When the original Saints Row launched in 2006, many were quick to label the game a Grand Theft Auto clone. It was an open-world crime playground, fair enough, but it had plenty of features to call its own. With unparalleled customization for its time, the Saints Row series paved the way for future inclusive character creators and, on a more personal note, helped me figure out my own gender identity.
Now, in 2022, long-time series developer Volition has released a Saints Row reboot, with a wide variety of gender non-conforming customization options. This is all indicative of a series that, despite growing pains, pushed the boundaries of how we can present ourselves within the digital world. So, how did we even get here?
In the mid-2000s, open-world crime games traditionally put you in the shoes of a predetermined character, but Saints Row let you craft your own member of the Third Street Saints and change their appearance whenever via the in-game surgeon. It wasn’t perfect — apart from a few scant lines, the protagonist was conspicuously silent, and you could only play as a male character — but it was a huge milestone leading to more open-ended character creation.
Two years later, Saints Row 2 doubled down on customization and fixed its predecessors issues. At first glance, the revamped character creation system seemed like just a more robust version of the first game, but what it added changed the series and opened up a Pandora’s Box of queerness that certainly left an impression on my younger self.
Growing up transgender without knowing it yet (what we in the community call the “egg” phase) was pretty weird. I spent a good chunk of my childhood knowing there was something different about me, but I didn’t have the words to express it.
I wasn’t the most feminine or flamboyant ostensible male I knew, but my sexuality was questioned enough to make me afraid to express anything other than what was expected of me. Bucking those expectations in any form was usually met with confusion at best, or outright mockery at worst.
Though I didn’t grow up in a particularly conservative household, gender norms felt enforced by society and the media I consumed, especially in video games. The typical game protagonist of the 2000s was incredibly homogenous: they were almost always a white male with short auburn hair, a square jaw, perfect stubble, well-built but not overly muscular, and probably voiced by Nolan North. In an environment like this, it was all too easy to not even question if there were other options. All I needed to break out of my shell was for a piece of media to show me I didn’t have to settle for what I was given.
That moment came when I was sixteen years old, playing Saints Row 2 on my PS3, still very much under the belief I was a guy. I wouldn’t be so sure afterwards.
In Saints Row 2, the player character, known as “The Boss” after assuming leadership of the Saints, now not only had a voice, but a choice of six. Along with the expected face, hair, and clothing customization, you could pick your avatar’s walking animation, resting facial expression, fighting style, and a wide array of compliments and taunts well before emotes were commonplace. What really set it apart, though, was not only that you could now select your gender, but how you could do it.
You still had to pick between male or female, but this choice was almost entirely perfunctory once you moved onto the next menu. Amongst sliders for muscularity, fatness and age, there was a curious one simply labeled “body shape.” Push this slider to the right, and your character’s shoulders would broaden and a bulge would appear in their groin. Slide it all the way to the right, and their hips would widen as breasts formed on their chest.
Yes, in an age where getting to play as anybody but a cishet white man was a rarity, the prescient woke chad of a game that is Saints Row 2 measured gender on a spectrum. So what was the point of picking male or female then? Well, it actually changed only one thing about the character model: the length of the eyelashes. Pick male and your avatar’s eyes were basically naked, but favor female and they would have long and luscious lashes.
Other than that, gender was your playground. For a lot of gamers, I’m sure this slider wasn’t something they thought much about, but for reasons I couldn’t quite put together at the time, it endlessly fascinated me.
Once you were out in the open world and free to explore Stilwater’s various stores, every cosmetic option was always open to you. This was in stark contrast to other games of the era where, if they even let you pick your gender, your subsequent choices would be immediately narrowed. Certain hair, clothing, and make-up options would often be locked to the opposite sex.
In more extreme cases, other games might let you experiment with broader options, but treat it as a joke. I still vividly remember how the Fable games allowed you to cross-dress, but then NPCs would laugh at and shout insults at you; Fable III even had a “transvestism” points modifier on female clothes if worn by a male avatar. Instead of laughter though, I felt only shame. I was playing Fable to escape from the bullying I was already facing at school, and now the game itself was essentially bullying me. In Saints Row 2 though, there were no boundaries set by the game or judgements from any of its characters, allowing the mixing and matching of traits to create a wide variety of Bosses. You could play as a drag queen, a butch lesbian, a femme gay man, and even trans and non-binary characters.
