Sleeping Dogs isn’t the most original game out there. It’s open-world, released at the height of Assassin’s Creed’s popularity and the year before GTA 5. You play as Wei Shen, a Chinese-American cop who must go undercover in the Triads. The only catch is that many of Shen’s friends and even family are Triad members, and he must – dun dun dun – choose which side of the law his loyalty lies on.
Like I said, not the most original. The Departed (itself based upon a Hong Kong cop saga in Internal Affairs) is the best modern example of the undercover cop story, but it’s a narrative that goes back beyond 1949’s White Heat, bypassing Reservoir Dogs, Prince Of The City and even White Chicks, which as we all know is White Heat’s long-awaited sequel. It might not have anything particularly unique at its core then, but it nails one aspect of its story to the floorboards, in a way that many games since have tried and mostly failed to replicate: duality.
Morality and choice in games is very in vogue right now. Perhaps it’s because, burdened by student loans, long hours for minimal pay and a skyrocketing divide between the haves and the have-nots, our real lives often seem devoid of choices. Maybe it’s because social media makes us all so angry that there are so many bastard-coated-bastards out there and we’re so desensitized to shooter violence that being bad just feels so cathartically good. Maybe it’s just fun. Maybe it’s Maybelline.
On that bastard-coated-bastard point though, Mass Effect developer John Ebenger recently revealed that 92% of that game’s players actually played Paragon: the good guys. Personally, I loved the Renegade playthrough. I punched the reporter every time, I called the Hanar a big stupid jellyfish and I kicked the guy out of the window. But Mass Effect’s system is a binary choice, and clearly many preferred the clean-cut nature of a Paragon run. Sleeping Dogs melds the idea of good and evil together seamlessly, and creates a much more realistic and engaging morality.
There are three main skills to raise in Sleeping Dogs: Cop, Triad and Face. Unlike Paragon and Renegade, these skills can – and should – be raised simultaneously. Face isn’t really relevant here, but your Cop score is raised by being a good guy, and your Triad by being a bad guy.
By making these skills so connected, rather than setting them as opposite ends of a spectrum, Sleeping Dogs’ morality is much more realistic than other games. The good guys can be bad people. The bad guys can be good people. There are two wolves inside of you. This system forces you to actively think like Shen, blending in with the Triads while not losing the respect of the Cops. This might mean a violent environmental kill of a rival – while taking care not to damage public property with your getaway.
It’s not about choosing whether to be a hero or a villain. You are at once both hero and villain, with the choices – and consequences – ultimately yours. Sleeping Dogs understood that in order to tell its story effectively, it needed you to experience the dilemma at the heart of Shen’s existence. Not just during key plot points, but with every single step.