SAINTS ROW 3 / SAINTS ROW 4 (2011 / 2013)

Shortly after Rockstar Games’ open-world crime spree GRAND THEFT AUTO 3 took the world by storm, there were a lot of copycats. Volition Studio’s SAINTS ROW 1 & SAINTS ROW 2 certainly were two of them. The two games were grim and gritty crime-centric open-world games and I personally had no interest in playing them.

SAINTS ROW 3 changed all of that. While it retained the open-world driving-and-shooting staples, it dispensed with the grime and replaced it with levity and silliness and genuine camaraderie between characters. Additionally, it injected brightness and vivd colors, including the Saint’s signature purple.

It took me a while to get around to playing it simply because, well, it looked juvenile. I didn’t believe I wanted anything to do with a game that allowed you to bash thugs with giant dildos.

I admit: I was wrong. SAINTS ROW 3 was a genuine joy to play. It’s centered around a gang of misbehaving misfits as they try to make their mark on the world while having fun doing so, and each member has their own very distinct and expressive, vivid personalities. (They also swear a lot, which I can’t help but fucking relate to.)

There’s nothing more emblematic of this oddly heartfelt approach than — I shit you not — a sing-a-long to SUBLIME’s What I Got between yourself and Saint member Pierce as they drive towards a mission.

They’re terrible singers! (I’ll note: I imagine those behind the game directed them to do so because all of the voice actors here are amazing.) However they laugh and riff and are clearly having fun and it’s one of the few extremely joyful moments I’ve experienced in a video game. It is an effortless depiction of friendship, which is so goddamn rare in video games, and it comes out of left field, deep into the game and you do not expect it. It’s worth playing solely for that moment.

“I don’t get angry when my mom smokes pot
Hits the bottle and goes right to the rock
Fucking and fighting; it’s all the same
Living with Louie Dog’s the only way to stay sane
Let the lovin’, let the lovin’ come back to me.”

SAINTS ROW 4 takes the irreverence and bonding to a whole other level. The opening is one of the greatest in gaming history. It’s a gigantic silly spectacle that heavily leans on Michael Bay’s ARMAGEDDON, even down to weaving in AEROSMITHS’s I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing. Oh, and then you become the President of the United States and motherfucking Keith David is your VP.

It is absolutely bonkers and I love it.

“More fun. Less mercy killing.”

The entire sequence is worth watching, but if you want to skip to the extravagance, jump to 9:50.

If you’re wondering why you don’t see your character’s face or hear them speak in that scene, it’s because Volition wanted to launch you into the game without having to create your character first. It is worth noting that the SAINTS ROW games are exceptional about character creation, and still are one of the few games that allow you to define practically every representation you can think of, including trans and non-binary characters.

(Also, I love how svelte the undefined character is.)

It helps that at this point, SAINTS ROW 4 felt quite polished, instead of the somewhat rickety gameplay nature of the prior games. (Again, I’ll note: I did not play the first two and I have absolutely no interest in doing so, but they did have a reputation of feeling rather slapdash.)

Unfortunately, those two are the peak of the series. There was a SAINTS ROW 4 expansion — GAT OUT OF HELL — that took the NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET and FRIDAY THE 13TH sequel approach of throwing everyone into Hell, which felt like a bridge too far but it is still entertaining and if you enjoyed SAINTS ROW 4, well, why the fuck not.

What followed was a hard reboot of the franchise with SAINTS ROW (2022), which sadly was not well-accepted by fans or critics and resulted in Volition being dissolved after 30 years of game development.

Despite Volition’s dissolution, SAINTS ROW 3 & 4 exemplifies the fucking sort of trashfire of a person I am, and I absolutely embrace that and love them for those experiences.

If you only have modern consoles, it’s pretty difficult to play SAINTS ROW 3, but SAINTS ROW 4 is readily available. If you can seek either of them out, they are worth your time.


The LIFE IS STRANGE games have been incredibly difficult for me to deal with, much less write about. They’re literally manufactured to trigger grief and sadness and re-invoke lived trauma and, while I know the developers meant well, it’s still brutal to confront matters.

