This is an analysis and opinion piece regarding the story, characters, and representations used in Sleeping Dogs. I wrote this about a week ago on reddit and decided to share it here. I hope you enjoy!
THERE WILL BE MASSIVE SPOILERS
So let's talk about Sleeping Dogs.
You play as Wei Shen, an undercover cop in Hong Kong tasked with infiltrating a triad organization known as Sun On Yee.
Growing up in a poor district of Hong Kong, Shen had a lot of friends who had dreams of improving their situation through becoming a respected member of the Sun On Yee.
However, Shen and his family moved to San Francisco after his sister Mimi developed an addiction to heroin. This addiction was the result of her friendship with one of the boys Shen grew up with, Dogeyes Lin. As the addiction worsened, she took up prostitution to fund her heroin purchases.
Moving to San Francisco was meant to get Mimi away from that environment and allow her to receive the help she needed to gain control of her life. The idea was successful at first and she was placed into rehabilitation. But she fell back in with the criminal world and back in with heroin thanks to Ming Ming Trin, who eventually supplied her with a lethal dose of heroin.
Shen, who was part of the SFPD at the time, tracked down Trin and reportedly tortured him viciously before murdering him in an act of vengeance. Nobody could compile concrete proof that Shen was responsible, so he didn't face any charges, but it was generally acknowledged that he was responsible.
Shen was eventually contacted by Pendrew, a superintendent with the Hong Kong Police Department, to work undercover and infiltrate the Sun On Yee. This was seen as the perfect operation because Shen had grown up with some of the people that served as low-level gangsters and red poles in the Sun On Yee. That meant he'd have an in, namely a best friend growing up named Jackie, and could establish trust having come from the same background while his exploits in San Francisco were kept under wraps and unheard of in Hong Kong.
After getting intentionally arrested and making contact with Jackie in jail, Shen is able to get introduced to Winston, a small-time red pole in the district Shen came from. Thus starts his climb up the Sun On Yee ladder.
What the game did well.
From the very beginning of the game, both of Shen's superiors point out that they're concerned with Shen's mental stability in regards to this operation. Psych tests have shown that Shen, having moved frequently as a child across very differing cultures, is at risk of losing certain "anchors" that remind him of who he is and which side of the law he's loyal to.
So rather than giving us a "tough cop who don't play by the rules" story, we get a story of a cop who is seeking vengeance against the person responsible for his sister's introduction to heroin and prostitution but the vengeance manifests itself as a lack of mental stability rather than some raging fire that makes him the super ultra duper good guy.
And his superiors were right to be worried, because Shen forms a very real attachment to the Sun On Yee relatively quickly. He knows he's working with disgusting criminals, people who likely contributed to the downfall of his sister and his family's relocation, yet he still feels empathy for them.
One big example of this is the series of quests leading up to Winston's big marriage. Shen spends time with Winston's wife to help her get everything she wants for a perfect wedding, including stealing a black orchid from a temple and hijacking a truck carrying her wedding cake which was already hijacked by rival triads believed to be in the 18k.
By this point, Winston has come to respect and admire Shen. They have a very friendly relationship, and Winston's wedding feels no different from any other wedding. Everyone is happy, everyone is dressed nice, exchanging pleasantries and warm feelings.
Then a group of assailants believed to be 18k attempt to kill everyone at that wedding. They gained access by disguising themselves as the wait staff. Their main goal was to kill Uncle Po, the chairman of the Sun On Yee, but Winston and his wife didn't make it out alive.
This is really where we see Shen's very personal attachment to the organization he's infiltrating, as he is emotionally wrecked by the murder of Winston. And I'll remind you that his introduction to Winston just hours earlier in the game saw Winston teasing Shen about how much he loved fucking Mimi.
As the game moves forward, this attachment turns into outright loyalty. With Uncle Po being hospitalized, the major leaders of the Sun On Yee are vying for control in the event that Po doesn't survive.
