, rescue all the other gang members. But great care is taken to subvert and avoid classic DID imagery and situations. Typically, you fight your way through waves of bad guys to reach the 'damsel', but she doesn't actually need saving when you get there. The only outright DID setups are, interestingly enough, simulated recreations of situations from the first two Saints Row games, which are then subverted to change their original outcomes. It's as if the creators of IV are actively trying to atone for past failures in this department.

One of my favorite moments in the game comes when you are trying to help the character of Shaundi come to terms with how she has changed over the series. You see, there's actually a simulated version of the younger "Fun Shaundi" running around inside the virtual world, and she and the "real" Shaundi hate each other. This involves fighting a group of cloned ex-boyfriends. Once you defeat enough of them, you get a climactic cutscene in which the last two clones each grab one of the Shaundis, and hold a gun at her head. They begin to go into a classic villain monologue about "Now you must *choose* which one dies!" But before they can finish the sentence, the Shaundis each yell, in perfect chorus, "Fuck that!", yank on their captor's arms, and cause the two clones to shoot each other. A perfect moment of violence and character growth :-) This isn't a game about forcing you to kill a woman who's close to you, this game is a power fantasy for all genders.

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My ability to speak meaningfully about this game was entirely consumed by the 'Merica gun.

Huh, haven't seen that one yet. [googles...] Ah, it was a pre-order bonus. It does seem fully in keeping with the game's tone, however. At least I've got my Dubstep Gun :-)

Oh, yummy! Forwarding to $SON, who is massively a gamer.

Edited at 2013-09-16 02:35 am (UTC)

I agree with most of the points and it's definitely more progressive than most games on that front, but I do actually have one issue with the game from a gender-issues perspective that previous games in the series managed to avoid. In a lot of the cut scenes, they only wrote subtitles for one of the voices, so the text and the spoken dialogue don't match if you're not playing as that voice - and it's one of the male voices.

It's definitely not as big an issue as previous installments (or other competing games) have had, but it kind of caught me off-guard and bothered me.

Having been in game development, I'm pretty sure that the sequence of events would have been something like this:
* Writer: "Hey, do we have all the player voices have *exactly* the same dialogue? I think we can get some nifty individual characterization unique to each voice."
* Distracted Programmer: "We're already playing individual sound files, so yeah, that wouldn't require any extra tech work. Just make sure that they're close enough in content that you don't have to change any NPC dialogue, and we'll be fine."

Months later, after player dialogue has been written and recorded...
* QA: "Hey, guys, the subtitles don't match the player dialogue if he's using a voice other than Male 1."
* Programmer: "Oops. I hadn't thought about subtitles when I approved dialogue variations. We *can* get the subtitles varied as well, but it'll take 2 man-days of Programmer time."
* Producer: "We don't *have* 2 spare days in the Programming budget, we're already over-scheduled. Further, we don't have the spare man-*weeks* of QA time to *test* a new feature like that. Hey, Writer, these differences are all subtle variations, right?"
* Writer (frowning): "Technically, yes."
* Producer: "Mark that bug Known Shippable."

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