I’ve always hated the ascribed name ‘LIFE IS STRANGE’ because life isn’t strange at all and I feel like the game doesn’t even believe it as it has never invoked that phrase. This is just life. This is just living. Abuse and neglect and abandonment have been normalized, have been for a long time and fundamentally that’s what these games are about, as well as the coping mechanisms surrounding them. We tell ourselves it’s strange to justify the calamity of our lives, of exploitation, of unfairness and inequality, when it doesn’t need to be like this.

It is life. While I may be strange, this is not strange.

However: while these games do make me sob, they help me. There aren’t many games that are intentionally meant as therapeutic means but these are games about people feeling too hard, hurt by life and circumstance, but also about finding ways to mend and reach out. I’m shocked they even exist — because how do you even pitch that? — much less have become an actual franchise. As someone who has lived through a bit too much shit, I’m happy to see a game that portrays working through shit, and portrays people surviving it.

I love reading the YouTube comments for these games — well, 75% of the commenters, the other 25% can go fuck themselves — because they are all beaming and realizing that video games can help and heal in their own way. These games have made me feel like I’m not alone, just like those comments have made me feel like I’m not alone, and just like how I’m writing this: you are not alone.

I can’t wait for the next one.



This post contains mentions of familial death and psychological dissociation.

The LIFE IS STRANGE games are not what I would call a ‘fun time’ — practically every post I’ve made about the series has content warnings — but LIFE IS STRANGE 2 is especially tough. It opens with a mostly idyllic Hispanic family: two sons, one pre-teen — Daniel — one firmly a teenager — Sean — and a father. Their mother is mostly unknown to them, but the three of them have a happy life.

At least, until Daniel makes the mistake of playing zombie in their front yard.

Matters escalate. Police get involved. Their father is shot by a policeman. Daniel reacts impulsively, self-protectively, and sends out a kinetic blast, killing the policeman.

Sean grabs Daniel and they go on the run, leaving behind his teen love because he knows there’s no better option.

It may sound twisted, but my favorite part of LIFE IS STRANGE 2 simply consists of Sean and Daniel endlessly walking through the Pacific Northwest, solely because — despite the fact that I’ve never been to the Pacific Northwest — it feels like I lived part of this game. As I’ve mentioned in prior LIFE IS STRANGE posts: New England is not the Pacific Northwest. (Duh.) However, they’re basically kissing cousins. Very similar landscapes and remote culture. Tall trees, lush and vibrant greenery, and folks existing peacefully on the fringes of society.

There have been times in my life where I’ve been stranded, when I had no money and I had no one I felt I could confide in (although, truth be told, I did and probably should have) and so … I’d just walk hours on end, sometimes even overnight, through New England roads which are sparsely populated but the trees …make you feel protected. Insulated. Even though the woods also are home to predators, it felt …natural.

LIFE IS STRANGE 2 is a game centered around desertion and opt-ing out of society, because sometimes, that is absolutely necessary. As you venture through the game, you meet up with folks who are off-the-grid, including one face you might not expect from LIFE IS STRANGE 1. Whereas the prior games were all born of suburban trauma and feeling penned in, LIFE IS STRANGE 2 is a wild road trip adventure.

I’ll note that LIFE IS STRANGE 2 also features a small moment regarding an older journalist — a transient, basically — who helps them out in a time of need, and that’s it, and he drives off. Again, it’s small, but it makes an impact.

It sketches out how the world is different for so many people, and that there are so many different ways to live in it, which is essentially what LIFE IS STRANGE 2 is about.

“It feels like we’re walking nowhere.”



This post contains mentions of familial death.

LIFE IS STRANGE 2: THE AWESOME ADVENTURES OF CAPTAIN SPIRIT (forward known as CAPTAIN SPIRIT) is a bit of an anomaly in the LIFE IS STRANGE series in that it’s centered around a very young boy but also: it was a free ‘demo’ for LIFE IS STRANGE 2 released prior to the game, and is only barely tangentially related to LIFE IS STRANGE 2.

Those caveats aside, CAPTAIN SPIRIT is still very much a LIFE IS STRANGE game: it is absolutely fixated on trauma and loss, escapism and the hope of overcoming what hell you’re living in, even if it means believing in superpowers.

