Saturday, July 13, 2024

Saints Row Creative Director explains why the series values character customization and player expression

Ever since the second game let players pick their own voice and body, and had this level of character customization continue in future games, the community surrounding Saints Row has lauded the series for being a bastion of self-expression.

Identity has always played an important component in video games, particularly role-playing games. One of the main features that draw players into RPGs is character creators, a chance to explore and delve into identity and gender. For queer gamers, character customization symbolizes a safe space, one that they perhaps can’t find in their everyday life.

The importance of identity has always been present within video games, and as Volition’s Creative Director Brian Traficante tells us, it’s been a factor that has always carried weight in the Saints Row series. “One of our pillars for Saints Row is Self-Expression. We offer numerous ways players get to choose how to represent themselves in the game. It’s something that has become special for us and throughout the franchise we have had a lot of positivity about these features.” Traficante continues. “Just like players we love that our Boss can be whatever we want, either exactly as I am or anything else I can think of. It’s the empowerment we want our games to provide players.” 

In a game about crime, gangs, and violence, empowerment from a character creator may seem far-fetched, but video game protagonists in particular tend to skew to the male, white and cis variety – despite the audience playing video games being far more varied than that. Lately video game companies have tried to make a difference, but only by making their protagonists female instead. Video game characters remain distinctly white, cis and heterosexual, leaving behind gamers that fall outside of that by the wayside.

Saints Row’ Boss Factory is the most advanced character creator yet

But change is being made, and what worked in the past is being reshaped for the future – with new technology, audiences, and developers coming into the fold. With so many different outputs, Traficante explains that feedback on what to do in order to expand Saints Row has been helpful in expanding upon the foundations Volition already has. “We listen to our fans and community closely. We also poll internally, discuss, and collaborate ideas and thoughts (…) We also have great partners with our publishing groups of Plaion and Embracer.” 

Queerness in video games has often been relegated to being conveyed solely through sexuality, a singular facet that doesn’t quite encompass the range of what being queer is. Queer bodies, for example, have rarely been touched upon within the triple-A gaming space, with the most recent being Cyberpunk 2077 – a game that claimed to be ditching the gender binary completely. Instead, the customization arguably reveled in it, restricting players from romance and certain dialogue options due to voice, which also determined whether your character would use she/her or he/him pronouns.

In comparison to CD Projekt RED’s lastest RPG, the newest character customization in Saints Row looks to give queer players everything necessary to be who they want to be. In our review of the character creator, we were pleased to see body types had expanded, and that finally the series was taking disability seriously, rather than punching down on the disabled community. Instead of gag-like prosthetics, players are able to have artificial legs and arms, and all without losing the variety of clothing options that comes with the game. Our only complaint, however, was that our experimentation of creating a queer body that fit ours simply wasn’t able to be visualized due to the lack of trans scars. Traficante acknowledged our concern, and shared that the team at Volition had been “in discussions to expand [our] body and clothing options with free post-release content.”

Saints Row character customization
Fans and community have often praised Saints Row for its level of customization

“In particular we discussed more variety in ethnic hairs, headwraps and we did get prior feedback about body scars that we aligned with. All of this is still in discussion, what and when, but our goal here is to continue to increase our customization’s ability to support a wide spectrum of ways people can feel represented, create the most accurate Boss to express themselves as they can.”

Traficante also told Gayming Magazine that they want every person to find a way to connect via customization, and the team have tried hard to include “strong diversity” in the options to be as “inclusive as possible.”

That diversity won’t always be reflected in the world of Santo Illeso, however. This is largely due to it being technically challenging for the game, as loading so much variety into the game via the character creator is taxing as it is, meaning that if NPCs also had this amount of variety, it would affect the game’s performance – even more so if gamers want to explore the world via co-op. However, key NPC’s were worked on to ensure a “wonderfully wide spectrum” of people represented in-game.

Overall, Traficante assures us that the level of character customization within Saints Row plays a significant part in not just rebooting the series, but ensuring that the creator gives players the tools to be who they want, all while riding that well-known Saints Row line of reality and absurdity.

“This is a new beginning for Saints Row and our customization.” Traficante says. “This is the starting line for us. Our ambition is to go much further and remain the best customization in gaming. We can’t wait to share what will be next for Saints Row!”

Saints Row (2022) will be available on PC va the Epic Games Store, PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, and Google Stadia.

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