And here's another part where the game does really well.
The person that Shen becomes loyal to is Broken Nose Jiang. Jiang is a woman in a male-dominated triad, and a very respected woman at that. One of the other leaders, Big Smile Lee, seems to have very real animosity towards her, telling her at one point that women shouldn't be in a triad and that she never would've been allowed in had he been the chairman.
The reason Shen pledges loyalty to Jiang is because she seeks to reform the Sun On Yee. Her wish is to rid the organization of its current reliance on profits from prostitution and pornography, as both of those channels of funding primarily involve the trafficking, abuse, and extortion of young women.
Jiang, at no point in the game, is ever placed into a state of "Damsel in Distress". She is always large and in charge throughout the events of the game. She asks Wei to help her take down Big Smile Lee, sure, but that's really only done because Lee is already in cohorts with the 18k and Po's passing means Lee has no problem breaking all tradition and rules to eliminate any threats to his whims. For all intents and purposes, Jiang very well might've taken Lee down with her power alone. Having Wei on her side just meant that the field was leveled a bit.
By the end of the story, Jiang is the new Dragonhead of the Sun On Yee, the leader of a vast criminal organization that is being rebuilt to out any reliance on using women as tools for profit.
This is one area I really think the game did well. It's not often you see a story where an already-powerful woman takes over a male-dominated organization to become the most powerful woman, and does it while protecting women and without using sex or other stereotypical things. She doesn't even engage in violence, using nothing but subterfuge and intelligence to be a total badass.
Some other minor points of wellness.
Remember Winston from earlier? So one of Winston's bases of operation is his mom's restaurant. His mom is Mrs. Chu.
Honestly, just check out this page and look at this woman:
This woman is one of the coolest characters in the game, right there with Jiang.
Why is that? Well, while you're hanging out with Peggy, Winston's wife, Peggy tells you that Mrs. Chu seemed to be cold and off-putting at first. However, when Peggy was complaining about Winston not giving their relationship the attention it deserved, Mrs. Chu chastised him IN FRONT OF HIS ENTIRE GANG for not paying attention to his fiancee. They got along great from that point forward, and Winston treated his relationship with the gravity it deserves.
So that's pretty cool if not kinda stereotypical, right?
But then there's the other part. Remember how Peggy and Winston get killed at their wedding? Well, Mrs. Chu tasks you with finding the people responsible and bringing them to her. When you bring the first to her, she doesn't say anything to him while she slaughters him with a cleaver and makes him into a stew.
When you bring the second to her, it happens to be a man who used to come to her restaurant every day as a little boy, ol' Dogeyes Lin. She sweetly offers him some stew while he's tied up to a chair and bleeding from the beating you already gave him, and then tells him to his face that the stew is his subordinate that helped kill her son and daughter-in-law.
The last you see of Dogeyes is Mrs. Chu bringing that cleaver down for some sweet, violent justice.
Now I know that there are complaints regarding how women seemingly only get presented as being badass if they're as equally violent as the men. In this case, sure, that could be, but Mrs. Chu is seen as a badass all throughout the earlier part of the game where she's not slaughtering criminals. She just also happens to be a badass when she's doling out violence far greater than all but one other male character in the entire game.
In other words, Mrs. Chu is just a straight up badass.
And then you have Teng, an officer working out of a derelict base of operations. You help her complete various open cases that she can't solve herself because of the lack of funding and also the need for someone undercover with more leeway with the law. Teng is never once presented as anything other than a professional, platonic person who cares about cases that the HKPD normally wouldn't give two shits about. She's never objectified, nor is she ever presented as a romantic option. She's her own person through and through.
One of the really cool things with Teng is when she helps you solve a case regarding undocumented european women going missing. This is something Teng has not been able to do anything about because HKPD doesn't care about trying to find missing people who have no records of existing anyway. With her help, and the assistance of Illyana (a dancer/worker in a club in Hong Kong who is russian and undocumented), you are able to take down an entire trafficking operation that saw dozens of women being held captive and sold.
