Collins’ Crypt: Revisiting The 2009 SAW Game

BC continues his stroll down horror video game memory lane.

Apart from perhaps Romero's Dead series*, no major horror franchise is better suited to a video game tie-in than Saw. Protagonists in the seven-film series often find themselves wandering through decrepit buildings and dungeons, solving puzzles, running into other folks who tend not to stick around for very long, and constantly escaping certain death. If you didn't know any better, you could assume an entry like Saw IV was based on a video game, as it and a few of the others stick rather closely to the template established by survival horror games of yore. The Xbox 360 launch title Condemned: Criminal Origins, for example, came to mind more than once when watching the film series during its unprecedented run throughout the 2000s, and thus it unsurprisingly did again with the first Saw game in 2009, which was released in conjunction with the sixth movie.

Unfortunately, as Saw fans know, while it was one of the best installments, Saw VI was also the lowest-grossing one in the series. The two lesser entries before it and heavy competition from Paranormal Activity resulted in the film ultimately grossing less than some of the others made in their opening weekends, and in turn Lionsgate/Twisted announced that the next film would be the last. I guess the game sold well enough anyway, since a sequel came along a year later, but it was clear that Saw's time had passed, and you could quickly find the game(s) at reduced prices. Luckily, the first one is worth every penny you'd pay now, so if you used the past 25 years' worth of movie tie-in game quality against it and never checked it out, I'm here to tell you you made the wrong choice.

In fact, it's even worth playing twice! I played the game when it came out in October 2009, and hung on to it because I never got all of the Achievements (OCD thing), which allowed me to run through it again for the new installment of this column (I was originally going to do the Warlock: The Armageddon game for Sega, but the used copy I bought a few months ago turned out to be broken). I figured I'd be bored, but it's been long enough that I didn't remember how to solve every puzzle (some of them are randomized anyway), and it was kind of fun playing again in a post Saw 3D world as there are a couple of references to Jigsaw having help with some surgical procedures, and now we know that it's Dr. Gordon he was referring to (whether the game devs knew that is beyond me, but it works anyway). Also, in 2009, before the movie was released, there was no way of knowing the series was nearing its end, making it just part of the machine. But now in 2015, it's like having a new sequel thanks to my lousy memory. And I still have another one to play!

As I said, the movie series lends itself nicely to a game adaptation, with one caveat - the films may have been loaded with game-friendly locales and puzzle-driven, countdown clock laden activities, but they also had an extremely tight mythology, one that didn't make it easy to work in some sort of side story that could work within the established narrative. Since the Saw films lived and died by their twists, it'd be a very boring endeavor to merely adapt one of the film's scripts into a game, as its secrets and reveals would be known to anyone sitting down to play it (I doubt there were many people who played this game even thought they never saw any of the films). On the other hand, doing some random story with new characters and no meaningful connection to the series would disappoint the fanbase, as it would feel like any other survival horror game (Manhunt, the aforementioned Condemned, etc) with a Saw skin slapped over it. Lionsgate even promised the game would be canon, so what the hell could the game devs do, when they were seemingly painted into a corner from the start?

What they came up with wasn't exactly genius, but it works well enough all things considered: you play as Detective Tapp, the Danny Glover character from the first film, in a game that takes place sometime within that six month period between it and Saw II. But wait, didn't Tapp get shot to death? Well, he was SHOT, sure, but he also survived getting his throat slit in the movie, so his seeming invincibility was established, thus sparing the game devs from too much eye-rolling from the fans. And the movies have never really filled in everything in that gap, so when you ask the question "How can a Saw game work?", I truly think they found the best possible solution. At the end of the game (spoiler?) Tapp is dead again anyway, so it's not like the game changes anything of note - it just happens a bit later than movie viewers assumed is all.

