Shallow games succeed through violence

The makers of video games can enhance their products, and gain respect, by adding substance.

Published October 5, 2006

The new Xbox 360 game Saints Row is a fantastic technical achievement.

Playing as a gang member in the fictional city of Stilwater, you can drive just about anywhere in the enormous metropolis. It would take dozens of hours to complete the many missions destroy a rival's drug lab, knock off a gang leader and activities (kill a pimp and bring his prostitutes to another pimp, jump into traffic for an insurance scam). All of this is rendered with some of the best graphics seen in a video game.

At the same time, the game's crassness and violence raise questions about how video games push the boundaries of taste. And what good is technical power when it's used solely for (sometimes gross) stunts, and never to tell a good story?

Saints Row is the latest ripoff of the hugely successful Grand Theft Auto series. While the basics are the same, Saints Row is even more over the top in its language and violence (the game bears an M for mature rating, meaning it's not for kids, but you can bet plenty of youngsters are learning their way around Stilwater).

The first F-bomb drops 15 seconds in, and the opening scene finishes off with a half-dozen point-blank executions.

Retail stores in the game have groaner names referencing sex acts. When characters pick up hookers and clients, there's all sorts of unsavory talk.

The language, sex and violence seem shocking, but The Sopranos or any Quentin Tarantino movie is even more extreme. In a good film or TV show, though, the characters and stories are resonant and complex enough that the cursing and violence emerge naturally.

Saints Row has little emotional depth or artistry underpinning its complicated mayhem. The story progresses almost entirely through plot points rather than character development. The main character barely even speaks; he takes orders and then goes out to shoot and loot.

Saints Row is not the only video game now that emphasizes high-tech interactivity at the expense of strong storytelling.

One of the most critically acclaimed games of the year is Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion for Xbox 360. Like Saints Row, the game offers an immense world - there are supposedly 16 square virtual miles to explore - and a seemingly infinite number of tasks to complete.

To get through it, though, you have to slog through another mostly mute main character; fantasy tropes recycled from every movie you can think of; bad British accents; and clunky, didactic repartee like, "You must be referring to Mankar Camoran's Commentaries on the Mysterium Xarxes. A common mistake."

Yet demanding that a video game measure up to Deadwood or Taxi Driver amounts to a cultural double standard.

The ultraviolence of the recent gore flick Saw II doesn't make any grand statements. When he's not being sappy, acclaimed director Kevin Smith revels in vulgarity for its own sake.

If Saints Row's story isn't particularly original or peppered with poetically shocking dialogue, it's no worse than the average R-rated movie.

Take away the movies, books and TV shows that explore the boundaries of reasonable behavior - and that test our tolerance for seeing those boundaries pushed - and entertainment would be pretty boring.

The problem isn't that individual video games are too violent. If the rest of pop culture can be crass, stupid and fun, video games are entitled, too.

But for video games as a whole, technical sophistication is too often squandered by a lack of narrative sophistication. (Many games aren't concerned with story at all. The most popular PC game of all time is the Sims, a wholly nonviolent virtual dollhouse whose narrative consists of players' decisions on how to shape their characters' lives.)

Game writers need to start populating these immense worlds with unique characters who can sustain a 40-hour story and don't speak entirely in cliches. They need to start crafting textured stories that go beyond the level of a B-movie.

It's fine if Saints Row doesn't meet the standards of Pulp Fiction or The Sopranos. It's a problem when no game does. Gamemakers won't get the respect they seek, and the criticism about violence won't stop, until that changes.

Josh Korr can be reached at jkorr@sptimes.com His video game blog is at www.sptimes.com/blogs/videogames.