Saints Row 4 and The World's End — The New Humanism or We Wanna Get Loaded
If aliens arrived on earth I'm 99% sure that I'd be on their side, assuming they mastered space and traversed the cosmos in order to recruit fat white guys who write about video games on the internet to administer their interstellar civilization. Far fetched as it may be, whenever an empire moves in to conquer a strange new land the first thing they do is align themselves with a small, historically dispossessed group of natives who know the land and it's people, but have no allegiance to the existing power structure: the Hmong in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War, the Kurds in the Middle East during the Iraq War, the Africans in America during the Revolutionary War. Humanity has enjoyed a monopoly on sentient life on this planet for 200,000 years, a privilege it has either taken for granted or openly abused, and while I've been inundated with visions of genocidally violent aliens all my life, in all honesty I have a hard time believing they could possibly be any worse than the species that produced Toddlers & Tiaras. We've set the bar so low the biggest danger is someone else tripping on it in order to get to us; that the aliens will arrive bringing perfect health and limitless wisdom and boundless joy and within a decade we'd have them gorging on high-fructose corn syrup and complaining about how the government wants to take their guns away.
Our popular media tends to eschew such nightmare scenarios. The rule usually is if we go to them, the aliens are good, but if they come to us, the aliens are bad. Think about it: Star Trek, Mass Effect, and Avatar vs Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Predator, and War of the Worlds. Since drama is driven by conflict and aliens represent the ultimate Other, there are very few examples of aliens coming to earth to be the good guys, and if they are it's usually only because they're more like us than even we are: your Doctor Whos, your Supermen. There's E.T. The Extra Terrestrial, but that's really about how children are aliens themselves, aliens we destroy by making them grow up.
When humanity ventures out into space the narrative of humans over aliens continues, but instead of survival humans are competing for status, with the cream of humanity rising to the top of alien societies. Star Trek is all about Bones and Kirk giving Spock $#!t for not being human enough. In Avatar, a human is better at being an alien than the aliens are. Virtually all of Mass Effect 3 consists of aliens telling Shepard how great she/he is. Truly, humans would be pretty awesome if we didn't have dumb ol' reality hovering around, spoiling everything, reminding us of our vanities, our weaknesses, our tendency to $#!t the proverbial bed on a global scale. Enter two new entertainments that readily acknowledge all the things wrong with humanity, yet urge us to cast our lot with the human race anyhow: The World's End and Saint's Row 4.
The World's End is about Gary King, Andy Knightley & friends returning to their hometown of Newton Haven to reattempt the epic pub crawl they failed to complete as teenagers, a night of drunken adolescent debauchery that has come to stand in Gary's mind as the symbol for everything good and hopeful that failed to materialize in his adult life. As the night progresses and Gary prods his less developmentally challenged friends from bar to bar, they come to learn that everyone in Newton Haven has been replaced by robot duplicates as a prelude to global conquest by an advanced alien intelligence calling itself The Network. It's a funny, exciting, melancholy, and ultimately hopeful portrayal of the disappointments everyone except Jaden Smith will encounter in the course of their life.
Saints Row 4 follows the homicidal escapades of a group of lovably psychopathic gangsters called The Saints whose lives have grown steadily more outlandish since the franchise began its life as a simple Grand Theft Auto knockoff. The fourth entry in the series opens with the protagonist—referred to simply as Boss—earning the love of the people by saving Washington DC from a nuclear missile launched by one of the Saints' old foes in a level that functions as a Modern Warfare homage/parody. The Saints parlay the public's adoration and their own widespread brand recognition into a political career, and within the length of a cutscene you've been elected President of the United States. Fortunately, before the Saints can become tainted by Washington's sick culture of corruption and nepotism, aliens invade. The alien force is led by oenophile, cultural connoisseur, packer of a mean left hook and leader of the Zin Empire: Zinyak. Zinyak abducts the President along with her (I played as female) cabinet and imprisons them in a computer simulation of their home turf of Steelport aboard his mothership. The Boss and company manage to escape and wage a guerrilla war against Zinyak in both meatspace and the digital frontier. Zinyak retaliates by blowing up earth. This $#!t just got real.
