The Joy of Saints Row’s Johnny Gat

A friend of mine started the Saints Row [official site] series with the fourth one. She loved having superpowers and trashing a virtual city, but she did wonder what the deal was with Johnny Gat. Even though he’s not in half the game – spoilers for the third and fourth Saints Rows, but Johnny Gat dies and then comes back to life – his absence is felt. Characters talk about how his loss changed them. The dude with the sunglasses and neck tattoos who seems like a generic video game badass is treated like he matters.

Gat’s a mascot for Saints Row, whether cameoing in games outside the series or within them. You start Saints Row: The Third with every member of the gang wearing an oversized Gat mask during a bank robbery – even Gat himself has one, pointless as that makes the disguise. Everybody wants to be Johnny Gat. To understand why he has that reputation, why fans love him while outsiders roll their eyes, we have to go back to Saints Row 2.

There’s a scene in that game where Pierce, the sensible one who would rather be in the energy drink business, plots a casino robbery. He’s got a model of the building laid out and everything. “While the guard’s concerned with throwing me out, Gat’ll sneak in through this security door,” he explains. Gat has a different suggestion: “shoot all the motherfuckers instead”. If Saints Row 2 came out today this would seem like a deliberate parody of Grand Theft Auto V’s heist missions, where meticulous plans end in messy shoot-outs. Gat is the character who knows how things go in games.

Saints Row 2 is from 2008 but thanks to the delay at which games process culture it’s still trying to be a Tarantino movie from the 1990s. It’s smooshing grit and consequence into the cocoon from which its sequels will emerge on wings of pure batshit silliness. It’s the one where supporting characters die and nobody believes they’re going to be brought back, they’re just dead because – apparently I’m going to spoil Saints Row 2 as well now – crime is bad and sometimes even your joke character’s girlfriend is murdered by motorbike samurais.

In spite of that Johnny Gat remains Johnny Gat. At the start of the game you bust him out of a courthouse where he’s on trial for 387 murders and one attempted murder. At the end, when you’ve defeated everyone else trying to take over the city, he’s still not done. As the credits roll he wanders off to keep shooting cops for a while because that’s his idea of fun.

In GTA V Trevor embodies the typical GTA player. He’s honest about how much he enjoys killing sprees, but he’s also grotesque. Trevor is supposed to make you feel bad about playing like him – he’s a slobby horror who knows too much about torture and forces confrontations with everyone like he’s ripping the mask off society rather than just being a big jerk. He’s Michael Haneke’s Funny Games.

Johnny Gat is not Trevor. He’s voiced by Daniel Dae Kim – Jin-Soo Kwon from Lost, Gavin Park from Angel – as a likeable guy. He goes on rampages just like players do in open-world crime games, but there’s no judgement. He gives us permission to have fun if we need it, and if we don’t he’s an example of how to. Gat’s always got a four-star rating, and is always carrying a gun and a katana and driving a car like he stole it. He’s a celebration of open-world games as consequence-free romps, a symbol of what makes Saints Row different to its dour competition.

He also dances like Elaine from Seinfeld, because nobody gets to be cool all the time.

26 Comments

  1. Sian says:

    I played Saints Row 2 and I still don’t get the hype surrounding Gat. As a character he’s okay. He sports the qualitites described here, but in my eyes nothing about that warrants the hype the games themselves build around him. It actually annoyed me to the point that I didn’t buy Gat out of Hell even though I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my time with SR4. He’s also the reason I wouldn’t be pre-ordering Agents of Mayhem even if I was convinced it’d be great, because to me he’s a pre-order bonus that just isn’t worth it.

    If fans of the series like him and hype him, that’s okay. That’s what fans do. If characters in the game pretend that he’s oh-so-important, I’m just annoyed. After all, it’s me who does all the work (or rather: all the cool stuff), and I don’t like Gat.

    • NetharSpinos says:

      I completely agree; my experience is almost exactly the same, except I started with SR3. I also refrained from acquiring Gat out of Hell, though additionally because I found Kinzie incredibly irritating.

      • wombat191 says:

        you take that back about kinzie!!!!

        • NetharSpinos says:

          Nevah!

          Though in all fairness, it did take 4 playthroughs (2 of SR3, 2 of SR4) before I thought ‘No, I’ve had enough of you now’.

          • wombat191 says:

            see you had to grow and have your heart turn black and evil.. thats why kinzie irritates you now.. only the wicked without taste can dislike her saintly goodness

    • gwathdring says:

      I played Saints Row 3 for a bit and then Saints Row 4 for less of a bit. It worked for me not because I gave a crap about Gat because I had no idea who he was. I didn’t have a reason to see him as less than he was cracked up to be, but he cast a shadow over the NPCs in a way that allowed them to be a little more interesting in some scenes.

    • KDR_11k says:

      I liked him in 1 and 2 but thought that by 3 his gimmick got tired so it was fine that they replaced him with a new cast. Especially with all the adoration heaped on him, that felt like too much. I don’t like that they brought him back for 4 but he’s understandable for spinoffs and guest appearances because the Boss doesn’t have a defined look. It’d be much worse if they defined some canon appearance for the Boss just to get that character into other games.

      Maybe it helped that 1 and 2 had three storylines each (one per enemy gang) and Gat was only present for one of each so Gat’s “shoot everything” approach stood out instead of being just the default state in the story.