I remember becoming curious about the system’s limits, so I started a playthrough as a male avatar. Every so often, I would nudge the body type slider towards female, and came to witness my character transition over the course of the story. At the time, I didn’t really understand why I had this compulsion, but years later those pent-up feelings seeped into my life outside the game. Without even knowing it, Saints Row helped me come to terms with my trans identity, and having that space where I could explore those questions without judgment was essentially a way for me to virtually ascertain my transition goals.
And if you think about it, since you can only play as a male character in the first game and go through extensive plastic surgery at the start of the second, doesn’t that mean that any female version of The Boss is inherently trans? I mean, it certainly would explain their inexplicable knowledge of women’s fashion at the end of the Los Carnales campaign and…I’m getting off topic, aren’t I? That’s a whole other deep dive on its own.
Unfortunately, future titles in the series dialed back on the freedoms granted by Saints Row 2. 2011’s Saints Row: The Third revamped customization in a lot of ways, but also cut and simplified a lot of the nuances that made the second game so unique. Whilst options like voice, hair, clothing, accessories, and make-up remain unbound, male and female was now a binary choice, with each having completely different character models with a sex appeal slider to control groin/breast size in place of the neutral body type.
Being built from The Third’s assets, 2013’s Saints Row IV featured pretty much the exact same suite, whilst spin-offs Gat Out of Hell and Agents of Mayhem eschewed customization completely in favor of developer-made characters. In the meantime, games like The Sims 4 and, much later, the remake of Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1+2, began to embrace a more gender-neutral approach to character customization.
Some stumbled in the move, like Cyberpunk 2077 making a big deal about allowing you to explicitly customize protagonist V’s genitals, but then oddly tied their pronouns to which voice you chose. But the options available there are still miles ahead of where we were even a few years ago.
Still, no game has even come close to the unbridled freedom and excess of Saints Row 2…until now.
Ever since the announcement of the 2022 reboot, I had been hoping the customization options would return to something more akin to the second game, and Volition has thankfully granted that wish. As Associate UX Designer Kenzie Lindgren put it, “I love that we don’t have anything gender-specific.”
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Not only do all cosmetics remain unbound from gender, the body customization has returned to the one-size-fits-all model. The body shape spectrum of Saints Row 2 and the sex appeal options of The Third have evolved into three distinct sliders comprised of: figure, chest size, and groin size. With this amount of freedom, your character’s gender is totally up to your own head canon. Though it still lacks some of the features from Saints Row 2 (Volition, can we please have walk styles back?), this is pretty much the customization suite of my dreams, and yet…it hits different now.
I still have a long way to go in terms of personal milestones, but I’ve reached a point in my transition where I’m not questioning or experimenting so much with my identity. I know I’m a woman, what kind of aesthetic works for me, and how I want to present myself in a way that’s authentic.
With the 2022 reboot, I spent ages perfecting my avatar through the pre-release Boss Factory, but once the game released and I was playing the full experience, I found myself fiddling with the customization far less than I thought; just the occasional hair and outfit change to shake things up. As I kept playing, I eventually realized that I had, for lack of a better word, matured out of the need to experiment within the game. I was just me, having long since hatched out of my shell.
Volition has always championed the Saints Row series as being for everyone, with The Third’s assistant producer David Cubberly once stating, “Saints Row: The Third is an equal opportunity offender. You can run around Steelport as a male, or female, or anything in between,” and that sentiment is clearer (and less awkwardly put) in its 2022 incarnation.
From how the customization has expanded to include options like asymmetrical face shaping, prosthetic limbs and vitiligo patches, to its queer content having evolved from played-for-laughs romance options in Saints Row IV to a canonically bi/pan companion with Kevin, the developers have only pushed its commitment to inclusion further.
For non-binary players, who are rarely ever catered to in media, it’s incredibly empowering to see a game that allows that audience to accurately represent themselves. More personally though, I’m simply happy that the game is out there for the trans players still yet to hatch, who may learn to better understand their own identities through experimenting with its limitless options.
Hell, if even me just talking about it has made you curious to try it, that’s all the validation I need. Just know you don’t always have to settle for the default option, in the game or in the real world. You have a choice to, as the new Saints Row frequently exclaims, Be Your Own Boss.