Neither Gary King & co. nor The Saints are what you'd call heroes when their stories begin. Gary carries his failure to integrate into adult society with him like the black duster he's continued to sport since his days as a teenager. He drives the same car, listens to the same mix-tape, and is desperate to re-create the happiness he once knew as a drunk adolescent, because he does not like the person he is in the present. It's temping to say Gary idealizes the past, but I think what he's really doing is clinging to it, clinging to a single day of unadulterated happiness like a drowning man clinging to a piece of floating debris. Gary is a leader with no one to lead, a shepherd without a flock, a knight without a quest, and if the only way to get the gang back together is to badger, cajole, pester, and lie to them, then that's what he'll do. Gary's defining trait is his passion, infused with a kind of stubbornness and vanity that served him well when he was a teenager and a leader of men, but when left alone in the staid world of adulthood, those selfsame traits are killing him just as surely as government custody was killing E.T. The way he sees it, he can only return purpose to his life by reenacting the twelve pint pub crawl; only then will he again be The King, instead of lowly Gary King (he's also a raging alcoholic) but aliens had to cock it all up by invading.
The President in Saints Row 4 represents the kind of hedonistic party-time Übermensch Gary King could have been, had society only indulged his arrested adolescence. The leader of the Saints is a burning sun of sex, power, bravado, carnage, and whimsy around which her crew orbits. She's acquired an eclectic cast of characters over the course of her career as a criminal/energy drink entrepreneur/terrorist/president/space rebel, a surrogate family that follows her insane escapades with loyalty and bravado—the occasional argument, beating, or sexual misadventure notwithstanding. In the course of Saints Row 4 Johnny Gat, Shaundi, Pierce Washington, Matt Miller, Benjamin King, Kinzie Kensington, Keith David, CID, and Asha Odekar will follow the Boss through a blender of pop culture insanity that includes homages to video game genres like side scrolling brawlers and stealth espionage, and movies like They Live and Transformers: The Movie (the 1986 animated version). In the world of Saints Row 4 every whim is indulged, be it driving on the sidewalk, blowing up a city block, or impulsively having sex with all your friends. The Saints Presidency, much like the Reagan administration, is a living monument to overreaction, poor impulse control, immediate gratification, selfishness, and proud ignorance—all characteristics adults, at least in theory, are supposed to have under control. When Zinyak invades, subjugates, and finally annihilates the earth it doesn't feel like an act of war so much as the cops breaking up a party. And the Saints know that they have to fight for their right. (To party, that is.)
Gary King is also fighting against an alien threat. He has no super powers, tank, or dubstep gun; Gary's only weapon against The Network is his adamantine refusal to let anyone else live his life for him, no matter how terrible it is or how many mistakes he's made. When Gary King and Andy Knightley reach the ultimate watering hole in their apocalyptic pub crawl and confront the unfathomably brilliant alien intelligence that's assimilated their home town, it makes a very reasonable, sensible argument for conquering earth that Gary rejects utterly. It identifies earth as the least civilized planet in its local cluster and cites Gary King himself as a sterling example of humanity's utter failure to manage its own affairs. Gary doesn't deny any of this, but responds with an ironclad argument: He does not want to be replaced by a robot. Gary hates his shambles of a life, but it's still his, and he refuses to trade it for anything. It quickly becomes clear that The Network greatly underestimated the human will to cling to their own small, broken selves; that the very weaknesses that precipitate the assembly line of tragedies that unfold across the planet on a daily basis also constitute a warped kind of strength, a power The Network has no defense against. If the old adage “Beware stupid people in large groups.” has any truth in it, The Network made a massive blunder in failing to beware earth. When The Network asks Gary what he wants, Gary invokes the beloved lines spoken by Peter Fonda in The Wild Angels (Roger Corman, 1966). He wants to be free. He wants to get loaded and have a good time. The Network is correct when it responds that there's no point in arguing with Gary; there's no way it can possibly give him the stupid, pointless things he holds dear. The Network departs, leaving earth in a new Dark Age, but though it doesn't know it, it's given Gary the very thing he needed more than anything. It has given him purpose.
