Saints Row: Crass Effect
Say what you like about Mass Effect (and I say there’s a lot to like about Mass Effect), but the best thing about it was definitely watching your Commander Shepard return in each game, relationships, decisions, and genocidal mistakes all in tow. The space-journalist who remembered when my Sarah Shepard space-walloped her in the face; Jack growing from a psychopathic murderer into a psychopathic murdering instructor because I’d helped her mature; Liara writing a lovely entry about me into her time capsule thingy, only to find out I’d been a right cad while she was off being not in Mass Eff 2 very much; Mordin. It didn’t really matter that my Shepard looked a bit different in each installment because of Bioware’s weird relationship with FemShep and their struggle to deal with her, if not statistical*, then at least moral superiority over poster boy ManShep. (Apparently, their ideas for dealing with it went thusly: roundly ignore it for Mass Eff 2, then get all weird and passive aggressive about it for Mass Eff 3, and make it impossible for me to get her hair looking right, damn their eyes.) Even though some details changed, the important bits remained—her odd mouth, her proudly not-extinct-yet redheadedness, her staunch refusal to stick to cover reliably. It’s a very different relationship to have with a character, one that you created, and shaped, and spent 60-plus hours with.
Up until a few weeks ago, I couldn’t really think of a series that had offered me anything similar.
We can quickly cast aside CD Projekt’s underwhelming efforts to sling your status from the first Witcher over into the sequel (“Oooh, a sword I vaguely remember having in my inventory three years ago. Cheers. Now what have you done with Shani?”) and, while my galactic derring-do in KOTOR was at least acknowledged in the sequel, it was left vague enough to be functionally meaningless, especially since Previous Me stays cheekily off-camera the whole time.
But now, I’ve come to the ludicrous conclusion that the only other character I’ve properly enjoyed carrying through a series is Saints Row’s Cockney-Voice Guy.
(I should, at this point, cheerfully acknowledge that I haven’t played the first Saints Row, on account of my not owning a 360. So my character was born almost accidentally in Saints Row 2 and only lived on in the third entry because I was determined that he should, not because the heroically disjointed story demanded it. He doesn’t even have a name. So it’s not quite as significant an achievement as Bioware’s Shep, but still.)
Saints Row 2’s character creator allowed incredible silliness. Be an enormous, hulking monster of a man wearing neon purple knickers and a propeller hat. Or a slightly overweight lady dressed up as a cat. Or something combining the two. I went the opposite direction, though, and sculpted an eminently plausible, downtrodden character. Perhaps I created him in a Tale of Tales-esque attempt to make the concept of sadness a lead character in a video game. Perhaps I thought his skinny arms looked funny, and his scowling Britishness ironically undermined whatever last threads of “gangsta” still tenuously enveloped the game. I dunno, it was four years ago, and both seem equally reasonable.
My SR2 protagonist was approximately 65 years old, bedraggled, still massively into The Clash and The Buzzcocks, and in possession of nought but a neatly-trimmed moustache. He was relentlessly violent towards other gents, and a proper gent to the ladies. That the game allowed for his “taunt” to be a polite bow made trait this all the more role-playable.
As the game progressed and became increasingly demented, with its poo-spraying mini-games and blood feuds with Worf, he became more at home in Steelport. He amassed his wealth, as these chars are wont to do, and ditched his tatty T-shirt and torn jeans in favour of a natty shirt/tie/trenchcoat combo. He may have been an ageing, decrepit anachronism, but—in my entirely imaginary back-story—that just meant he had experience, and good taste in hats. And of course, by the end of the 20-odd hours I spent in the game, everyone was on Team Wheezy, including me.
Then came Saints Row 3, and it wouldn’t run above 20 FPS because I had an AMD card or the wrong shoes or something.
Then came a new PC with the requisite Nvidia card, and a lull in my thrifty games purchasing habits led me to have another gander at SR3. I lovingly recreated Cockney-Voice Guy in his trenchcoat ensemble, picking up right where I’d left off. Except, between the two games, he’d grown to be more like me.
He’d developed a love for professional wrestling.
His taunt wasn’t a polite bow anymore. It was a Ric Flair strut, complete with celebratory “WOOO” at the end. His melee moves weren’t restricted to punches and kicks: now he’d exaggeratedly snapmare, bulldog, and DDT his way around town like he was a character in long-forgotten Saturday morning cartoon Hulk Hogan’s Rock N’ Wrestling.** Among his numerous and probably deserved arch-enemies were a squad of evil luchadores. Among his associates: a wrestler voiced by Hulk Hogan, whom he ably assisted in a Mask vs. Career match. This was a game that casually referenced the Montreal Screwjob and didn’t care that you don’t even know what that means. It got the details right.
(And hmm. Peering over its IMDB page for research purposes, I notice that it also starred Rob Van Dam in a role that was apparently about as memorable as Mr. Dam’s stint in TNA. That’s a real big cuss.***)
Meanwhile, the surrounding game was less lovably cartoonish than its predecessor (it’s a relative scale: it still managed to include a section where you jump into an internet and your character turns into a toilet), and the surrounding players were less characterful. Shaundi, far from being the Eliza Dushku-voiced delight she had been, faded slightly into the background to allow for the emergence of the charming Kinsie and the largely unmemorable Viola. The main enemy was a pastiche of a bland military man, but was still basically a bland military man. It was missing some of the verve of SR2, even if it was 4,000 times more polished.
But there was Cockney-Voice Guy, ingratiatingly out-of-place as ever. Ageing exactly as disgracefully as you’d expect, he’d run out of breath embarrassingly quickly, and would land with an arthritic jolt on just about every jump. He preferred dual-wielded pistols to any of the more extravagant, effective weapons. About halfway into the game, he bought himself a comfortable jumper (his only wardrobe change) because even the most luxurious crib is prone to drafts. And, much like any pensioner, he occasionally went streaking to earn respect in the community. The combination of whatever character Volition instilled in him, two winning performances from Charles Shaughnessy, and a small amount of imaginative squinting on my part made him into a hugely likable hero.
And now, with Saints Row IV on the horizon, I’m left to wonder if Cockney-Voice Guy will survive the transition. I hope so. I mean, the game’s running on the same engine, with ostensibly many of the same assets, so he should.
But I think I read in passing that your char starts the game as President of the United States, and I’m not sure even Saints Row’s fiction can justify America electing a foreigner as president.
* Statistics sadly show that, despite a new promotional push, less than a fifth of the players who finished Mass Eff 3 did so with a female Shepard, proving that the operative syllable in “Default Character” is “fault”.
** Except, of course, as far as I can remember it never contained any actual wrestling and instead focused on lacklustre cartoon comedy and unimpressive voice acting from, amongst others, the brother off Everybody Loves Raymond, the guy who voiced Professor Monkey-For-a-Head, and David Arquette’s dad. Had a great Jim Steinman title sequence though.
*** I also see that Alex Désert, decreasingly famous for playing a blind man on Becker and Lara Croft’s American chum in the pre-reboot trilogy, played the fellow who communicated exclusively through Auto-tune as a joke that worked tolerably but not spectacularly, much like the one joke that comprised much of Becker, and my closing gambit in the main body above.