In this case, it’s about yet another Pacific Northwestern person, a young boy named Chris Eriksen. He’s fashioned an alter-ego known as CAPTAIN SPIRIT in the days since his mother died in a car accident; an accident that his alcoholic father he lives with still blames him for.

(Obviously, this is the flip-side of the coin of LIFE IS STRANGE 1 and Chloe’s father’s death.)

It’s a very slight, but sensitive portrayal of a youth who isn’t quite cognizant of the turmoil around him, nor the turmoil he’ll have to work out in therapy in the future, but I found it to be a very sweet and heartfelt story, even though there’s very little gameplay.

It’s worth noting that there are a few iffy bugs with it and LIFE IS STRANGE 2 that can cause issues. I had to delete and re-install both in order to deal with ‘em.



This game contains details of familial death. To prevent spoilers, I side-step mentioning those details.

If you’ve been following along with the prior posts: LIFE IS STRANGE: FAREWELL (FAREWELL, going forward) is a very short prequel to LIFE IS STRANGE: BEFORE THE STORM (BEFORE THE STORM, going forward), which is the prequel to LIFE IS STRANGE.

In other words: you get to see Max and Chloe as very early youths, just as Max is about to leave for Seattle and just when Chloe’s life turns to shit.

BEFORE THE STORM was far smaller-scale than LIFE IS STRANGE, and FAREWELL is even more intimate. It details one of Max’s last days with Chloe before she moves to Seattle. She hasn’t told Chloe yet — she’s afraid of ruining the mood and just wants to hang out with her best friend and riff on the good times; all of their pirate games and treasure maps and blowing up shit and languid lounging sleepy days, hanging around Chloe’s room, occasionally popping out for a stack of her mother’s pancakes.

One of the most remarkable features of LIFE IS STRANGE is its indulgence in reminiscing and introspection. Each and every installment features a number of places to sit or lay down on and mull over feelings and revel in memories. For the majority of FAREWELL, it’s Max laying alongside Chloe on her bed as they idly listen to music, the breeze flowing through the windows, as she recounts her feelings about her best friend to herself. The camera cuts to specific areas of Chloe’s room, occasionally glimsping the outside, even after Max has completed her inner monologue.

It’s techniques such as that which makes LIFE IS STRANGE a game instead of an interactive novel. You can exit out of these vignettes at any point in time. Hell, you don’t even need to enact them. However, when you do it enriches the characters and the world that they inhabit.

FAREWELL is quietly brutal, with a gut-punch of an ending but, for a short period of time, you get to live in the idyllic world of their youth and see them simply having fun and enjoying life. As I’ve grown older, I’ve found myself opting out of works that unnecessarily put their characters through unrelenting traumatic circumstances and, while LIFE IS STRANGE most certainly does that — I realize it’s basic narrative necessity — it also finds time and space to give them joyful experiences, and I will miss them.

“Even when we’re apart, we’re still Max and Chloe.”


When dealing with teen-centric dramas, too many works have their point-of-view centered around the naive shy one who is drawn into the orbit of the nefarious, corrupting burr on society. The initial five chapters of LIFE IS STRANGE certainly took that approach; Max is the POV character, a smart, upright, mostly meek and non-rebellious person who just wants to pursue her art but is drawn back into the orbit of her prior best-friend Chloe, a fried drop-out, and calamity ensues, literally brewing a storm that entangles everyone.

Rewind a bit.

LIFE IS STRANGE: BEFORE THE STORM (BEFORE THE STORM from here on out) examines the other side of the coin by placing the focus on Chloe and how she (poorly) navigates life after Max moves from Arcadia Bay to Seattle with her family and — in more ways than one — writes Chloe out of her life for five years. In the meantime, Chloe — utterly floundering due to the sudden death of her father and the departure of her best friend — falls apart. She finds herself rudderless during a dark time at Blackwood Academy, Arcadia Bay’s school for gifted burgeoning artists and scientists.

Then Blackwood’s star student, a picture-perfect young woman named Rachel Amber, takes Chloe by her hand, saves her from a terribly shitty situation at a dirtbag club night, and everything changes; they become inseparable. They also get entangled in a lot of shit for, well, being out-spoken and for standing up for themselves, and if you’ve played the initial game you know where that gets them.

However, this game is about shining a spotlight on the time Chloe and Rachel had together, about them finding each other, trusting each other, and figuring out the world and what they want.

