Sleeping Dogs was released late last year, but I only got around to playing it recently. And what I found surprised me. I had expected a B-tier GTA knockoff (well, okay, it *is* that) but it actually had a fairly clear thematic angle and a really subtle way of delivering it.Oh, and I screwed up the credits. The song isn’t “Peking Paris New York,” but “From Xikou With Love.” Same album of (I think?) contract music produced by a third party but expressly for the game. ‘s available on iTunes.Transcript below the cut.
In my previous videos I’ve gone over how Grand Theft Auto has become a franchise that’s got a rather disjoint tone. It wants to be a goofy, parodic chaos generator and it wants to be a self-serious gritty crime drama loaded with social commentary and doesn’t really seem to recognize how jarring it is for players to switch violently and randomly between those two extremes.
When other games have tried to take on this genre and attempt to avoid making Grand Theft Auto’s mistakes they typically end up doubling down on the chaos. Saint’s Row tosses out pretty much any semblance of maudlin introspection and ramps up the insanity by encouraging just about every act of violence and debauchery possible. And Just Cause treats its story the way John Carmack has always suggested games should – like the story of a porn movie, there as flimsy justification for the explosions and the revelry. And both solutions work really well for what their respective games are trying to accomplish – Saint’s Row’s transgressive excess and Just Cause 2’s pulpy nonsense avoid the problems Grand Theft Auto had while still setting up and conveying the tone they’re after.
But Sleeping Dogs is different It actually tries to ramp the chaos down – at least compared to the more absurd elements of its open world contemporaries. You’re not hijacking an airplane from another airplane while in mid-flight or getting into dildo fights with sports drink mascots like in Saint’s Row. Where Grand Theft Auto stories spiral out of control with an ensemble cast from all over the city, Sleeping Dogs is in comparison an intimate story with a small cast of characters. And while there are still shootouts with ridiculous body counts and insane chase sequences they’re normally framed with a clear narrative purpose. What makes Sleeping Dogs work, at its core, is that it plays with the very dissonance and tension between serious story and over the top gameplay that Grand Theft Auto tries so hard to pretend isn’t there. It’s a game that sees the duality presented in Grand Theft Auto and uses it as a rhetorical device to explore being torn between identities; not so much in a “split personalities” sense but more in a “We all wear masks, metaphorically speaking” sense.
The game takes major influence from the Departed (and Internal Affairs before it), where the line between friend and foe gets blurred and characters loyalties and motives are questioned. The protagonist, Wei Shen, is an undercover cop in Hong Kong sworn to uphold the law and bring criminals to justice. But by virtue of being undercover Wei Shen is also a gangster committing very real acts of crime. He’s got a personal vendetta against drug-pushing Triads for what they did to his sister and has sworn to take them down. But his best friends, support network, and power all come from his position within the Triad. He’s got a strong moral compass that leads him to resolutely conclude what’s right, but is perfectly comfortable doing horrible things to assure those right things come to pass. This sense of split identity defines not only the entirety of Wei Shen’s character, but all of Sleeping Dogs as a whole. It’s a game about dealing with conflicting aspects of self, but what’s so interesting – and perhaps even shocking – is that it isn’t a game about choosing between those aspects. It’s a game about living with and reconciling the fact that you have these identities. There’s no “Are you Bruce Wayne or are you Batman” moment here, there’s just the ongoing stress of simultaneously trying to be a cop who solves crime and a gangster who creates it. The two are always in conflict for your time and attention but Sleeping Dogs never asks you choose one or the other. And the game creates and exploits the same sort of tensions that drag Grand Theft Auto down in order bring up those broader topics regarding identity.
The most straightforward example of this is in the experience systems when on missions. Every mission is graded on two scales – one gives you police experience and one gives you triad experience. The two are earned in fundamentally different ways and try to enforce fundamentally different playstyles – but it’s important to note they aren’t mutually exclusive playstyles.