    • darkath says:

      It’s precisely because there is nothing to be hyped about him that the makers of the game over hype him.
      The character and all the fuss around him, the special dlc, his “death” etc. are a big meta joke and running gag about hyped game characters in action games. That’s also why he acts like a player in those action games (shoot everything)

      • fearandloathing says:

        This one should be pinned at the top. I’m not even big on SR, and only played the 4th, yet that obviously over-the-top hype amused me a lot. Can’t even see how people treat this anything other than a joke

      • Crusoe says:

        This.

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    Drib says:

    I liked Gat in SR2. He was a neat idea, like you say, basically a player character that isn’t one. He likes rampages, he liked blowing stuff up and making a mess.

    But like anything it got less fun when the game focused on it. I liked him, but SR3 trying to make a big deal out of his death made it less fun.

    SR 4 having him milling around all the time was even less, and let’s not bother with Gat Out of Hell.

    Though I like Kinzie, so GOoH was okay in that way.

    Anyway, I guess he’s still fun, but maybe a little overexposed at this point. “I liked him before he was cool”, I guess?

    • malkav11 says:

      Gat’s death in SR3 is really frustrating because it happens offscreen and there’s no indication that he’s actually died (that I can recall) until you’re suddenly having a funeral for him. I mean, sure, you leave him behind in a bad situation but that’s nothing he hasn’t handled before.

      But that’s true of a lot of SR3’s storytelling. It’s very choppy and disconnected in ways that feel like you’re missing something. It’s why it’s my least favorite of the three main games on PC despite still having a fair amount of entertainment value. (Some of the gags in the missions are still great as standalone things.)

    • MikoSquiz says:

      That’s my feeling about the series overall. Saints Row II’s goofiness was fun. III and even moreso IV zoomed in tight on the goofiness and made it relentless and wearying. Mandatory fun isn’t much fun.

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        MajorLag says:

        Huh, I really liked 4’s complete disregard for sanity and realism myself. Didn’t even mind all the repetitive stuff because it was just so much fun to run around a fight things as a goddamned super hero.

  3. PsychoWedge says:

    I don’t understand the appeal of (new) Gat. I was okay with him in SR2 because he fitted well into the contrast between really serious shit and over the top nonsense but in everything after that he is just dumb and boring. And it gets especially annoying when the game itself and the characters in it treat him like Jesus in purple. The game is having a wank fest over somebody I couldn’t care less about.

    • GunnerMcCaffrey says:

      that’s the joke.jpg

      • PsychoWedge says:

        that might be but to me it’s a boring, lame joke that has gotten old right at the beginning of SR3 and since then has been dragged on despite nobody (meaning me) being amused by it any longer. Just because something is meant as a joke doesn’t make it a successful one.

        also: humour and subjectivity and stuff, ya know.

  4. comic knight says:

    Wow i played like half of saints row iv and when i saw the next game title gat out of hell I thought maybe gat was slang for get or a gat was a gun maybe. I had no idea Gat was refering to a person.

    • poliovaccine says:

      Well it def is meant to be as the slang for a gun, you’re right about that – that’d be why it’s his name. In the title tho, I think it’s meant to call to mind the phrase, “like a bat out of hell,” which tends to describe something tearing ass.

  5. BlackeyeVuk says:

    I like Gat and all the hype. If you don’t understand me or majority of others that likes Gat, it’s your problem. If it’s irritating , then ignore. Its not like we go around rubbing you GAT around. Or do we?

    Anyway thanks Jody Macgregor for this article. Ignore posh haters. They are threaten by GAT coolness, tryhards they are. Noone is cooler then GAT.

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    Neurotic says:

    Great article! I’ve always been a champion for SR in my circle of friends and gaming acquaintances, so it’s always nice when others share the same love.

  7. JonasKyratzes says:

    I adore Gat. That last scene in SR2, when he’s like a little kid, having so much fun shooting cops – that’s the game’s anarchic spirit most clearly manifested. And Daniel Dae Kim is just superb.

  8. wombat191 says:

    johnny gat to me has always been a stand in for a player.. this is how most players actually act in the game and this is how most games treat you as a hero and super star.. but when viewed from the outside its something entirely different.. you are an asshat haha

    and kinzie rocks and anyone who says mean things about saint kinky kinzie is a bad person

  9. Chaoslord AJ says:

    One of the things about Saint’s Row particularly the technically excellent 3/4 is their love for their personnel. It’s fun and corny not grimdark/cynical like GTA.
    It’s not pretending to do a commentary on broken society but it’s about a band of friends some old and missed friends like Gat who despite being dead always shows up again or former enemies and new additions.
    I found the approach kinda heart-warming.

    • April March says:

      Yeah, the characters in SR and surprisingly good, and I think that goes a long way towards explaining why the series is, at the most cynical evaluation, the most succesful GTA clone. Sometimes I see a bit of writing that makes me think Bioware’s writers should take note.

  10. RimeOfTheMentalTraveller says:

    This. THIS. I may be in the minority, but I truly love Johnny, I think just because he’s written so fun and so well, like most characters in Saints Row games. That scene in the court where he tries to argue for a statute of limitations on his numerous murderous and says “Why the fuck not?” is one of my favorite funny bits in a game.