Saints Row is less a franchise nowadays as a sort of commercial Godzilla, stomping down the entertainment industry's glittering highway, tearing fistfuls of matter from other games, films and TV shows. This may seem like mere canniness - lest we forget, the series began life as a depressingly "gangsta" GTA clone - but there's more to it than that. Simply put, Volition loves making other people's ideas its own, generally in order to poke fun at them, and strong sales have allowed the moneymen (hitherto, THQ; latterly, Koch Media) to indulge that insatiable capacity for imitation.
Saints Row 4, for instance, kicks off with a straight parody of Modern Warfare and grim world-saving idiocy in general, complete with tearful radio communiques from returning characters as you clamber suicidally up the flank of a nuclear rocket, ripping out guidance systems. Later, there's an opportunity to mock 1950s Americana and by extension the XCOM series, shortly after fending off an alien attack on the White House. It's all born of an understanding, perhaps, that blockbuster publishing in general has become thoroughly laughable, an endless procession of lantern jaws and unlockable assault rifles burdened by crippling multi-million dollar development costs.
As you'll know from my hands-on, I don't think the studio gets away with it all the time - some of the gags and setpieces feel a bit contrived, and they're troubled by dodgy handling (Log begs to differ, incidentally). But the game's smorgasbord of excess remains invigorating. Just look at the stuff that didn't make the cut.
"There is a week we call the 'Awesome Week'," Volition's wide-eyed senior producer Jim Boone recalled when I spoke to him at an event last month, "and we do literally whatever you want to do. Like, don't worry about the schedule, don't worry about your tasks or anything like that - whatever you can come up with, work together, work alone, it doesn't matter. Just come up with it.
"And a group of people came up with a dragon. You could literally mount and fly a dragon - breathe fire, it was amazing, and the only reason it didn't make it in was just because of the technical issues. Like we didn't have a memory slot for the characters, for vehicles that were large enough to have the texture space to make the dragon look good. But notice, I mean I'm just talking about the technical issues. It wasn't that we couldn't find a way to make it fit."
The dragon could appear as DLC - "you never know", Boone beamed - so those angling for a touch of the Dragonborn might want to cross their fingers. I'm more interested in the Monkey Gun, personally. "That had a lot of popularity behind it, but just didn't work out mechanically, I still wonder sometimes if we could make this work. What the hell is a monkey gun? You shoot the gun and monkeys jump out, little monkeys jump out, and grab onto you and hold you down. It's a monkey gun. It's very logical." Somewhere, I hope, a group of Timesplitters 4 designers are taking notes.
The "Awesome Week" idea is obviously comparable to the "Amnesia Fortnights" held by Double Fine, which led to the creation of Costume Quest, Trenched/Iron Brigade and Stacking. In Volition's case, this was an opportunity to think beyond even the very minimal restrictions posed by Saints Row 4's fiction - the game envisages a virtual reality version of the already-permissive city of Steelport, where you're free to play the superhero.
"You know, usually, what I found was it was more mechanical type things that people were doing, than high level concepts or narrative ideas or things like that," Boone went on. "It was more like, here's the thing another couple of guys put together - a hover board. So it was almost like Back To The Future, right? You know Back To The Future 2 where he's got this little hover board, skateboard-type thing. And those were the kinds of things that people were experimenting with, those kind of mechanics that they couldn't do otherwise."