On Homage, Satires and Parodies

In Video Games on June 7, 2012 at 9:58 pm

I think some games have a hard time following their predecessors because  they’re trying to follow a nuanced construct with a simpler diversion. What was previously a pastiche instead only references itself, and it shifts from satire to self-parody. It’s disconcerting.

Two games bring this idea into focus: Max Payne 3 and Saints Row 3.

But first, let’s define some of what we’ll be talking about, rather than having you alt-tab to Wikipedia.

An homage is a dedication or a nod of respect, built and referenced using the mechanics of the medium. Works generally only pay homage to works they like (or view positively), and in most cases do so when the work in question is in some way responsible for the story, genre or characters at play. Depending upon the medium, this can become more abstract — you can pay homage to visual styles, musical works, tones and more.

Homage is different from being referential. When the phrase “THX 1138” makes the rounds through more than a few movies, it’s just referencing George Lucas and his impact on speculative fiction. But when the last piece of music in the ending scene of Mass Effect is the first piece of music you hear when you boot up the first game, it’s an homage to the player and everything you’ve been fighting for during the past three games.

Satire and parody seem harder to separate for some people. In the most simple explanation I can think of, parody mocks something through mimicry, where satire explores deeper meanings through a legitimate narrative. Parody is direct, since it’s humor is dependent upon knowing what source material is being made fun of, while satire can have more ambiguous reach.

The point that we’re all introduced to satire is almost always going to be Gulliver’s Travels, as we’re told it satirizes certain aspects of English culture, society and government. However, it’s still a story with characters that has a beginning and an end — so much so, that those that adapt this work tend to make changes that forsake the original intent.

This isn’t a bad thing, since obviously not many people are familiar with the specific portions of its satire (though there are broader applications — nevermind).

Satire can and often does loop around towards deconstruction and postmodernism.

The original Max Payne‘s bullet time gameplay is obviously an homage to action films and works before it. The creators obviously enjoyed these works and respects them for bringing us to the point where a game like Max Payne was possible. There’s the expectation that the player will feel the same way; it’s difficult to produce a game that criticizes its primary audience, for example (see also Metal Gear Solid). The game itself is a pastiche of more than a few elements, from its plot and set pieces (A cop on the run! A man with nothing to lose! The mob! A deeper conspiracy!), but also with its presentation: while the gameplay strives to be cinematic and we’re presented with in-engine cutscenes, we’re also given comics to further develop the narrative and characters.

In all of this, Max Payne lightly satirizes video games and conventions as Max himself observes the ridiculous situation he finds himself in. Self-referential awareness is a key component of postmodern works.

The sequel takes this a step further through its deconstruction of the previous game. Max lives in a world that recognizes that he has the highest mobster body count ever, period. Max also grimaces that trying to wash your hands in gallons of blood doesn’t really work out very well. Through the rest of the game, he also questions the methods that bring him along. He makes a decision to side with Mona and kill his partner. Much later, he finds out that she was a mole, seemingly justifying the bloody path that lead him to find that out. Only Max rejects this idea — he had no idea at the time that she was the mole, and the idea that future knowledge can absolve past mistakes only serves to “damn him.”

All of this, over a course of action and gameplay that players probably never thought to question.

The game still enjoys being what it is, though, and lightly references its own nature as a video game and as a piece of thoroughly dramatic noir more than a few times. These parts help remind you that there is actually a reason to all of this, by bringing some lightness into the darkened noir. Just enough to give pause and awareness to what’s going on around you.

Then you’ve got Max Payne 3, which basically takes all of this and places it decidedly straight. Max is a burned out drunk because the writers probably thought no one could live through what Max has without resorting to that — even though Max already had done this by the time the second game rolled around. In an array of spectacular slow motion spectacles, Max and his dread momentum carry him through one shootout after another with n’ary a self-aware, medium-referencial pause along the way.

Think of it this way: Max still chose to be a police officer after the events of the first game, because what made him become a cop in the first place had not changed, and what compelled him to work undercover hadn’t changed: that some good needed to be done. Max Payne 2 sprouts naturally from the first game with this. Max Payne 3 sprouts from the second game not because of this character-centric idea, but from the grim momentum of franchise. It tells a new story, and tells it well, but it’s not a nuanced satire of noirish action that pays affectionate homage to let you know it wants to be here.

Saints Row 3 has similar issues.

SR2 is, as best as I can describe it, a dark, postmodern satire about power fantasies and revenge, ripping the gild off the lily where gangster life is concerned (and indeed, the great lifestyle enjoyed by most open-world crime game protagonists).

The Boss is fueled entirely by a thirst for revenge and vanity. He or she might tell the lieutenants that it’s about taking back what was rightfully the Saints’, but the truth is brutally revealed each time the game shows how much of a sociopathic monster the Boss can be. Attacking a nuclear plant just to poison tattoo ink? Savagely disfiguring people for merely being acquaintances of other gang bosses? All in a day’s work apparently.

The Boss doesn’t care about the gang. The game even tries to tell you this, in that the Boss never bothers to take back the eponymous Saints Row area of Stillwater.

Even more, in something of a bonus scene after the main plot, you find and kill the person that betrayed you. In case it wasn’t obvious at this point, they actually directly accuse you of what I’ve been saying. You basically say “yup” and kill them. If only your gang knew who they were really fighting for.

Then the third game comes along and seems to be satisfied just parodying the second game. The second game was truly its own work, despite its satiric nature and its constant comparison to GTA IV, being seen as a fun version of that game. Saints Row The Third takes this to heart and doesn’t have a serious moment in it until the end, and even then it’s only one of the two possible endings that brings back the idea that maybe, just maybe, the Boss isn’t a hero, or really fit to be a leader, since you’re just a revenge-obsessed psycho who will gladly sacrifice friends and allies for your revenge and power.

This is why I like the darker ending. It’s ludicrous still, but shows that there’s hope for the series yet.

  1. I agree about both max payne and Saints Row 2. Good stuff.

  2. It’s definitely subtle, the distinctions brought up in your article. It’s no wonder the internet at large fails to grasp these concepts.

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