Saints Row 2 is the greatest sandbox game of all time. Grand Theft Auto 5 has a bigger budget, Saints Row IV gives you superpowers, The Witcher 3 has a better story, and Assassin’s Creed II takes you to far more exotic locales, but Saints Row 2 holds a special place in my heart. It’s not the most original or best-designed sandbox game of all time, but it features some of the best player motivation in games.
This piece originally appeared 7/6/16.
In sandbox games, players run around the world playing a bunch of minigames and completing the story until there’s nothing left to do or they get bored. It’s a formula established by Grand Theft Auto 3 back in 2001, one that has remained largely unchanged. Saints Row started off as an unoriginal GTA clone in 2006, though the series has since forged an identity of its own, one in which you use superpowers to fight space aliens and the forces of hell.
Saints Row 2 was my introduction to the series, and it quickly acclimated me to the game and its world. Rather than a lengthy, drawn-out cutscene followed by an extremely linear gameplay sequence like you’d see in Uncharted or Call of Duty, Saints Row 2 teaches you everything you need to know in about 90 seconds.
You’re a criminal badass who’s been in a coma for years, a guy named Carlos gets himself shanked to help you escape from prison, and the police hint at another situation, which you later discover is your former Saints gang member Johnny Gat’s murder trial. You hop in a truck and race on over, rescue Gat, shoot your way out of the courthouse, find a place to hide, and then you’re free to do whatever you’d like.
A great game pits you against a challenge, gives you a hard time, but ultimately you prevail through skill and persistence. It’s one of the reasons people like Dark Souls so much. Bad games, on the other hand, just want the player to feel powerful. They do everything to butter the player up, to give them accomplishment without the challenge. There’s something really exciting about going up against a boss who’s so much bigger than you and absolutely terrifying, but, through skilled play, you manage to defeat it.
A bad game makes the mistake of assuming that gamers want all their games to be power fantasies, experiences with no resistance or risk. They do everything to butter the player up, to make them feel unstoppable. Anyone who really believes this, of course, is demonstrably wrong: many gamers pride themselves on beating hard games at the highest difficulties; they look down on games that provide them with easy modes or ways to skip challenging gameplay. Still, they are correct in understanding that players want to feel powerful. It’s just that a power fantasy can never make anyone actually feel that way. It’s like playing tug of war with only one side. Pulling a rope with no resistance isn’t fun.
Saints Row 2 understands that players want to feel badass but also want to feel like they earn it. To do this, the game establishes some interesting stakes: you were great, you were dangerous, you do scare people, but now things have changed. Your greatest enemy, once a lowly undercover cop, is now the chief of police. The Saints fell apart with you gone, and three new gangs have overtaken your territory. Ultor, a fashion company, has turned your base into a museum.
Yeah, you were great (and still are), but nobody else believes it, so it’s time to remind them.
A great game will always provide the player with good motivation to take action. Assassin’s Creed II has the Borgias murder your father and brothers in front of you and makes you a wanted man. Half-Life starts with all your coworkers tut-tutting you for being late to an important experiment. Forza Horizon begins with you dead last, with hundreds of fellow drivers ahead of you in popularity and capability; many racers express disdain for you upon first meeting. In every one of these games, you prove your greatness through gameplay. You take back the respect you deserve. You earn your happy ending.
In Saints Row 2, a lot of this has to do with the excellent characters who surround you. When Carlos breaks you out of prison, he begs for a slot in the gang. He’s young and inexperienced, but beggars can’t be choosers, so you take him on as one of your lieutenants. Along with him are Shaundi and Pierce, both as inexperienced but enthusiastic as Carlos. The Saints become something of a family; the characters aren’t just NPCs who stand around your base giving you quests, they’re people with their own interesting backstories and characterization.
Pierce bounces off the player especially well. He enjoys subterfuge and seems continually flustered by the player’s preference for directness. It’s always played off as comedic, and it reinforces the gameplay wonderfully. Your character’s preferences closely mirror the style of gameplay that Volition has built the game around; what you want to do just happens to be the best way to do things, whether that’s causing as much property damage as possible for television ratings or spewing sewage at houses and shops to lower property values for a shifty real estate agent. Chaos and carnage is the name of your character’s game. It’s what you’re good at, and it’s what the game is good at providing.
The other characters exist to reinforce this relationship through positive feedback. Do something awesome and they give you the opportunity to do something even more awesome. Johnny eggs you on. Pierce comes up with overly complex plans that you quickly overrule, and he goes along with them, recognizing that they’re better. Carlos takes you on one of the most mischievous missions in the game.