The Triad meter fills up like a traditional experience bar. It’s filled by skillful combat, environmental take downs, headshots in, completing triad objectives – that sort of thing. In the triad and on the streets reputation has to be earned. There’s a whole world of wealth and power out there and you just need to actively reach out and grab it. The more creative and violent and skillful you can be with headshots and vehicle takedowns and fist fights, the more your clout with the Triad grows. So go out there! Prove yourself to be worthy of respect by being a force of action.
The police meter, on the other hand, depletes with failures – hurting innocent people or causing property damage cases you to lose experience. The assumption is that you’re a good cop until you prove you’re not. But it’s deeper than that – you get judged not just for killing pedestrians or causing massive car accidents, but running into railings on the highway and even slipping up when trying to do parkour. If there’s a fence in the way and you don’t hit the parkour button on time you’ll stumble, lose police experience, and be told you’re clumsy. The anal retentive attention to detail is annoying, and I feel like that’s intentional – like Wei’s handler in the police force, Raymond, is silently judging your ability to perform your job because you couldn’t gracefully vault a small fence. It underscores the idea that there’s someone second-guessing your moves and holding a magnifying glass up to your actions ready to review your performance.
The result is that you feel pressure to simultaneously be as brash and bold as possible but also as conservative in your approach as you can be. The Triad mechanics ask you to lash out with aggression and the police mechanics ask that you restrain yourself, but skilled players can do both! You’re not choosing to be a cop or choosing to be a criminal, you’re balancing two different aspects of your identity with these two different needs. And sometimes you might let one win out over the other! Sometimes you throw caution to the wind to complete the mission even if it hurts your police experience. Sometimes you’d rather get it done clean because you want the next police upgrade. But the conflict itself never goes away, and the very next mission these two conflicting systems will again be vying for your attention. And this system is, I think, where the Grand Theft Auto tension is most clearly felt, and felt intentionally – where the debate between mechanical indulgence of asking you to break laws and cause havoc is diametrically opposed to a demand that you yield to caution.
And this duality is reinforced by other elements of the game. Its fight sequences are broken up into gunplay and melee combat, and the two rarely if ever intersect. You’re either shooting or you’re punching, but the mechanics are modal and not designed to have much interplay. One is Gears of War and the other is Arkham Asylum and they don’t form a cohesive whole. This game isn’t really a beat ‘em up and it isn’t really a cover shooter, but it just as Wei has to juggle the responsibilities of cop and criminal this game has to juggle the responsibilities of both of those genres. The game also fluctuates between vehicle sections and on foot missions – some missions feel like you’re playing a racing or car combat game, and other missions feel like you’re playing a platformer or beat ‘em up. There are even two story tracks that compete for your time – one involves being a cop and solving crimes while the main story missions are tied to your undercover work as a gangster. At all times you’re juggling these disparate mechanic sets, these different priorities, these different sides of what it means to exist in this game world. Sleeping Dogs uses them to explore this idea of having different identities in different contexts; the idea that a person or a character or even a game aren’t one thing but a multitude of things all struggling to co-exist. And that struggle, that inner conflict about coming to terms with the fact that identities are multifaceted, contextual, and impermanent is really what the game’s about.
To that end I think it’s telling that the biggest villains in the game aren’t part of external organizaitons. The Sun On Yee skirmish with the 18K and both of those Triads have run-ins with the police, but the major conflicts aren’t really between any of these forces. Instead we get characters like Pendrew. He’s your handler’s boss and a member of the police force who has become so corrupt he’s willing to blow your cover and get you killed for personal gain. Meanwhile on the streets your biggest threat is from Big Smile Lee, who is in your own Triad but wants to put himself in line as the next chairman. In both situations you’re fighting elements of organizations you’re already a part of – this isn’t a cops versus criminals game or a triad versus triad game; it’s a game where cops hurt other cops and Traid members turn on each other. Even the organizations that make up this world are full of inner conflict and are unsure of what they represent as a whole. Uncle Po talks about the values of the triad fading at length.