While you can play BEFORE THE STORM as straight, that’s not the Chloe I know; my Chloe is queer as hell and gives no shits, so that’s the tact I took, and the game doesn’t disappoint if you go down that route. It feels poignant in the way that few games do.

BEFORE THE STORM is far smaller-scale than the first game in more ways than one. It’s focused on characters and fleshing out the events that lead to the tragedy (or tragedies) of LIFE IS STRANGE. Chloe doesn’t have superpowers; she has barbed quips and a Sharpie. You just spend three episodes living through Chloe’s often-banal life.

Yet, it’s my favorite of the series. (At least, so far.) It’s not a love story per se, but it is a romance of sorts between two people who aren’t exactly good for each other, but they ultimately find themselves drawn to each other, then find the same frequency, and they ride that for as long as they can. Also, Chloe’s general trajectory is something I certainly relate to in many ways. (I was a real shitheel of a teen. Gave my parents a lot of grief. Lived a duplicitous life. Not that anyone asked, but we’re on better terms now.)

BEFORE THE STORM also features my favorite bonus episode — which has become a staple of the series — and rewinds even further back: LIFE IS STRANGE: FAREWELL. However, I’ll table that for tomorrow.

“Don’t be surprised if one day, I’m just out of here.”



This game contains depictions of abduction, abuse, familial death and suicide. To prevent spoilers, I side-step mentioning most of those details, but not all.

LIFE IS STRANGE is an interactive narrative-forward videogame from French developer DONTNOD (now known as Don’t Nod). The game will be eight years old around the time of publishing this post. In other words, a tad more than a full teenage generation, which is fitting for a work that focuses so much on the time between being a youth and being considered an adult. It’s a game that zeroes in on how every choice — and the results of your choices — feel amplified, how the choices ripple through your life, and how you may learn to regret or embrace it. It’s also a game about highlighting traumatic incidents you’ve lived through and whether you are willing to confront them or push them aside. Often, the choice is up to you, but also intractable.

LIFE IS STRANGE takes place in the sleepy town of Arcadia Bay, Oregon, a fictional burg that was once fine waters for fisherman, at least before an old-money family by the name of the Prescotts strip-mined the area. While doing so, they buy out the long-standing local elite school for gifted artists and scientists: Blackwell Academy. (It’s worth noting that Blackwell is a rather loaded name, given Shirley Jackson’s WE HAVE ALWAYS LIVED IN THE CASTLE.)

You play as Maxine Caulfield, an aspiring photographer who goes by the shorthand ‘Max’. Max previously lived in Arcadia Bay, spending most of her free time with best friend and science nerd Chloe Price, at least until Max’s family moved to Seattle when Max was was an early teen. Unfortunately, right around the same day Max moved to Seattle, Chloe’s father died in a car accident.

Max attended the funeral, left town, and never contacted Chloe the entire time she lived near the spire.

Five years later, Max is back in Arcadia Bay to attend classes at Blackwell taught by her favorite living photographer: Mark Jefferson. In the meantime, Chloe has dropped out of Blackwell, having become a quintessential burnout punk — all dyed hair and anger issues — but is also desperately in search for one Rachel Amber, a gregarious all-star Blackwell student, and the person that helped prop Chloe up after Max had left. Rachel has been missing for six months and, while her family and police assume she’s just jaunted off to Los Angeles to act or model, Chloe knows better, and plasters the town with MISSING flyers.

Inexplicably, Max becomes imbued with the ability to rewind time, which allows her to save her prior best friend from being shot in a Blackwell bathroom — despite not even recognizing Chloe, thanks to five years of passage, as well as her newly shorn and cyan-colored hair.

Matters escalate in a very neo-noir/VERONICA MARS sort of way that includes all sorts of teen high school drama, drugs, men taking terrible advantage of their positions and power, you have a number of romance options and oh, Arcadia Bay might be totalled by an F6 tornado that only Max can foresee, and very few folks believe her.

In other words, this is perfect teenage fodder: small decisions result in huge consequences, emotions are perpetually heightened, your protagonist is gifted and has superpowers, and everyone is thirsty.

