Dissonant Reviews: Sleeping Dogs

A look at rift between the praise of Sleeping Dogs and its considerable failures.

By: Drew Dixon

Filed Under: Action Editorial Review Story-driven

Sleeping Dogs is a fun video game with an incredibly absurd story. Driving frantically around Hong Kong never gets old and the game’s many brawling sequences succeed in capturing the feel of the kung fu movies they were styled after. These elements understandably resulted in a slew of positive review scores. However, the game also boasts of being a tension-filled crime drama that blurs the lines of “truth, loyalty, and justice.” And yet, much like the sandbox games Sleeping dogs pays homage to, most of what the player does is patently absurd.

Consequently, when I perused it’s reviews, I kept observing critics claim that its “story is by far its strongest quality.”

Colin Moriarty of IGN said:

Playing Sleeping Dogs kept me on the edge of my seat, but not for the reasons you might expect. … at the end of my nearly 20-hour experience, none of that mattered to me as much as the story did.

Brandon Justice of Electronic Gaming Monthly said:

Sleeping Dogs‘ story serves as the perfect wrapper for the wealth of game mechanics, offering up memorable characters and moving tale of vengeance, betrayal, and conflicting loyalties.

Tina Amini of Kotaku said:

I loved it even more for having a complex storyline that made me feel every ounce of emotion Wei felt. I was Wei Shen. And life is a mess. But if anyone can handle it, it’s me.

Sleeping Dogs tells the story of Wei Shen, an undercover cop tasked with infiltrating and taking down the Sun on Yee, the most prestigious branch of the Triads. Unlike early GTA games and the Saints Row series, Sleeping Dogs set out to confront the player with dramatic moral tension. The game attempts to get the player in the head space of Shen as he balances earning the trust of his gangster peers and collecting damning evidence against various gang members.

I understand why Sleeping Dogs has received so much praise for its story. In between missions we are treated with wonderfully voice-acted cut scenes in which Wei and his handler fiercely debate whether he is emotionally stable enough to continue his investigation. Wei has nightmares recounting his many misdeeds and the words people spoke about and against him. These instances recall movies like Donnie Brasco and The Departed that dramatically illustrated the emotional toll of going undercover. These movies, however, do something that Sleeping Dogs utterly fails at. Such movies posit the question of whether the ends justify the means while never definitively answering it.

I never felt such tension playing as Wei Shen.

To keep his cover, Wei Shen murders hundreds of cops, smashes rival gang member’s faces into spinning air conditioner blades, and hits civilians with his car while running from the police. For anyone with a moral compass, the ends cannot possibly justify the means for Shen.

Of all the reviews I linked above, I think I enjoyed Tina Amini’s the most because it reminded me of how I used to play video games. She embraced the power fantasy of Wei Shen:

I hijack cars by jumping off motorcycles to land on them. I shoot out of speeding vehicles. I ram police cars off the road. I sweet talk the ladies, and make them feel safe around me. . . . And when I fight, I smash people’s faces into AC vents and meat grinders. I throw them off roofs. I chase them down alleys. There’s nothing I won’t do. There’s nothing I can’t do.

I wanted to throw myself at Sleeping Dogs like this and there was a time when I surely would have. When I played Red Dead Redemption, I believed John Marston when he said he wanted a new life and I hated the men who stole that from him. I felt for Nico Belic, confident that in different circumstances he’d be a stand up guy.

Meanwhile, Wei continues to get his associates in the Sun on Yee arrested—he plants evidence and provides the police with video surveillance of drug deals, and informs the SWAT teams of exact locations of illicit activities. And yet he only receives mild accusations of being a snitch and continues to climb the ranks of the Triads. I cannot believe these sequences are intended to make me think that Shen is anything other than a sociopathic monster. As Alex Navarro pointed out, “Wei’s status as a Hong Kong police officer makes it kind of hard to process the visual of him shooting out the tires of a cop car and watching it explode into a ball of fiery death.”

After each mission, you get a cop score and a Triad score based on how you played. Avoid damaging property and hurting civilians and you get a higher cop score. Savagely brutalize your enemies and you get a higher Triad score.

I quickly found that hitting a civilian at 80 mph results in a rather negligible subtraction from my cop score. I also found that getting a higher cop score astoundingly allowed me to unlock the ability to use a slim jim to steal cars instead of breaking their windows. These mechanics attempt to illustrate the tension Sleeping Dogs’ various cut scenes would have us believe Shen is facing. Unfortunately these “scores” are never recognized by the game’s larger narrative. Avoid killing any civilians or kill 200, it doesn’t matter, Shen’s cohorts continue getting arrested while he climbs the ranks of the Triads.

I recognize that Sleeping Dogs is styled after Hong Kong action cinema which is equally absurd in its narrative and there is a certainly a place for such games. I don’t, however, remember ever praising any of those films because of their dramatic plots and convincing characters. The real tragedy with Sleeping Dogs is not its absurd story, but that so few critics acknowledge this. Consequently, I was encouraged to find Justin McElroy reflecting on these elements in his review for Polygon:

Remember when I said the player will question what side of the legal fence Shen is on? That’s in no small part due to him becoming the most prolific murderer in the history of mankind over the course of the game.

I know, I know, it’s a video game. But there was a chance here to explore the story of the gangster who somehow has to avoid killing – a far more interesting tale, I’d argue, than the cop who killed 200 people that one time, but at least we got some arrests out of it . . .

If Sleeping Dogs possesses a good story, it is only good in comparison to dozens of similarly absurd game narratives which happened to have lower quality cut scenes and voice acting. I had a blast playing it, but much of that enjoyment can be contributed to my learning to laugh at the game’s ridiculous attempts at creating narrative tension and its healthy doses of ludonarrative nonsense.

Perhaps Sleeping Dogs is a good story for a video game but I dream of the day when such qualifiers will no longer be necessary. A day when an under cover cop game will succeed in confronting players with dramatic moral tension. I also recognize that such a day is unlikely to come as long as we keep talking about how much we love such stupid stories.

Filed Under: Action Editorial Review Story-driven

About the Author:
Drew Dixon is editor-in-chief of Game Church. He also edits for Christ and Pop Culture and writes about video games for Paste Magazine and Think Christian.

8,110 Responses to “Dissonant Reviews: Sleeping Dogs”

  1. Skybane

    I felt as though the objectives of the triad missions got more aggressive as the game went on, and that tied into the fact that he was getting deeper and deeper into becoming one of the triad rather than a cop. It is still a game though, so I still don’t expect realism.

  2. Drew Dixon

    Yeah sure I mean I think that happens.

    I didn’t expect realism–that wasn’t the point of the article. The point was that the game wants you feel all this dramatic moral tension–I couldn’t feel that because of the absurdity of what I am actually doing in the game.

    Consequently, I felt the reviews that were so impressed with the game’s story were off base.

  3. JMZoss

    The all-but-forgotten Splinter Cell: Double Agent did a good job of making you feel like you were playing both sides – you never found yourself mass-murdering your agency buddies just prove your loyalty to the criminals you’re embedded with (although you do have to do some nasty stuff). Sadly, no one other than myself seemed to enjoy the undercover element of that game, as it hasn’t returned in another Splinter Cell and likely never will.

  4. Drew Dixon

    @JMZoss:disqus OH MAN–I totally played and enjoyed that game. And I agree, I remember no one else really liking that game. The missions where you had to sneak around the terrorists base were brilliant.

    On the other hand, everyone seemed to love the latest Splinter Cell game, conviction or whatever it was called. I thought it was dumb–it felt like they basically turned my beloved Splinter Cell series into a derivative action game.

    … so sad!

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