The Average Gamer

E3 2011 – Drew Holmes: “It’s not a sandbox, it’s a toy box.”

Saints Row: The Third - VTOLYesterday, I met up with Drew Holmes from Volition Inc. who is one of the writers on Saints Row The Third. Amongst a vibrant and busy THQ stand I got to interview him about the latest game in the Saints Row series.

What challenges do you face as a writer with the popularity of the first 2 games?

I think we really wanted to take a look at the direction of the game and where we wanted to take it in terms of the tone and the style. We really wanted to push that crazy over the top, ridiculous aspect of it, that’s the crazy sandbox. We said that we need to have a narrative that matches that, that equals it and in some respects pushes the envelope more than our open world gameplay. So it was a challenge to come up with this ridiculous, outlandish story with its twists and turns but without going too far. You want to keep it within the rules of the universe.  

Did you write the whole story first and then the game came out of it?

This is our third game, so we know what the structure really needs to be. We knew how we wanted activity to play out and open world stuff to fan out and the flow of the missions. But the narrative kind of helped us structure all of that. We knew what the game does well, we knew what our strengths were so we developed the narrative before we started to work on the game proper as we wanted to build the gameplay so it’s always serving that story and vice versa.

Was the writing process fairly fixed then, or dynamic? For example, part way through development it would be really cool if the characters did this?

Yeah, it’s still fluid, if you put something in the game and it doesn’t quite work, you’re tweaking and pushing early on. At this point we’re really full steam ahead. We’ve got a narrative that we feel really fits, we’ve got missions locked down. Early on there was a lot of iteration and a lot of back and forth in terms of changing the way the story flowed and dropping some characters and adding some new ones. So early on there was a lot of in-flux stuff.

Will players have different paths through the game?

Absolutely, Saints Row in itself is all about customisation, building your own character and dressing them. You build you character and then in the  cinematics that character shows up and you can choose your own voice from the multiple character voices. Each character is written in a different way so that if you play through it one full arc with one voice and then play through with another one then the diagloue is going to change. The situation will stay the same but the tone and the take might be a little different based on what that character is saying.

We’ve also incorporated player choice into a few of the missions. There’s going to be critical points as your playing through the game were you’ve got to make a decision based on what happening and it will affect the ending of the game.

Did you have an boundaries? Was there anything that you’d written down and then decided that you just can’t put it in the game?

We have a pretty good sense of what pushes things too far at this point in Saints  Row. It’s kinda like pornography when you see it, you can’t necessarily define it. We’ve frequently sat in brainstorming meetings and said no, absolutely not. We can’t do that weapon, we can’t do that part of the story, it’s much too ridiculous and doesn’t fit within the realm of the universe that we want to create. But I think we certainly right up close to that edge. Absolutely.

What are you particularly pleased with from a writing perspective? What has come out really well?

I think our characters. The new characters that we’ve introduced along with the story, much more colorful, much more outlandish and funnier than anything that we’ve ever done in previous Saints games. It just comes from experience, we’ve really learned from the mistakes we’ve made on Saints Row 1 and 2 and the success its had as well. It’s just about refining that experience and bringing our full force to the game.

So does the quality of writing match something like Batman: Arkham Asylum or Portal 2?

We want to hit that quality bar, they are completely different games so you’re not going to get that style necessarily. You’re not going to get a Valve Software type of story from Saints Row, it’s two completely different experiences, but that level of quality is certainly going to be there. People are going to be pleasantly surprised in terms of how we’ve challenged ourselves to raise the bar of how we tell the story.

There were some great one liners in the live demo that was shown earlier.

Yeah, it’s gotta be funny, it’s gotta be short and sweet. Get it in there so people remember it and don’t overstay your welcome
Do you go through your writing as a team?

We’ve got a core writing group at Volition working with the guys at THQ. It’s merciless, you throw an idea out there and if it doesn’t work you have to recognise that and go back to drawing board. But I think working with a really solid team has really helped us to really get that level of polish that we wanted from the game. We think it is going to really stand out this fall.

How has the new city influenced the writing style and story?

It’s much more over the top, more outlandish almost to a cartoonish level in terms of the story that we are telling, the level of violence, the level of ridiculousness. With the new city being built on our brand new engine, we’ve built the city from the ground up to take advantage of the gameplay that we wanted to do. I like to say it’s not a sandbox, it’s a toy box.

We are giving you lots of different crazy, stupid options. If you want to go and play it through straight as Mr tough guy then absolutely go ahead and do that, but we want people to have a whole range of options to play the game in the way that they want. In terms of writing for that then I think it’s just been about having a lot of flexibility and I think that the experience that we have now, we kind of know what players want to do so we’ve been trying to accommodate that.

I look forward to seeing the Kinect version….


Especially seeing how it works with that giant dildo weapon.

There’s no sort of Kinect integration at all! We are focused on just the hardcore controller based aspect of it.

Thanks for your time.

Saints Row The Third is due for release on the 15/11/11 on Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC.