Clint Hocking coined the term “ludonarrative dissonance” to refer to the sense of contradiction we feel when the mechanics of a videogame contradict its narrative. For example, games’ narratives often promote peace while mechanically requiring the player to predominately interact violently with its world. A recent example is how Grand Theft Auto 5 gives us glimpses of the ordinary family lives of its characters just before requiring players to kill hundreds of cops. The presence of ludonarrative dissonance is typically considered a weakness. However, I believe I there is one game where ludonarrative dissonance is actually a strength, and may even have been intentionally included by the game writers. Sleeping Dogs does one better than Grand Theft Auto 5 by purposefully employing ludonarrative dissonance to expose our lust for violence.
[Spoilers - this article extensively discusses the ending of Sleeping Dogs]
In Sleeping Dogs, we play as Wei Shen, a policeman who goes undercover to infiltrate the triads (e.g. “gangs”) in Hong Kong. The story was clearly influenced by the narrative themes of the “True Crime” series (which Sleeping Dogs was originally a sequel to) as well as the undercover cop movies from Hong Kong (most notably “Infernal Affairs”). As an Asian who grew up watching Hong Kong police movies, Sleeping Dogs was a treat. But to me, one of the most interesting parts of the game was it’s title choice: what exactly does “Sleeping Dogs” mean, and who exactly were these sleeping dogs?
The first possibility to consider is that the title is taken from the familiar idiom “let sleeping dogs lie”. The idiom speaks of the wisdom of not instigating trouble when it could have been avoided. Certain plot points of the story relate to this idiom, particularly when Pendrew, the Hong Kong Police Commissioner, orders Wei to end his undercover mission. Wei refuses and exposes himself to further danger. This, however, was not the central incident of the whole story, and the narrative portrays Wei as having made the right decision by not listening to Pendrew’s orders. Another possible plot point is Pendrew himself deciding to betray the triads, when he could have left them alone. It seems unlikely that the entire game be named after Pendrew’s lack of wisdom.
Another possibility was that the term “dog” refers to “cop” in Cantonese slang. Thus, a “sleeping dog” is, in some ways, a “sleeping cop”. If so, the more interesting question now is: what does “sleeping” mean? It couldn’t just mean “undercover”. Perhaps it is a reference to Wei’s shifting loyalties, a central theme of the narrative. That even though he started out as an undercover cop, his actions and his beliefs become less and less like what a policeman should be doing and thinking, and in that sense Wei has “fallen asleep” as a cop.
If we understand “dog” to mean “cop”, then certainly Wei is the “sleeping dog”. But I would like to argue that Wei is not the only sleeping dog. There is one other “sleeping dog”, and hence, the plural “dogs”. The final mission of the game illustrates this theory. Immediately after being kidnapped and tortured, Wei escapes captivity and sets out for revenge. He defeats the most difficult boss character of the game, a man with a giant machete. After Wei kills the boss character, he takes the machete, and drives to the location of the final mission. Upon reaching the location, Wei gets out of the car, machete in hand, and sees some regular thugs guarding the compound. The mission prompt says “Slaughter Big Smile Lee’s thugs”. Machete in hand, I suspect most of us complied with the mission prompt without a second thought. A few of us might remember “hey isn’t Wei a cop?” and then shrug it off as some unintended ludonarrative dissonance.
Except, this was the only time the word “slaughter” was used in a combat situation. Previous mission prompts only used the word “defeat”. I believe the game writers are trying to say something here…and not about Wei, but about the player. As the player, we were fully aware that we were playing an undercover cop at the start. But as the game prods the player to perform actions which are extremely un-policeman-like (including the gruesome environment kills, which nets you bonus experience points). As the story progresses along, and Wei’s plummets further into anger and revenge, I began to be consumed with the violence and GTA-like nature of the game. I slowly began forgetting that I was playing a cop, a lover of peace and protector of civilians. This culminates with the final mission, the command to “slaughter”, and after the final boss was defeated, to execute the him in the most gruesome manner (noteworthy: this execution is mandatory and cannot be avoided). Wei’s policeman conscience has been lulled to sleep . . . but so has mine. I too, am a sleeping dog.
In the recent discussions surrounding Grand Theft Auto 5, many defend GTA 5 because violence is fun, and videogames are about having fun. If today’s sandbox games (be it GTA, Saints Row or Sleeping Dogs) are to sell, they better allow players the freedom to be violent when they want it. But the narrative treatment of Wei forces us into another perspective – we often project ourselves into the protagonist’s role of a videogame. And in sandbox games, we love the freedom because we long for freedom without consequences.
However, the protagonists in videogames aren’t really free – they are bounded by their history, their situation and their humanity. I believe Sleeping Dogs’ ludo-narrative dissonance reminds us of this just enough to force us to ask ourselves “should I really be this violent, even if I have the freedom to do so?” Or perhaps more pertinently – why do I desire to be violent in the first place? For fun? If the only justification for violence is “fun”, wouldn’t that make us a little sick?
But if that is really what the game writers had intended, couldn’t they choose a more direct approach to shove this tension to the gamer’s face, either by breaking the fourth wall (a la Bioshock) or through a earth-shattering plot reveal (a la Spec Ops: The Line)?
My guess? I think they decided it is best to let sleeping dogs lie.