Saints Row: The Third – Don’t waste the inclusivity

Friday, 18 November 2011 08:35 GMT By Brenna Hillier

Saints Row: The Third may be one of the most inclusive games on the market today – but everyone wants to be a thin, muscly, and buxom. It’s time to question your quest for the perfect alter ego, says Brenna Hillier.

A quick glance over the community galleries shows that the vast majority of characters created are idealised. Apart from the occasional carefully crafted tribute to well-known characters like the Joker, it’s nearly wall-to wall scantily clad women with impossible jugs and huge tough guys.

Saints Row: The Third offers a genuinely open character customisation system. Demoed as the Initiation Station – you can try it out on PC, PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 without buying the game – it offers a staggering array of choices.

It’s not just the robust facial sliders which, while fairly full-featured, are comparable to BioWare’s offering in Mass Effect, or some of the Elder Scrolls games. What makes Saints Row: The Third special is its de-emphasis on “perfect” bodies.

When you start up Saints Row: The Third’s character creation suite you are, unfortunately, confronted with a “perfect” Caucasian character of either gender. That’s a bit depressing, but if you explore you’ll find the game fofers a couple of variant racial presets and, most winningly, a body mass triangle.

In most games which boast of the ability to customise your character, once you’ve picked bloke or lass you’re locked into one body type. The more daring may offer a couple of choices – ridiculously skinny, something underweight labelled “normal,” and a vaguely curvy shape erroneously and insultingly labeled “large,” and those that offer men the opportunity to choose something other than a stupidly triangular muscle shape are particularly worthy of praise.

But very few go so far as Saints Row: The Third, which lets you explore various shapes between three extremes, resulting in a variety of options like small but heavy types, tall but skinny, tiny but built like a brick shithouse, and everything in between. You can even, on female characters, adjust breast size to reflect the reality that not all skinny ladies have enormous bazookas filled with silicon. Amazing.

Further, Saints Row: The Third doesn’t give a crap about your gender preferences. It restricts you to two base body types, that’s true – but it allows you to negate them fairly reasonably with the sliders, meaning voice is your biggest distinction, and it lets you wear whatever the hell you please. Since your character has no personality beyond being a nasty criminal, you can invent whatever canon you like.

This is amazingly inclusive to all the billions of non-white, non hetero-normative, non-skinny, non-impossible catalogue model ideal people that games regularly pretend don’t exist, or exist to be killed off in level two. Volition wasn’t kidding about this game. It doesn’t care who you are; it makes room for everyone and offers to offend all comers, if they want. This is a lesson all developers should absorb; think about how alienating it is when the person you are supposed to be role-playing is so divorced from your life – rippling muscles, white privilege, nutcracker buttocks, cheekbones like cheesewire.

Wasted potential

That said, Volition could probably have saved itself significant time and effort and just put in a generic space-marine type and his big-breasted floozy offsider, because a quick glance over the community galleries shows that the vast majority of characters created are idealised – both in the most popular and featured sections and through the general gallery. Apart from the occasional carefully crafted tribute to well-known characters like the Joker, it’s nearly wall-to wall scantily clad women with impossible jugs and huge tough guys.

What does this say about gamers in general, and Saints Row players in particular?

There are three or four paths a player might take in creating a character. The least interesting for the purposes of this discussion is to reproduce a well-known character as closely as possible.

The Initiation Station.

The other paths form a slider with two extremes and a middle road. One is to build a character of fantasy, the kind of gorgeous hunk of humanity that if you really sat down and thought about it, is a weird amalgamation of highly improbable if not impossible anatomy – sometimes throwing in vampire eyes or silver skin just to make it really clear this is pure escapsim. The other is to try to recreate your own image in-game, usually a much more difficult task. The compromise is to obey a few basic strictures like height, weight and race, and then make a few concessions in terms of wish-fulfilment – “I’ve always wanted to be a redhead,” or “I wish I had muscly shoulders,” for example.

Which path you take isn’t just an aesthetic consideration – after all, in a third-person game you have to look at this character’s backside for hours on end – but speaks about how you intend to engage with the game and the player character.

Are you, the person holding the control pad, engaging directly with the game world? Is it your journey, your path? Do you anguish over moral choices and feel like every decision is yours to make? Are you genuinely wondering how you might react if suddenly elevated to the head of a crime cartel? If so, you’re much more likely to stick with or at least start off with something closely approximating your real self.

Or are you along for the ride, wanting to forget yourself completely and dive into the persona of someone far more badass than you can ever be? To forget your boss and your assignments, your sleeping kids or cheating partner for a few hours in the pursuit of entertainment? Do you watch the story unfold rather than participate in it? If so, nobody’s going to blame you for building a walking tank of pure testosterone or a woman straight out of the not-going-to-art-school tradition of illustration.

Next time a game offers you a choice in who and what you’ll be in a way that is divorced from the gameplay experience itself, pause for a moment and ask yourself – why am I doing this? The answers might tell you something about yourself and why you game which you’d never before considered.

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