Sadly, Glover did not provide his voice for the game, so you might occasionally forget that you're playing as an established character (in the sequel game, titled Flesh & Blood, you play as Tapp's son), but you do encounter a few familiar faces along the way, which again doesn't really change anything of note, nor does it contradict anything in the timeline (No "How can ____ be there in Tapp's game when they were over there at the same time?" type plot holes). The game follows the style of Saw III, IV, and VI (and also 3D, which wasn't out yet), in that there's a single protagonist (Tapp) who is running through a gauntlet of sorts, running into various people caught in traps as he makes his way to a final, twist-ridden encounter. Like Saw IV's Riggs, Jigsaw (Tobin Bell DOES provide his voice) has targeted Tapp for being obsessed with the case, and thus wasting his real life in the process. He neglects his family, he got his partner killed, etc - all because he just won't stop trying to catch Jigsaw (whose identity is still unknown to the police at this point in the timeline). Some of Jigsaw's reasoning is a bit flimsy (a necessary evil in order to get Amanda and Obi in the game as two of the people you need to save), but in general it's very much in line with the same shit he did in the movies.

Of course, running through empty hallways just to save someone in a death trap at the end of every (thirty to forty minute) level would get incredibly dull, so they work in a decent excuse to throw some basic combat into the game - Jigsaw has kidnapped dozens of anonymous victims and trapped them in the huge abandoned asylum that serves as the game's only locale. To escape, they need a particular key - one that is sewn inside of Tapp, providing them a reason to come after you and keep you on your toes. The melee combat in the game is pretty terrible, sadly, but there are ways to almost entirely avoid it. You can get a gun every now and then, and that works a hell of a lot better than the various pipes and baseball bats you will find and struggle to use along the way (a lengthy animation for each weapon will often get you hit in the process), but the best way to deal with these minions is to simply let them kill themselves with the various death traps that are placed with obnoxious frequency around the asylum.

Other than the clunky combat, this is the only thing that really kept the game from being great for me. Given Jigsaw's whole thing about appreciating your life, it's a bit weird that he'd demand you take your time and walk very slowly through his condemned, disgusting lair, but that's what you have to do unless you want to end up dead a lot. Tripwire shotguns (not unlike the one that killed Tapp's partner in the movie) are EVERYWHERE in this damn place, and I am not lying when I say these things killed me exponentially more than his traditional death traps or even the bad combat ever did. Most of the game's levels have you encounter a locked door that leads to the big "boss" trap rather quickly after the level begins, and then send you off running back and forth getting the key you need to open it (walk around, find a key that opens a smaller door, solve a couple puzzles that unlock other doors, fight a minion or a timed death trap of your own, at which point you get the key and run back to that main door), and thus you'll often run into a situation where you get what you need to proceed, forget to be careful, and run right into a shotgun blast. You can disarm these things (and then re-arm them for a minion to blow his own head off; the AI in this game isn't particularly brilliant), but only if you're walking at a snail's pace and thus have time to notice the prompt before it's too late. Much more fair are the ones set on doors, which are a lot easier to survive - the door will open slowly and a button prompt (one of the four face buttons) will appear, giving you a few-seconds heads up that is more than enough to get past it safely.

Luckily, Jigsaw doesn't usually place these insta-death cheap shots in the rooms where a timed game occurs, so you're free to run around without fear. His puzzles are pretty standard video game stuff, with circuit breaker and dial-based minigames straight out of Bioshock and Mass Effect, which might seem derivative but in a way is a relief - an experienced gamer will be familiar with how they work and can get going quickly, without too much wasting time when it is counting down to your doom. There's one big trap with three circuit breakers (one small and two very large, plus a minion and another "connect the pipes" puzzle) and a clock that gives you almost zero wiggle room, so it's nice to have that extra little experience with this sort of thing that can help make sure you beat it with few retries. Some of the "boss" traps are unique - one has you play a Memory type game (with a Saw twist - a hacksaw matches to a bloodied foot), and another has you solving an actual Jigsaw puzzle. Oddly, only one makes you harm yourself to free the victim, which is almost always the case in the movies.