What's also really cool is that none of these women do the stereotypical "omg thx for saving me lets have sex to show how grateful i am you sexy man" thing once freed. Illyana thanks you for caring about women like her, undocumented immigrants that go missing and nobody cares about, but that's it.
We have the sole black character in the game, King. He's a record producer who is going to work with Sonny Wo to make Vivienne Lu into a bigger star.
And he absolutely hates Wo's treatment of women, how disgustingly creepy he is in being obsessed with having sex with celebrity women and threatening to tank their careers if they don't have sex with whoever he tells them to.
He's also not played up as the normal "gangster" stereotype. In that sense, I mean he isn't given the GTA V treatment of black characters dropping the N-Bomb every other word, nor being obsessed with violence (and yes, you could say "but Franklin didn't want to be violent" but that's hard to believe after you've just finished running down a thousand innocent people on sidewalks).
King is just a dude at the top of his game, loves ladies without the stereotype of being an absolute pig about it, and even talks with Shen about opening up an import business with Shen as his Hong Kong contact, as a way of avoiding working with scum like Sonny.
Yes, King and Shen do still end up going into a back room with some of the ladies from the club and doing the nasty, but you're forced to make Shen sing karaoke first and I like to think the ladies loved him just because he was great at singing I Ran by Flock of Seagulls.
Where it needed improvement.
Not all women are positive in this game. And some start positive but then become pretty objectified.
To the former, we have the lady Shen meets at the first karaoke bar, Tiffany. You interact with her maybe four times. The first is meeting her, the second is helping her stash a gun, the third is stalking her and planting a bug on a public payphone under suspicion of her cheating, and the forth is confronting her in front of the dude she's cheating with.
Literally nothing in the story lends itself to the idea that Shen was ever in a relationship with her, but suddenly you're stalking her, bugging her phone calls, and confronting her for cheating. Pretty piss-poor representation.
Also for the former is Not Ping. She's called Not Ping because you show up to her tech shop to pickup some audio surveillance equipment that your police handler requested, where you were supposed to ask for Ping. She says she's not Ping, and you never find out her real name, and she finds it cute when you show her in your phone that you have her in there as Not Ping since you don't know her name.
Not Ping is interacted with twice. The first is when you pick up the equipment, and the second time is for a "date" where you both go parkouring on some construction site and you impress her by hacking a surveillance camera. It's then implied that you two go do some sexy sex.
After that, the only other time you hear from her is when she calls you because she saw you with Tiffany and is mad that you're hanging out with other women. She berates you, and then tells you to call her back. You never hear from her again (except in some DLC but I don't have those so fuck 'em).
For the latter, we have Amanda.
Amanda starts out as an american tourist who needs help finding her way around Hong Kong. You show her some sights, and help her find a dojo she read about, which just happens to be a dojo Shen trained at as a young boy.
Nothing sexual or even implied happens in that first mission, you're just being a helpful tourist.
On the second mission, though, you help her break into some tourist attraction after hours by bribing a guard, and take some photographs of her so she can put them on her blog. As you're about to leave the place, there's an implied sex scene.
Amanda is never heard from again, except in a briefing saying your police superiors investigated her to see if she'd be a threat to the mission and found that she was interested in men other than Shen.
There's also Vivienne, who you don't date, but who plays a role in the story. She's a celebrity that Sonny forces to sleep with other people in the Sun On Yee, and whom Ricky (one of the assistants to Sun On Yee) has fallen for in spite of being sad that she gets forced to sleep with so many people.
Vivienne DOES get sent by Sonny to sleep with you, but she says she's tired of doing so, and you agree that you don't want to.
At one point, your sent on a mission by Sonny to put cameras in her apartment so she can be recorded and blackmailed. Shen expresses no reservations about doing so, and the cameras end up getting used to convince Ricky to not side with Big Smile Lee when war breaks out towards the end, since Lee and Sonny work together.
