In what I can retrospectively look at now as an appetiser for the Saints Row: The Third remaster, I recently played through the Nintendo Switch port of Saints Row 4 for review. Being firmly in the pro-carnage side of the fanbase, I love the post-shark jump Saints Row games and had completed the fourth game so many times, I thought I’d played it in every way possible. Surprisingly though, considering I am a trans woman, I’d never played my character, The Boss, as one.
I get the argument that, since the Boss’ gender is fixed as male in the original Saints Row and can be customized in later installments, as well as the point that just because we aren’t explicitly told a character is trans doesn’t mean they’re cis. A popular fan theory suggests Tom Holland’s Spider-Man is a trans man, despite a lack of quote/unquote evidence. Let’s just park those arguments for now though. From my point of view, I’d always played the Boss as a cis woman. This time, I played her as a trans woman.
I didn’t plan on it. As I reached the character creator, I designed my typical Saint, with the purple hair, heavy makeup and stripper boots. At the voice, I instinctively went for Laura Bailey, not only because she’s one of the best voice actors in town, but because I’ve always been drawn to women with deeper, gravely voices. It’s the same reason I love Kathleen Turner, Jessica Rabbit, Megara, and, for even though she’s highly problematic, Scarlett Johansson. But I’m not Scarlett Johansson. My voice is more Robert Downey than ScarJo; truth be told it’s more Waluigi than RDJ. To try for something different, I ignored the pull of Laura Bailey and instead stuck with Voice #1: Troy Baker.
Playing in an obviously femme form with a masc voice, I felt more connected to a video game avatar than perhaps I ever had been. It’s nice to put myself in the shoes of Lara Croft, Aloy, Lightning or Max Caulfield, but their skin never quite fit me. While the Boss is far more violent, arrogant and outlandish than me, with Troy Baker’s voice in her throat, I felt at home.
It was liberating, but there was more to this than simply giving a female character a male voice. Saints Row 4 was the perfect place for this experiment, and became a safe space to own my non-passing voice, along with providing a few sharp moments which struck right to the core of the femme-passing, male voiced trans woman.
Saints Row began as a rather simple Grand Theft Auto clone, but by the fourth installment, they gave you superpowers inside a computer simulation of your town while you battled a Macbeth-quoting alien. The game also features a mission with a BDSM pony play-horse race, a fight against a sentient toilet and of course, the patented dildo bat. For all it’s stuffed with crude and zany humour, it clues everyone in on the gags and always laughs at the ridiculousness of the situation, rather than the punching down which usually comes with these sensibilities. The worst you get is a little bit of kink-shaming, and even then the game still lets you indulge.
Saint’s Row lets you, me, and everybody be whoever they want. In the mission where my Boss, Troy Baker voice and all, donned a cowboy hat and thong bikini to fulfill their dreams of exotic dancing while the crowd cheered, that was never more apparent.
There were other instances throughout the game which played into a trans narrative too. During Asha’s loyalty mission, you encounter an evil version of yourself. How do you know she’s evil? She comes with a vaudeville villain mustache and goatee. As someone who’s gone through a lot of time, money, and pain getting my facial hair burnt away with lasers, the hellish confrontation with my evil self, identical to me except for facial hair, is a terrifying concept. What was written to be a pantomime gag became a nightmarish taunt with Troy Baker’s voice equipped. It felt more real to me, more absorbing, and for a game with Godzilla energy drinks, god help me, it felt more true.
Speaking of energy drinks, their accidental creator, Pierce, has been a long time companion of the Saints, and like most of the crew, you can have sex with him in the game. Romance is a simple process in Saints Row; you just walk up to the person, push a button, and you’re knockin’ boots. With Kinzie, the Boss is even so blunt she’ll just say ‘wanna fuck?’, and so it begins. With Pierce, it’s slightly different. He tells you ‘I don’t normally swing that way,’ but still goes ahead and does the deed. It says a lot about society the perpetual fetishization of trans women that this subtle gatekeeping of gender, ‘hot for a transgender’ attitude of Pierce feels closer to accuracy than bondage babe Kinzie pushing you to the floor to top you. While it was written as a queer-positive, leave your gender at the door line for those playing as the default cis man character, as a trans woman it feels uncomfortably close to a guy who asks trans streamers for feet pics and regularly uses the f slur.
Despite Pierce’s throwaway line needling more than it was ever supposed to, Saints Row 4 provided a brilliant playground to feel at home in, and to explore a trans experience that was both explicit and natural. The very few games which put queer themes at the front naturally milk them for all it’s worth, but as a player creation, Saints Row 4’s transgender story let me be me without putting any particular aspect for me in the spotlight. We don’t sit around all day and think about being transgender. Sometimes we just want to pull on our stripper boots, fight aliens, cause mayhem, and not have to worry about our voice passing.