And to the game’s credit it rarely brings these concepts into the forefront; it doesn’t smack you over the head with them. Grand Theft Auto burdens its missions with the pretension of being some sort of grandiose statement about American culture, and inserts gravitas and symbolism into everything it does. When Niko goes bowling with his girlfriend it isn’t just a nice date scene where we get some character growth; it’s also invoking a mechanic set that alters your date’s reaction based on what you’re wearing, what you’re driving, and where you take her. So it becomes another hamfisted swipe at American materialism in a game that considers this clever potty humor. In Sleeping Dogs when Wei Shen goes on a date it’s more character driven – we find out a little about Wei and the girl and watch how they interact. It’s less about heavy handed symbolism and more about getting to know our protagonist from various angles while we try and search for who the ‘real’ Wei Shen is. And what we find out is that we’re not sure there is one. He can’t stay with a girl for more than a few dates, and we begin to question if Wei even knows what he wants.
Now, obviously, using female characters as props to explore male characters sucks, and it’s one of the game’s biggest missteps. The game seems to believe there are only two classes of women – young, sexy, attractive ladies defined by the men they’re with, or strong, independent, and wholly asexual women who wield power over you like Broken Nose Jiang, Inspector Teng, or Mrs. Chu. There aren’t really any female gangsters to fight beside you or to fight against; which is all the more weird considering that there are women falling over themselves to sleep with Wei and women higher in command to give him orders. There just aren’t any women on Wei’s level doing gangster work in the streets. It’s another game that has some absolutely wonderful elements that gets dragged down by awkwardly framing all women exclusively by their relationship to our male protagonist. Women are either used to frame Wei Shen’s character like his dead sister or his various girlfriends or the fact that he didn’t sleep with Victoria – or they exist to give him something to do. None of them are characters in their own right.
But while that’s kinda gross it’s hard to complain too much about that – after all, the only character (male or female) who really gets an arc other than Wei Shen is Jackie. And… oh, Jackie. I had hoped that they were going to do something interesting with him, but as the game draws towards its conclusion it becomes clear they’re going in perhaps the laziest direction they could. Which is a waste of a character they managed to get me to empathize with despite the heavy handedness of the melodrama. Still, I guess it resonates thematically – Jackie couldn’t deal with juggling these alternate identities. When he was in the triad he was 100% Gangster and refused to consider the ramifications of his actions or his responsibilities to anyone else – or even himself. This holistic identity led to him getting arrested, beat up, and buried alive. Then when he decided it was time to get out he ended up dead because of his desire to get away and be alone. It was as if he thought he could just abandon the past and wholly inhabit a new identity away from his old life style. And all of that ties in with the conversation Wei has with his martial arts teacher regarding his own past and his need to accept it as part of himself. Jackie’s story, as manipulative as it is, does pose as an allegory for anyone who refuses to acknowledge the need to recognize and balance the different parts of themselves.
There may be times where the game’s reach exceeds its grasp – open world GTA games are notoriously difficult to pull off, and there are times where the seams and shortcuts start to show. But overall Square Enix and United Front did a fantastic job of making a game that explores this concept. It reinforces the ideas it wants to present at every level of its mechanics and story, but it also never feels like it’s being heavy handed or preachy. In fact, I love the end of the game that leaves Wei Shen’s story on a note of ambiguity. When Wei meets Teng at the end of the game, he tells her that Hong Kong finally feels like home. In reply she wonders which Hong Kong he’s found himself ready to settle in. And we never find out! And it’s just so refreshing to end on a note of thematically resonant ambiguity that isn’t just sequel bait.
The obsession video games have over choice is dangerous because it so often gets framed in the most hamfisted ways possible – exemplified most horrifically by those abominable Moral Choice Systems. Do you do the horrifically repugnant thing or the selflessly good thing? But life isn’t like that. Not just with regard to moral quandaries, but in everything else too. Wei struggles with questions that don’t result in pop-ups where you hit ‘A’ to choose one option and ‘X’ to choose another. Is his home America or Hong Kong? Is he a gangster or a cop? Is he using people like Jackie, or are they really his friends? The answers to these aren’t clear cut; they’re shades of grey that depend on when we ask them. And in a medium so obsessed with consequential choice there’s something refreshing about a AAA game that doesn’t ask us to choose the answers to these questions but deal with the fact that there are none.