The fourth entry in the Saints Row series sees The Video Game shed its mortal trappings and ascend to a higher place. I don't think it is an exaggeration to say that in Saints Row IV we finally have the greatest example thus far of the video game in its purest form. While it is by no means perfect - it does regrettably give over a little too much time to characters and exposition - I see it as the closest humanity has yet come to unfettered goal-orientated mechanical perfection. To call it merely a video game is almost an insult, for SR IV operates on a plane far out of the grasp of its contemporaries. It is in fact closer to the likes of chess, cricket or professional wrestling: instances where rules and mechanics dance around one another, momentarily coalescing to create beauty, amazement and pure, magical, inconceivable beauty.
One of the most fondly remembered parts of Saints Row: The Third is a mission called Deckers.Die, which takes place entirely inside a computer. While the core gameplay mechanics and goals don't change much in this new setting - you're still essentially just shooting bad guys while running around a bit - the aesthetics and rules of these interactions do alter profoundly. Within this neon world of geometric shapes, wireframe models and translucent textures we're subject to a bevy of glitchy annoyances. Enemies enter the fray as if from nowhere; our character slides around the world, appearing and disappearing like we are playing over a slow internet connection circa the year two-thousand; we are turned into a toilet and laughed at.
SR: TT represents what is possible when the people making a knock-off video game own up to their filthy ways and address their cheap-arse audience directly. This admission of the truth - not that their past GTA-aping had been in any way subtle - allowed developer Volition a greatly increased scope for freedom of expression. They were no longer beholden to strict genre conventions, though crucially, many of the leaps that were made still broadly fit into the recognisable template. Yes, there were aliens, zombies, Burt Reynolds, aeroplane hijinks, sing-alongs and tigers, but these things were always interacted with in genre appropriate ways and in genre appropriate locations. Deckers.Die is the almost-exception to this rule.
Most of the time, as I've already said, you are simply shooting at things while you experience little trinkets and baubles all around you. They don't fundamentally alter the core gameplay loops you've been running around within already, but they do begin to break these actions away from their more recognisable settings and aesthetics. Mechanics begin to lose their justification and likeness to real world analogues, instead simply existing to further the already established and agreed upon gameplay paradigms. The game knows that the player understands how to interact with its challenges by this point, so we no longer need an object's function to tally with its appearance. The game and the player are, essentially, one in the same during Deckers.Die.
SR IV takes this expectation of understanding significantly further, presenting most mechanics as simply tools used to attain results, without bothering with much contextualisation or narrative justification. Again, Volition falls back on virtual reality to lazily - though quite transparently - facilitate its more outlandish design choices. By setting the majority of the game in a constructed world free from the constraints of our own, they are effectively freeing the player from the mundane trappings and formalities of other, more tiresome video games. At the same time this also acts as the catch-all narrative device that removes any further need to explain, well, anything else.
Within a very short space of time you can jump really high, run really fast and kill things really quickly. You are able to combine these abilities, if you so wish, creating dazzlingly choreographed explosions of movement, death and personal gratification. It's like playing rock, paper, scissors without that one solitary rule: you have these awesome - as in to inspire awe, not something cool wot you saw on the internet - resources at your disposal and you're not forced to use them independently; thus you win every time. Shortly after, you're given the ability to freeze enemies in place and then kill them even quicker. At this point the game has lost almost all of its conventional challenge. Then it proper kicks off.
The world of SR IV is littered with many hundreds of things to do, as are most video games of this kind. The crucial difference between this particular video game and literally all the others though, is the frequency at which you can tackle these trivial distractions. This is a two-pronger in essence: firstly, the combination of your jumping and running powers means travelling around is ridiculously fast, to the point where a couple of bounds often takes you to some new errand. Secondly, these activities are so spectacularly half-arsed for the most part, that they are usually over within a couple of minutes, if that. Flashpoints, for example, are merely groups of ten or fifteen enemies that need making not-alive, which can be done in less than thirty seconds in most cases. A chaos-making scenario tasks you with launching giant balls at things until they explode. Another has you throwing people and objects through floating hoops. It's all back of the napkin territory really, where their lack of depth actually improves one's experience by expediting the more regimented and traditionally 'video gamey' bits.
Where challenge is usually the video game's primary source of enjoyment, SR IV generates fulfilment through mechanics alone. There is no reason - except for the obvious benefit to the player - to combine all of these dispirit abilities, they are only here to give us a good time. At first it might appear that all games are built like that, but it often isn't the case. Most games want, nay, need to create a congruous world - however fantastical that may be - where everything has a place and all things make sense. SR IV has no such agenda; mechanics are there to be enjoyed for exactly what they are without being masked by - apart from the virtual reality set-up itself - copout exposition or narrative obfuscation. Everything is unapologetically created for the player's enjoyment. We're given the faster traversal, hyper-kinetic combat and the ability to cherry-pick activities because SR IV is aware that we've done all these things so many times before that their inherent ability to keep us engaged has eroded considerably.
This is the essence of my admiration for SR IV. It is the first video game I've ever played that seems to understand that video games - at least populist modern ones - are shit. They have become so enraptured in creating a lasting sense of place, character and/or personality that they no longer care about being - first and foremost - enjoyable. What is even more endearing is that the SR series began as this very type of game: chasing the GTA template at every turn without stopping to question the validity of the entire endeavour. Saints Row IV is not your average video game. It looks and plays like one at first glance, but spend even a little time with it and Volition's true intentions become clear: they want to entertain you at all costs. It is a scattershot collection of disparate ideas, gimmicks and mechanics brought together solely to stimulate the player. It is also vastly entertaining, which must go some way to vindicate this seemingly reckless design philosophy. On paper - maybe one of those napkins - the whole game should be an abject failure; it is so unlike the majority of big budget titles we are given to play today. It almost feels dangerous - subversive, maybe - in its singular vision to entertain above all other things - at all costs, even. To this end, though, it is probably the most lovingly made piece of digital entertainment to have ever graced our lives with its company.