Volition had a sequel problem.
Playing the Champaign, Illinois-based video game developer’s last major release in 2014, Saints Row IV, was like navigating Donald Trump’s fantasy about being what it’s like to be president. After the protagonist single-handedly staves off a nuclear attack and gets elected commander-in-chief, Vice President Keith David (voiced by none other than the actor himself) asks you to sign one of two bills into law: one that would cure cancer (entitled “Fuck Cancer”) or another that would solve world hunger. Then you coldcock a Rand Paul lookalike senator in the face for threatening a filibuster and grab some guns to prevent alien invaders from blowing up the Oval Office. You’re not so much commander-in-chief as a superhero version of Hugh Hefner, with the White House serving a more sober version of the Playboy Mansion—stripper poles, pet tiger, and all.
In an expansion pack added in 2015, Saints Row: Gat Out of Hell, Volition asked players to recruit Shakespeare and Vlad the Impaler in Hell in order to help you beat up Satan on behalf of God. In upping the ante to the point of absurdity, the series’s writers wrote themselves into a corner: How do you turn up the volume after it’s already been cranked to 11? Their answer: You don’t try.
“First we had you conquering space and then punching the devil in the face and conquering hell. We had nowhere else to go from there, so we decided to do something different,” says Kate Nelson, a longtime producer at Volition.
The result is the Saints Row spin-off Agents of Mayhem, which launches August 15 on Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and PC. It’s still a chaotic shooting game, but it’s set in a futuristic version of Seoul in another universe—one best described as a violent 1980s Saturday morning cartoon designed for a more sophisticated Adult Swim audience. Imagine if the A-Team gave Mr. T the license to tell everyone to fuck off and shoot everyone dead with a rocket launcher and you’re getting the picture.
Volition has been banking on a big audience for this brand of gleefully profane 80s nostalgia. Some of the game’s trailers have been designed to look like R-rated intros to retro TV shows such as Magnum P.I. and Knight Rider, and another was a faux sex tape “leaked” to YouPorn featuring the game’s characters Gregory Prickington, Ivana Bangya, and (yes) Marcus Thunderpump. That’s not to say Agents of Mayhem is entirely a period piece. There are jokey references to K-Pop, Bronies, and in a sly nod to Chicago you can play roller derby girl nicknamed Daisy who has a fondness for deep-dish pizza.
“She roller skates, she carries a mini-gun, she’s brash, unapologetic and doesn’t take shit from anybody,” Nelson says. “She’s already got a lot of fandom. People have told us they want to marry her.”
Making a game not called Saints Row for the first time since 2011’s poorly received Red Faction: Armageddon is something of a risk. But it’s arguable that Volition has been playing with house money for decades. Originally founded in 1993 by Mike Kulas and and Matt Toschlog, the developer has changed hands several times in its long history and almost went under in 2013 when the company’s publisher THQ went bankrupt. Eventually they found a buyer in Koch Media, which publishes under the name Deep Silver and released three more Saints Row games.
Even more rare than surviving for decades in the ever-tumultuous gaming industry is Volition’s location—it’s in the Corn Belt, not Silicon Valley. But Nelson says Volition, which employs about 200 people, is part of a tech and start-up based revitalization of downtown Champaign’s economy that includes Yahoo! offices and data analytics companies.
“We’re hoping,” she says, “to become Silicon Prairie here someday.”