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The Joy of Saints Row's Johnny Gat

Johnny Be Good

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.

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