Sleeping Dogs by United Front Games is about an undercover cop rising through the ranks of the Honk Kong triad. The police are the bad guys, or certain cops are, and they’re the good guys, or so we’re trained to think. The Triad are the good guys, or certain characters are forgivable, and they’re the bad guys, or so we’re trained to think. The game’s plot treads this line well, corruption is systemic in the police force but their job is to ‘do good’, and while the Triad’s actions are far from forgivable their members are people who you can understand and sympathise with. The game’s plot is welcome nuance for an open-world crime game, but its gameplay shows us the abstraction we’ve had buried deep into our perception.
The fighting in Sleeping Dogs favours martial combat over gunplay, with a range of different opponents that force you to switch up tactics. Larger opponents attempt to grapple you so you should hit them with heavy attacks, opponents with fist wraps are impossible to interrupt so you should counter them and grapple them. You become trained while playing the game to look for and identify types of people, determining how they threaten you and how you should respond. In some side missions, once you have defeated a small gang, you can hack a camera in their hangout, hooking it up to your apartment to catch their Triad contact and point them out to the police. This contact always looks the same, suited and often on their phone or with a briefcase. You never see their illegal activity, but you know they’re a criminal from how they look, where they are, and who they’re hanging out with.
Sleeping Dogs is not a villain, but it’s indicative of a way of thinking that shelters us from a complex reality where our governments are complicit in far away violence. Collateral damage from a drone strike is forgiven, if someone is accidentally at a military target then what might they have had to hide? If a school or hospital is destroyed then surely it was the ‘enemy’s fault for hiding behind civilian infrastructure. A drone operator sees a target marked by military intelligence and clicks a button. The hero of Sleeping Dogs sees a member of the Triad, you click a button, and the police take them away.
This visual simplicity does not make Sleeping Dogs a bad game, instead it makes it a great one. These methods are tied to the very heart of how video games function, a perfect unity of visuals and interaction is a mark of an effective game. So should video games rethink what makes them effective? Probably not, while games (especially AAA) can do much more to think of the impact of their gameplay and how it relates to its narrative, reality should be our focus. If modern warfare tactics, both on the battlefield and how it is communicated to the people, are drifting further from reality then we must work extra hard to sensitise ourselves to the unwelcome truth.