'Saints Row IV': The wild game that almost didn't get made

The opening 30 minutes of “Saints Row IV” might qualify as the most breathtakingly ridiculous in video game history.

As a member of the Saints, a street gang turned-beloved international celebrities, the main character thwarts a nuclear weapon mid-flight by jumping on it and ripping out its circuits as Aerosmith’s bombastic “I Don’t Wanna Miss a Thing” soars in the background. The missile safely detonates and you land in the Oval Office as the newly-elected president with actor Keith David (as himself) as your second in command. After signing a bill into law to either end world hunger or cure cancer, your POTUS is captured during an alien invasion and warped into a “Matrix”-like virtual reality, where he or she must gain superpowers in order to escape.

Perhaps there’s something in the corn in Champaign, home of “Saints” developer Volition Studios, to explain the demented nature of the open-world shooter. Once written off as a goofy “Grand Theft Auto” imitator, the fourth installment—due out Tuesday for Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and PC—is in its own gaming stratosphere entirely.

“It’s a fever dream in a box,” creative director Steve Jaros said. “Our games were always silly. But we didn’t go far enough with the parody so people weren’t sure if we were serious or not. So then for ‘Saints Row 3,’ we’re like [bleep] it and we doubled down on the humor. We got a really great response to it, but then it’s like what the [bleep] do we do now? At the end of ‘Saints Row 3’ you end up on Mars, so it’s like where do you go? So in the process, you go, ‘OK, superpowers, aliens and we’ll make you the president.’

And it almost didn’t exist. “Saints Row 4” was a few months from completion when THQ went bankrupt in January—leaving the game without its longtime publisher. The fate of both Volition and “Saints Row” remained uncertain as THQ’s properties went up for auction.

“It’s pretty weird when you have this parade of suitors coming through your door and you’re showing off your wares,” Jaros said. “It’s a scary thing, so you’re sitting there like ‘Please let them find us pretty.’”

But the company found a willing suitor in Koch Media, which publishes under the name Deep Silver. who bought Volition for $22 million. Concerns that the new company might try to tame and change the direction of “Saints Row IV” were quickly assuaged after the Koch CEO flew to Champaign to talk to the 180 person team.

“Instead of meddling creatively, they were like ‘How can we help you sell your game?’ It was pretty amazing,” Jaros said.

Soon Volition was again free to cram more unorthodox ideas under the hood of “Saints Row IV,” restrained only by budget and time. A “Game of Thrones”-style dragon character didn’t make the cut due to animation costs, and a Bollywood dance number for the end was shelved because of the expense of hiring a big acting troupe.

“You have to find better solutions and finding how to make crazy things work given time and budget,” he said.

One such crazy feature that somehow found the light of day: the so-called dubstep gun. Holding down the trigger of the weapon elicits a sound wave of music from the barrel—killing your target but causing nearby cars to bounce to the dubstep beat and bystanders to break into a spontaneous dance party.

The question then remains—how would Volition begin to beat “Saints Row IV” with the next installment?

“I don’t think we’re ready for that yet,” Jaros said. “We have ideas, but it’s hard to top aliens in space.”

Ryan Smith is a RedEye special contributor.

Copyright © 2015, RedEye
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