While LIFE IS STRANGE is an interactive narrative work, it manages its gameplay elements better than similar story-first games: the time-rewind feature is perfectly honed for a game where the result of choices ripple, and the interface for newly discovered dialogue branches is far better than anything BioWare has come up with. The visual design is artfully simple while also being striking with its colorful hues and stylized environments — especially notable is how it portrays Oregon, all lush leaves and wind streaked. While it’s not my home state of Vermont, it evokes that same rustic, rural feeling.

However, the real appeal here is in the character work: Max is a shy, restrained nerd and surrounded herself by similar folks. Chloe is a problem in search of a solution, a frustrated youth who lashes out unpredictably and still lives with her mother who works at the local diner. When Max and Chloe reunite, the game crystalizes; if you were lucky enough to have a best-friend as a teen, especially if you two were weirdo misfits, this game will almost certainly hit amazingly close-to-home. If you weren’t, it’s such an earnest and honest and emotional depiction that you’ll still feel their bond, their strife, their push-and-pull.

I know a lot of folks feel like the game cribs from TWIN PEAKS. It’s literally spelled out on Chloe’s license plate, and it mimics a lot of the ‘small town with secrets’ vibe. However — thematically — I don’t feel it, even though it does indulge in abused/dead girl tropes. The game is about survival and confronting circumstances, as opposed to innocence lost, unheard pain and senseless death. Does it dovetail with TWIN PEAKS? Yes. But no one here is actually Laura Palmer, the crux of a town.

I first played LIFE IS STRANGE way back in 2015, as the episodes were slowly doled out. As such, I forgot a lot over time, but certain scenes you do not forget. To be blunt: the ending? Spoiler alert: there is no good ending, although you’re still forced to choose one.

It’s rare that I replay games. I often say it’s a time thing, but more often than not it’s about retaining my initial experience of the game, how I felt about the characters and environments and conflicts and obstacles and victories. Also, most videogames are narratively linear, even if they pretend they aren’t, and most videogame stories suck. Sure, you occasionally have a SILENT HILL 2 that upends everything, but more often than not, it’s just banal. And that’s fine and I find fun in it!

I did replay LIFE IS STRANGE a few weeks ago. (I’ll note that I haven’t played the remastered version.) The entire game came back to me as I advanced chapter-by-chapter, not unlike how memories would unfold for Max. I remembered the choices I made. I remembered the choices I wish I hadn’t been forced to make.

I made a few different choices this time around, but mostly skewed to trying to be a good friend like I did the first time. This time around, I did kiss Chloe, but then felt bad because they’re really only always going to be friends and Max — well, my Max — is pretty straight and it just felt weird and awkward, and the game plays it out that way. This isn’t a story about queer awakening — it’s a story about friendship.

However: that’s exactly why this game, this series exists: it recreates the awkwardness of becoming an young adult, and the culmination of everything and everyone that influences it, as well as everyone who supports — or exploits — you along the way.

Emotionally, it is a lot, and in more than a few ways I don’t love how the game ladles on momentous decisions as it didn’t need to push so hard. However, upon replaying, I slowly and sadly came to realize that this one game is firmly focused on reconciling losing close friendships and ties.

It’s a game I wish I had as a teen, but I’m so happy that it exists now, and so ecstatic to see what it inspires in the generations to come.


(PS3/PS4/PS5) I figured I’d chime in about THE LAST OF US, since the HBO adaptation appears to be receiving rave reviews and premieres on Sunday and obviously I’m going to watch it solely for Bella Ramsay and Melanie Lynskey. Personally, I found the first game to be singularly unpleasant miseryporn and I never bothered with the sequel. However! LEFT BEHIND — the DLC for the first game that received a separate stand-alone release — is absolutely worth your time. It’s far more intimate — a story of best friends at a crossroads and queer awakening and finding joy in a world that’s gone to shit.

That said, as you might be able to tell, it does commit a cardinal sin of queer storytelling:


It buries its gays.

Sure, it’s almost a decade old, but it was a well-worn trope even back then, and penned and directed by dudes that really should have known better.

Nonetheless, if you’re going to dip your toes into this interactive world, I’d start here. It’s a bite-sized effort that only takes a handful of hours to complete and doesn’t require much in the way of stealth or combat. It feels lived in and genuine in a way that I never felt the original game did.