So Vivienne isn't really given much agency at all, and is just used as a tool to further Shen and Ricky's stories.
Now, there may also be stereotypes, but I'm not familiar enough with Hong Kong culture to know if they are or not. For example, it's not uncommon while driving in-game to see a truck carrying a bunch of chickens, and cock fighting is a side activity you can engage in. I'll say that I didn't really see any stereotypes I'm familiar with in american media other than the dojo master being "mystical and wise".
So yeah, I can't really speak to stereotypes in the game. One thing they did really well was have asian voice actors for pretty much every asian character in the game. Emma Stone did Amanda, and a white dude did Pendrew because both of those people are white, but everyone else on the cast list seemed to have asian nationality or heritage.
I guess one stereotype could be Tong: He's one of the final dudes you kill, and he's a specialist in torture using common items like a scalpel and power drill. But I don't know if that's so much a stereotype against asians as it is just a common trope. I remember a character in one of the Brosnan Bond movies being the same way and that dude was white.
There is also the fact that you can go to massage parlors that are littered all over the map, and those improve your healing abilities. They're setup to look just like the stereotypical "asian massage" you see elsewhere in media, with a scantily clad woman waiting outside and you walk with her under your arm into a room that fades to black, implying naughty stuff.
Again, I don't know the culture in Hong Kong so maybe those are common, but they just seemed fairly stereotypical to me.
If you have any other comments about problematic things you noticed, please let me know. These are the ones that came to mind, so I'm sure I missed some, but overall I felt the game did pretty well at keeping them minimized.
I also think the game did well at how it made Shen. His violence was never hand-waved away, and the game reminded him pretty frequently that he was getting out of control with violence as everything really ramped up. That felt much better than GTA V where the characters (save for Trevor) are supposed to be disassociating themselves from violence but can engage in as much as they want without anyone commenting on it.
OH AND BEFORE I FORGET
Yes, I think Mimi was "fridged" in this game. She's given a story and all that, but her relevance kind of dies out for the most part after the first third of the game, so she was just a girl who died from drugs and was used as justification for Shen's vengeance. After his vengeance should've technically been quelled, seeing as Dogeyes got got, she's rarely-if-ever brought up again and Shen just goes deeper and deeper into the Sun On Yee.
It could be said that that was the point, tying into the mental instability that they feared would lead him to losing his anchor points and getting too much in-bed with the criminal organization, but the game doesn't really comment on that by saying, "Hey, yeah, so, you did what you wanted to do and now you're getting in deeper and aren't you kinda now just using your sister's death as false justification for your continued violence and criminal activities?"
Sure, Pendrew does tell you the operation is over about time Po dies, but that's long after Dogeyes is dead, and Pendrew doesn't bring up Mimi at all.
So yeah, Mimi could've been handled much better and given more relevance, but she's more or less just a tool to justify his urge to go undercover and then all thought of her disappears by the end.
In fact, the ending doesn't even talk about her whatsoever. It talks about Shen, and how he finally feels at home somewhere, with Teng commenting, "But which Hong Kong do you feel at home in?" to address whether he's still an officer of the law or loyal to the Sun On Yee.
And at that, we see Jiang in a limo stating that the Sun On Yee will leave Shen alone because he proved his loyalty to her even if he was an undercover cop the whole time, and that the Sun On Yee will be a better organization with her at the helm.
So yay Jiang, but aww Mimi.
I just realized I forgot all about Jackie.
So he's definitely a utilization of a common trope, that being the "gangster with a good heart who doesn't really think about what he's getting himself into."
See, Jackie has been in the Sun On Yee for years but never a "true" member, just pretty much an errand boy for Winston with no chance of promotion. He enjoys his place, with dreams of being a big time gangster and making his mark. But he also naively thinks that continuing to be an errand boy will get him somewhere.