Then again, the game's attempts to live up to the movie with the self-inflicted pain thing don't really work. Quite often you have to dig around in a toilet full of needles for a key, and the game has a pain meter and even a "back out" option, but the sequences don't take away from your regular health, and obviously you sitting there on your couch aren't feeling the pain Tapp is, so they don't really work as intended - I just dig around for the key and move on just as easily as I would if the thing was presented in a gift box. Other "feel his pain" attempts are more successful; one puzzle has you trapped in a meat locker, sliding around racks of pig carcasses in order to open a path to the exit, and the screen gradually frosts over - it gives you a fair amount of time to solve, but you hit a certain point where you can't really see much of anything a good thirty seconds before it kills you, making you feel the same frustration and helplessness. The game is fairly generous with health refills (I often left them behind as I was already filled up, or would waste one healing a minor part of my health bar just to clear inventory space for the one I just found), which I appreciated - it's rare that you'll die from traditional health-dropping things (falling off ledges, getting attacked, etc), saving the deaths for something more Saw-y: no one in the movie dies because they got punched too many times, so why should you? You either die instantly, or from failing a test.

The narrative is decent; again they only had so much they could do without upsetting the movies' established (and, obviously, far more important) plots, but Tapp's guilt over getting his partner killed reverberates throughout the game (one of the people you have to save is the partner's widow, who blames Tapp for his death more than she does Jigsaw), and it's nice to see a peek of where Obi came from before he ended up in Saw II's game. Amanda's presence is less successful; her time is brief and even though the game came out long after we learned that she was on Jigsaw's side, she takes no part in the villain's activities here. The Pigman apprentice is on hand, but one of the game's two endings shows you who is wearing the mask, and it ain't her (or Hoffman). Speaking of the ends, it's a bit odd; when you get to the final test you have a choice between two doors, one marked "Truth" and the other marked "Freedom". Truth is the more Saw-like one; the protagonist hasn't learned a damn thing, keeps going on his quest, and pays the price (and delivers another big twist when Pigman's mask is removed). But Tapp's fate is left ambiguous in that one, which is odd since he is definitely dead. Freedom's ending lacks the reveal of who the Pigman was, and also cuts the game short (Truth gives you another chase scene to play through), but ends with Tapp shooting himself in the head, which makes it more canonical with the films ("Tapp was shot to death"). The game makes it easy to see both thanks to the checkpoint system (there is no traditional save process; it just has several, mostly reasonable checkpoints throughout the levels, and you can access any of them from the menu), but it's weird to me that there isn't one definitive version that fits in with the movies while also providing a satisfying conclusion to the adventure you just endured. You either get one or the other.

Hopefully I will find time for the sequel sooner than later. It won't be the next installment of this column, that's for sure (the place who sold me Warlock said they'd send another, so hopefully that happens. I also have one of the old Evil Dead games and some others I've picked up), but I'm sure when October rolls around and I start getting nostalgic for the series again (it happens every year since it ended; this will be the 5th Saw-less Halloween, boooooo) I'll use it to scratch that itch. Like I said, the tight narrative of the series kept things like video games from popping up like weeds... but that's when the movies were still going. Now that we can be pretty sure that if there's another Saw film it will be a reboot or remake instead of a direct sequel, I think/hope they should pick up from Saw 3D with future games to keep the series alive. Jigsaw is dead, but Gordon and the other minions are out there continuing his work, and this time they have the license to just do whatever the hell they want instead of figuring out a way to make it fit with something that was ongoing. Novels are another possibility; I doubt they'd be AS appealing as a new game, but I wouldn't think anyone would care enough about the Halo series' narrative to warrant fiction writing, and there are like twenty of those. Maybe it's because all of the other big franchises had such crap in droves (Michael, Freddy, and Jason all had their own YA novel series, in addition to traditional novelizations, something the Saw films never enjoyed) and I'm just groomed to accept it as part of the deal, but I truly think the Saw universe can expand, so even if this game was an unplayable mess of no merit I'd probably still be happy to have it. But in fact it's actually a pretty solid game that more or less does the series proud (I'd rather play it again than rewatch Saw V or 3D, for what it's worth), which is just icing on the cake.

P.S. I got one of the Achievements on this playthrough, but am still missing three others. Third time's the charm?

*There was a Land of the Dead prequel game called Road To Fiddler's Green for the original Xbox (and later ported to PC). I played a demo of it at the time and found it fairly awful, and Gamespot's review score is one of the lowest I've seen on the site, period (not just for movie tie-in games), so I'm probably safe to skip it. But if I ever see it cheap enough (like, two bucks), I'll get it.