Zinyak's intentions in subjugating earth are much closer to Gary's than The Network's, albeit much more refined. Zinyak craves amusement. He's just as vain, stubborn, and prone to use massive amounts of violence to solve basic problems as the President is, the difference is Zinyak has more sophisticated taste and he doesn't have friends, just subjects. Zinyak DJs the classical radio station in the Steelport simulation, periodically interrupting the music to read the first chapter of Pride and Prejudice aloud or do a table read of Romeo & Juliet with a hostage. He's conspicuously starved for entertainment (Zinyak would likely chose to refer to his affliction as ennui) and at first only lets The Saints fight the Zin Empire because it amuses him. This fosters a kind of slobs vs snobs dynamic—indeed, Volition was remiss in not having someone in the Saints exclaim “Hey everybody, we're all gonna get laid!” but that's what sequels are for. Where Zinyak's behavior is affected to the point of parody, the President just wants to have a good time and blow shit up, not necessarily in that order. The use of music is key here, showing Deep Silver Volition possesses an understanding of their core audience so profound it's almost scary. When Paula Abdul's Opposites Attract comes on the radio the Boss sings along and enjoins her companion Kinzie Kensington to do so as well, saying she can be the cat. When the Saints escape Zinyak's mothership the Boss cranks Haddaway's What Is Love on the radio, because of course she does. When racing to her final showdown with Zinyak Stan bush's The Touch plays, the song that heralded Optimus Prime's final showdown with Megatron, though I'd argue it's definitive version didn't arrive until Boogie Nights eleven years later. The Boss wins by bringing her unique brand of Pop Mayhem to bear on the Zin Empire. She undermines Zinyak's power by undermining any semblance of order in his simulation of Steelport, spreading chaos and destruction wherever she goes. In the end, Zinyak is not undone by humanity's nobility, intelligence, or wherewithal, but its endless appetite for mischief.
When The World's End and Saints Row 4 draw to a close their protagonists have become heroes, not because they overcame the tragic flaws in their personalities, but because the seemingly implacable alien forces arrayed against them couldn't compete. Zinyak couldn't create any order the Saints couldn't smash, and The Network couldn't offer any utopia more alluring than Gary King's own tragicomic life, which isn't to say our heroes are left unchanged by their experiences. Madam President of The United States is now Madam Empress of the Zin Empire, and while it's unlikely her new administration will have any more longevity than her old one, circumstances seem to have successfully fostered her transition from puckish rogue to honest-to-god hero, champion of those who want to be free, have a good time, and get loaded the galaxy over. Gary King has likewise regained his status as a leader, adopting the robot copies of his teenage friends who are left to wander the earth alone after The Network departs. Leading his android companions into a world that hates and fears them, Gary has regained the confidence he thought could only be sustained by a heroic intake of alcohol, directing his passion, stubbornness, and vanity into the kind of righteous cause that was so conspicuously absent in his life before the network came along. Taken together, these two visions of Humanity Triumphant constitute a new kind of Humanism for our bleak, cynical age, a new Humanism that not only accepts the fallibility, imperfectability and general $#!theadedness of the human animal but celebrates it, insisting that which damns us also redeems us. As religion grows hollow, as the dreams of communism and socialism descend into nightmares or evaporate entirely, as capitalism provides prosperity for a few while eating the world alive and governments in general exist to shield ravenous corporations from public accountability, the New Humanism provides a last bulwark against the encroaching darkness, accepting limited hedonism while preserving ideals like loyalty, love, and human exceptionalism; It encourages us to fight to be free, to do what we want to do, to ride our machines without being hassled by the man, to get loaded and have a good time, to fight for our right.
(To party, that is.)