What's interesting with Jackie is that he gets used in averted (and subverted) tropes time and time again. There are multiple parts in the story where you're certain he's about to get killed or you're going to find him dead. One of those is when you and Jackie go to hijack some 18k jewelry delivery and find out it was an ambush, with Jackie getting locked in the back of the truck with an 18k member while the truck speeds off. You tail it, hijack it, and open it up with Shen calling out Jackie's name, fearing the worst. You find Jackie beating the crap out of the other gangster like it ain't no thang.
You also rescue him multiple times from dastardly plots. And Jackie has a moment of sudden realization when he shoots a gangster in the head that was about to kill Shen. He can't get over the sinking feeling in his stomach, and comments later that he sees that gangster's face every time he goes to sleep.
So Jackie gets the feeling that he isn't cut out to live the dreams he imagined, and instead envisions running a business with his girlfriend and just having a quiet life even if it means he won't be rich and famous.
But, after multiple times where whatever bad thing happens to Jackie gets stopped by Shen, you get slapped in the face for thinking he's going to make it out of the story alive.
The very last mission, you get a text from Jackie telling you to meet him somewhere. You show up and call him, and hear his cell phone going off. Shen start's calling his name, then turns a corner and sees Jackie strung up on a pipe, bloodied, tortured, and dead.
This is a slap in the face because, in the previous mission, you broke through an ambush and a speed boat chase to find him buried in a coffin but still alive on a small island.
In this mission, you show up and he's already dead, with Shen freaking out and trying to get Jackie down from the pipe and trying to wake him up.
Then Shen gets knocked out by an assailant, and wakes up to vicious torture at the hands of Tong.
GOOD OR BAD?
Honestly, I think Jackie's story was pretty good. He's kind of a constant base-level in the game to show exactly what extremes Shen has reached. And he is active in a good chunk of the story, never really getting cast to the wayside. (Or Wei-side if we wanna be clever.)
Yes, he's a stereotype common in media, similar to Jesse in Fast and the Furious who was a good-hearted kid that ended up dying because of the actions of his friends. And yes, he gets used as a foil multiple times.
But he grows. He has his own development throughout the game, going from foot soldier with high hopes to official member that thinks he's finally made it to someone that regrets where they've taken their life and just wants to get out of it all.
Through it all, you really just feel bad for him, because he's always pretty much at the whims of the stronger people, and ends up getting screwed over the couple of times he tries to exercise his own strength. The first time is when he has Shen help him try and hijack an import of pricey watches, but they find out the watches are obvious knock-offs and aren't worth a damn. The second is the aforementioned jewel heist where, after they steal the jewels and Shen lets him out of the truck, they go to fence the jewels and there's a cop ambush waiting for them.
See, that last one is where you really feel bad for Jackie. He doesn't out Shen to the police. He has full loyalty to Shen and takes the fall while Shen hides around the corner and watches it go down. He spends some time in jail, where Teng tries to get him to be an informant like Shen (without blowing Shen's cover) so he can improve his life, and he turns it down because he's loyal to Shen, he's loyal to the Sun On Yee, even though Shen is betraying the Sun On Yee and the organization doesn't really give much of a shit about him.
His is a tragic story that, I feel, stands out from Shen's.
The bad part, though, is that none of this is really commented on in the game, nor is Jackie really brought up in the ending after his death. Yeah, Pendrew gets karmic justice by having evidence against him that will put him in jail for blowing Shen's cover, and Shen tells Pendrew that he made sure everyone in prison knows that Pendrew killed Po. But Shen doesn't really link Pendrew to what happened to Jackie, so that karmic justice doesn't really seem like it's including Jackie's fate in it.
So yeah, that's the bad part, that Jackie has a pretty tragic story that gets overlooked when everything wraps up.
But otherwise, I think they utilized the tropes well and they seriously made Jackie a lovable character.
RIP in piece, Jackie.