In visual media, music is usually a supplement to the visual experience. Saints Row, however, reverses this paradigm and rides the coattails of Kanye West’s genius to elevate the impact of the gaming experience.
Music and melody, when accompanying a visual medium usually works in one of three ways: as an unconscious mood modifier as in Johnny Greenwood’s haunting soundtrack for There Will Be Blood; as a conscious juxtaposition as in Tarantino’s ear wrenching scene from Reservoir Dogs; or as an inconsequential but delightful addition as in Fallout 3’s sublime sonic radio selection. In all three options, the music is supplemental and enhances the experience, but it is not THE experience. The visual is always the focus: The visual takes precedent.
What happens when the music overwhelms the visual? What happens when the music is too powerful? Too great? Too laden with a psycho-historical weight? If you’re an “artist,” for who perhaps, the medium is the message, you discard the weighty piece and find something a little less intimidating. If your Volition, the makers of Saints Row, you throw it in the mix anyway, damn the medium and whatever message it’s purportedly sending, and make something that’s just balls to the wall fun.
Saints Row: The Third finds the 3rd Street Saints gang… You know what? The shadow of a narrative isn’t important. This game is not about the story, meaning, message or morals and its detractors are probably right when they call it: crass, misogynous, immoral and empty. But oh boy is it fun as it bounces from one absurd set piece to another.
Volition holds no pretensions over its art. It makes video games and above all, they attempt to make their video games fun. And it’s this ethos that produces a moment of delight far stronger than most video game experiences.
In mission 5, “Party Time,” the hero plans to attack an enemy penthouse which is of course in the midst of a raucous pool party. Plan of action: Crash the party from the skies. Parachute in and wreak havoc.
The loading screen dissipates and the mission begins. The helicopter doors open. We escape our iron cage and float down towards the rooftop oasis. We search for the penthouse and aim towards it. We hear the beginning of a familiar vocal chant and it’s instantly recognisable. “I’m living in that 21st Century, doing something mean to it.” Yes, do not adjust your set, that is Kanye West’s Power roaring from your television. In that moment of recognition, this is no longer about Saints Row, about you or I. This is all about Kanye, and for the next five minutes, this is Kanye’s house.
It’s all about power. The power of Kanye, of money, of fame, of your video game character, and most importantly of music. Music is transformative. If you’re cruising down the street, headphones on, Kanye’s sound emitting, and you don’t drop a little swagger into your step, then you’re dead inside. It’s irresistible. Even the least competitive, the least egotistical amongst us listens to this track and understands what Kanye’s deal is. They know what it is to be Kanye. What it is to be a man of greatness. They know that feeling of bravado and of ephemeral power. That irresistible draw of being burned up by your own brilliance.
And so, when that helicopter door opens and that beat kicks in, you’re immediately put into that headspace. Your whole personal psycho-history of Kanye West drops with that beat. But this time you’re not swaggering down your mundane little street. Your swaggering through the air, touching down on some decadent pool house and unleashing fury. It’s the perfect compliment to the song. And that’s what this is —the visual is the supplement to the music — this is an interactive music video. Just one that’s had hours to immerse the player into the interactive world so that the interactivity does not distract from the music but enhances it.
No doubt Kanye does the heavy lifting here. He’s the genius. The gameplay itself, though fun, is technically merely adequate. But Volition gets this. They are not thinking about themselves, their art, or their expression, they are thinking about the gamer and the end experience. If creating a more enjoyable experience means taking a back seat and allowing a narcissistic egotistical genius take centre stage for 5 minutes, then why not?
After all, if the candle that burns twice as bright burns half as long, us mere mortals might as well take advantage of its warm glow while we can.