A intergalactic gangsta power fantasy set in a virtual world is not necessarily the sort of game where I particularly expected to find well developed and sympathetic characters, but thats what Saints Row 4 is and that's exactly what you will find.
I found SR4 was a game that respected my time like few others, it's willingness to build upon what went before while exploiting and playing with my expectations about gameplay mechanics and character archetypes means barely a moment is wasted. Instead what you do, and those you do it with is put firmly in the spotlight. Its near fanatical the old adage of “show, don't tell”.
For me the easiest way to explain why it's worth looking past Saints Row's surface and paying attention to how smart some of it's design decisions are is to look at its relationship with music. While the GTA series was certainly the first to pioneer the idea of in game radio stations SR4's 'thing' has always been that music isn't just something you hear as a player but part of the world that the characters also have a relationship with.
This means the games soundtrack isn't just ambiance. Its' not just about evoking a time period, or having something cool to drive around to(though it does both those), it's something that helps to build little moments of connection, a bridge to help you connect with it's character, to better understand something about the relationships of SR4's cast. Whether its something low key like signing Opposites Attract with a hommie, or something more bombastic like climbing a nuclear missile while “I Don't Want to Miss a Thing” blares in the background the intent is the same. This is not just something for our benefit, it isn't just the soundtrack to our game but the soundtrack to their lives.
It's also important that its “their lives” not “their life”, SR4 is a true ensemble piece a story about a group of people and not a individual. Sure the boss is still in many ways a traditional protagonist, but often the story moves along not because of their action but almost in spite of them. Often it feels they are a character who's role is to be a catalyst within the world, creating space for other's stories to take place.
The continual elevation of the protagonists from their gangland origins could easily have been a weight around the game's neck but, the writers clear affection towards and willingness to let their characters evolve keeps things fresh. We know these characters and they know each other. So while Saint's Row does have it's own equivalent of loyalty missions, It uses the trope in a way that is unlike many of his contemporaries.
This isn't writers just trying to give a player a power up or a nugget of back story, it is a chance for the writers to explore the way the characters understand themselves, and each other. To find closure, self-respect, and acceptance on their own terms, helped by us. but not just for our sake. SR4 may not be the most subtle of games but it is surprisingly one of the most genuinely affectionate.
In the end perhaps it's SR4's finale that tells you most about it, when picking your final team there's none of the idiotic min-maxing that some games indulge in. In fact there's no incentive to do anything but pick the people you care most about. Those you choose to take with you on the final mission are simply the character you want to be around, nothing more, and nothing less.