Discomfort is an important way to dislodge bad beliefs. Rarely, though, are we placed in a position in which this happens: we are “so made” that confirmation, reinforcement, and selection-bias will carve out consolation from the rock of reality. Shining like ‘David’, we embrace it as truth, we hide beneath its shadow and pretend it’s the whole world. To be pushed into the rain, to face the bite of the cold, is to realise there’s more out there. More beyond what merely makes us safe.
This is the goal of games like third-person action-adventure game Sleeping Dogs. It begins in a world many of us view as ‘strange’: the so-called ‘East’, a term I despise as much as ‘West’. Furthermore, on this ‘strange’ planet, they speak in a ‘strange’ tongue, drink ‘strange’ drinks, eat ‘strange’ food, drive on ‘strange’ sides of the road. The interconnectivity of our lives is such that we have a digital shadow that often becomes a ghost that haunts us as prospective employees or lovers; and yet we still treat ‘Gangam Style’ as some artefact from space; we still think Japanese men buy used girls’ underwear from vending-machines (oh, apparently they do).
Being connected doesn’t mean being knowledgeable about who we’re connected with; connections can become threads to form another way to map out comfort, solace, safety. The threads that should be creating bridges further afield are instead being used to tighten bonds we already have.
Sleeping Dogs disregards this. It says: here is a world you don’t know, here is a world treated for so long as some magical, distant place, with magical, distant people, but it is as real, as visceral, as bloody as any common Hollywood gangster gore. It’s as filled with hollow dreams and shattered friendships as anything else. It tells us to come out from beneath the statue, it tells us to walk the threads of connectivity.
Your bridge is the protagonist, Wei Shen, who has an American accent but understands the local dialect since it’s his original. It’s interesting that Wei Shen himself never speaks the language, whereas others mostly speak English but occasionally dip into the local language just to reaffirm where exactly you are. What’s incredible is that this is not a way to constantly flap its wings in your face declaring “You’re not in Kansas anymore! Look how ‘exotic’ things are!’ – but the opposite; it’s precisely the comfort of these characters, the comfort of the world, so different from what we as gamers are used to, that is most jarring to us.
Even when games did take you to ‘non-American’ locations, whether Russia or ‘Generic War-torn Middle-Eastern City’, you at least were there knowing it was enemy ground. This wasn’t a space for you to get comfortable in. Yet, in Sleeping Dogs, not only is it the space of enemies and friends, it’s Wei Shen’s home. You’re trying to return home, you’re trying to find comfort again. The enemies as well as friends and family are also there: this isn’t Call of Duty where you’re defending your home from some nebulous foreign enemy or taking that same battle to them. Instead, you’re fighting an enemy who believes your home is his. So often games are about journeying away from home or defending that home; hardly ever is it about trying to make that home and, in the process, overcome trials and problems of those trying to stop you.
Wei Shen’s journey is filled with a passion I found as unnerving as a new environment so comfortable with itself and totally disinterested in me. He’s an undercover policeman infiltrating Triads, in order to take out the main members. The tropes of meeting an old friend, winning favours with leaders by being the most skilled operator in a group of thick-necked thugs, is all there; but then something happened.
The line blurred, like a hazy, Vicodin-fuelled moment from Rockstar’s action-filled, Matrix-loveletter Max Payne 3. Suddenly, Wei Shen’s admirable passion to ‘fight bad guys’ meant him taking increasingly more drastic actions I, as a player, hadn’t realised were out of sync with his secretive police badge. He’s threatened by a gang member to murder someone: this after I’d thrown a man into buzz-saw, chucked another off a building, and introduced a car-door to another’s head. Oh: so we’re meant to care about people’s (read: men’s*) lives, now?
It’s not that I think police people are automatically good and criminals bad: not at all. It’s that Wei Shen was able to do horrible things but protect himself and his morality with the constant reminder, in the form of his handler, that he’s a police officer, dammit – that it’s all “for the greater good!”. To some extent, we can accept this: but it’s usually always been a line used by villains created by poor writers in moments of desperation, trying to show their characters weren’t cartoon cutouts.
Wei Shen was dishonest: to himself, to me. I wondered why he woke up from his sleeps and seemed to have panic-attacks: there’s a moment during a mission where this happens so severely, it looks like a heart-attack. I thought Wei Shen was faking, but then he puked all over a guard’s feet – before using this as a distraction to enter a secure location. A kind of near-perfect encapsulation of the whole game: using a genuine moment of insecurity as pretext to continue ‘the mission’.
The battles escalate, the violence more so. The line is no longer even crossed so much as rubbed out. The automatic moral compass that could bizarrely justify any action, even criminal, is tossed aside, as Wei Shen enters the moral landscape of his own creation. The game is visually stunning, the voice-acting superb. However, the story is not particularly exciting or nuanced: the missions not particularly clever.
Instead it’s what the game does for us as players – or at least what it did for me. I’m quite happy to lob off heads and smash faces in. I was only briefly uncomfortable with Rockstar Games’ psycho, mass-murder game Manhunt’s bag-meets-neck operation where you strangle someone so hard, for so long, his entire head comes off like a neatly cut slice of cheese. At least here, I knew what and who I was: a crazed, psychopath among other psychos.
Sleeping Dogs decided it wasn’t going to let me have it easy.
It decided to do away with such trivial aspects. This is where its power lies: creating a character that is your typical, hardened good guy seen a thousand times – but slowly, gradually, erasing those ethical contours so he becomes not only a bad guy, but a bad guy you support. This is what Breaking Bad does with an ordinary suburban dad who is a loving father, cancer-patient and chemistry-teacher. You might not like or even approve of what Walter White does – but that’s not the point: it’s when he does these incredible things, like take out a gangster’s hideout with tiny white crystals of doom, bring down a major drug empire, that you realise you’ve been watching this slow, incremental evolution all along. An explosion in slow-motion who’s heat suddenly burns you. Like the hour hand of the clock that’s now at midnight: you watched it happening, but you didn’t really see it until the bells started chiming.
If nothing else, Sleeping Dogs accomplished something few novels or films get right: a character so rounded, we eclipsed his moral boundaries with our own shadowed ethics. Suddenly we’re on the other side, not realising we’d even been orbiting. Let’s hope more developers use this to create more interesting characters in the future.