Then things get real.
After you sabotage The Brotherhood’s tattoo parlor, which results in toxic waste being injected into their leader’s face, his girlfriend, Jessica, hatches a plan to kidnap Carlos. This mission is, without a doubt, the most memorable I’ve ever played in a sandbox game. The Brotherhood proceed to chain Carlos to one of their trucks and drag him down the road. You chase them down in your car, trying to get them to stop, trying to save Carlos, but you can’t. Your only choice is to put Carlos out of his misery.
Many games start with a motivation for revenge. Maybe a bad guy burns down your village or someone shoots you and leaves you for dead. This is something in fiction called assumed empathy; imagine how you’d feel if your best friend was shot. Now imagine how you’d feel if someone said “I’m your best friend” and then got shot. Too often, games do the latter. Saints Row 2 is one of the few games that spends a lot of time establishing player motivation by using its characters. The most powerful actions you take in the game were all set up long in advance. It’s a rare slow-burn approach to storytelling.
Johnny Gat also functions in this way. He’s one of the old-school Saints, your right hand, best friend, and one of the coolest characters in the game. He plays everything cool, he’s got all the best lines, and the two of you frequently finish each other’s sentences. He’s a loyal and indispensable ally.
The Ronin decide to take him out late in the game. They almost succeed, but his girlfriend, Aisha, manages to stop them, at the cost of her own life. This practically breaks Gat; the ensuing escape, where you and another Saint rescue Gat and take him to the hospital under an increasingly large number of Ronin assassins, is another moment of tragedy in an intensely personal game.
I’m a big fan of Grand Theft Auto V, but almost all of the decisions you make in the game are because other people want you to make them. Heck, it’s like the entire game is about doing things because someone’s blackmailing you into doing it. I can’t think of a moment in GTAV that felt as satisfying as taking over the town in Saints Row 2. Red Dead Redemption did the same thing: John Marston does what he does because he’s been blackmailed. Assassin’s Creed II is one of my favorite games of all time, but after your family is murdered early on, it takes two full games to carry out your revenge plot, by which time the lust for revenge has faded.
Unlike these games, your character’s motivation for revenge in Saints Row 2 is deeply personal because you’ve built up a relationship with the characters you’re avenging. You crack jokes, you fight together, and you’d die for each other. Every step of the way, you’re building meaningful bonds, and when the time comes to take revenge, oh boy does it feel great.
The Ronin are a satisfying enemy to overcome, not just because of what they did to Johnny, but because they’re so egotistical. Since Saints Row 2 is about reminding everyone why you’re so great, The Ronin are the perfect foil because they think they’re better than you. Defeating them isn’t just about getting revenge for Johnny, it’s about retaking your dignity and reminding people why you deserve their respect. That’s what makes their defeat so personally satisfying.
Most games fail when they lack any sort of emotional satisfaction. Last year’s Just Cause 3 provided some occasional thrills, but the vast majority of the game was about blowing stuff up. There was no reason to care about the characters; my loyal friend was an unlikable klutz. Everyone said I had to respect the President, but the President never really did anything worth respecting. It might be mechanically superior to Saints Row 2, but I barely remember any of it because it wasn’t personal.
Just Cause 3, like many games, focuses on creating unique mechanics that compliment its gameplay rather than the relationships that make the gameplay personal and affecting. The key focus should be on how game mechanics can be used to make us feel things. What mechanics do to us is far more important than how unique or perfectly implemented they are.
Nowadays, Saints Row has gone in a completely different direction. It’s still got a great crew—Shaundi’s personal crisis in subsequent games or Pierce’s need to be recognized for his intelligence are awesome, and moments like singing “What I Got” while racing through the streets of a new city stand out as some of the best in video games. But the increased focus on being zany and weird may be holding it back. I’m happy to partner up with Blackbeard in hell or defeat an evil alien space overlord who blew up Earth, but the three post-Saints Row 2 installments just aren’t as personal.
Saints Row 2 works because playing through the game is a process by which you prove yourself to the characters in the game instead of simply completing objectives; when victory comes, it feels completely earned. As if that weren’t enough, Saints Row 2 also takes you on a journey with an incomparable cast and crew of allies. Maybe one day, Deep Silver and Volition will remaster it. Until that day comes, however, I’m happy with what I got.
GB Burford is a freelance journalist and indie game developer who just can’t get enough of exploring why games work. You can reach him on Twitter at @ForgetAmnesia or on his blog. You can support him and even suggest games to write about over at his Patreon.