Sleeping Dogs: A Review

Sleeping Dogs was sold to me as Infernal Affairs: the Game and as someone who loves Heroic Bloodshed, how could I say no?

The story of the game follows the story of Wei Shen, a Hong Kong native who has returned from living in the United States for a long time. His job is to go undercover in the Sun On Yee triad and try to bring it down from the inside. Sleeping Dogs does its best to capture the back and forth between being a gangster and a cop as seen in Hong Kong movies such as Infernal Affairs and Hard Boiled both narratively and mechanically.

There are two leveling systems that work in parallel during the main missions – triad and police. During the course of the main missions, completing violent actions and being chaotic will score you more triad points. The police points start at maximum at the beginning of the mission and decrease by crashing into property, missing actions, killing civilians, and generally being a bad cop. This dual system encouraged me to play the game more carefully and thoughtfully than I would normally have. In GTA or Saints Row, I never cared what I blew up and whose grandmother I just ran over.

I didn’t have to play this way but since in Sleeping Dogs I am playing undercover cop Wei Shen, I felt a responsibility to at least try to be a good person and act accordingly.

The missions are almost all about you getting the trust of Triad higher-ups and are comprised of gang heists, chauffeuring people, and getting wedding cakes. At first, you start with relatively light mobster activities, such as threatening shop owners and beating up rivals. It doesn’t take long for the stakes to rise and Wei rises in the ranks from an outsider who some have a suspicion of being a rat to a Triad boss. Throughout this process, he has to balance his loyalty to the police force and the triads. Making things more complicated is the police captain who is perhaps more ruthless than the Triad bosses and Jackie, Wei’s childhood friend turned wannabe gangster who soon realizes that being a triad member isn’t as glamorous as advertised.

The game consists of the standard open-world type missions. There are side quests, races, challenges and the story missions. Combat is mostly hand to hand and has you flying around the area punching and kicking people in the face while dodging and counter-attacking when fists come flying at you. True to Hong Kong, there aren’t too many guns lying around the world but when you do get your hands on them, the game turns into a sort of cover shooter. Enemies try to flank you so you still want to keep moving which makes it more dynamic than it could have been. Vaulting over obstacles turns on bullet time for those adrenaline John Woo moments.

Combat is backed by a strong story element telling a story of an undercover cop that gets too close to the triads. Cliche, perhaps, but is executed quiet well. We see Wei struggle with his role, we see him care for Jackie, and we see him be torn about who he actually is. Over the course of the game, we get glimpses into Wei’s past life and how his mission might be grounded in a desire for revenge rather than being a good cop.

Most of the characters in the game are male although there are plenty of female characters relegated to secondary roles. Most of these are found in the romances in the game which end up being just a few dates before fizzling out, usually due to Wei’s reluctance to get attached. While the game doesn’t do much for equal representation, it does attempt to throw some stereotypes back into the face of our male protagonist. One of the girls, an American named Amanda, has “yellow fever” – something more commonly attributed to white men who fetishize Asian women. Another, a karaoke hostess named Tiffany, “cheats” on Wei and when you confront her about it, she points out the double standard you are trying to enforce on her. After all, at this point in the game, you have been on dates with other women since dating her.  If gangster men can have multiple women, why can’t gangster women have multiple men? She then storms off, leaving Wei a bit stunned.

Sleeping Dogs stays true to the movies which inspired it, which were almost all overwhelmingly male. Even when John Woo tried to be more representative and include a female character in Hard Boiled, she was still relegated to an almost background characters.

It is understandable since Heroic Bloodshed movies tend to focus on male relationships and were mostly made in the 1980s and early 1990s, a time when being more inclusive wasn’t really thought about. I like that Sleeping Dogs took inspiration from these films but I also feel they could have done a lot more to make it more compelling rather than playing it safe. It is solid for what it is, but could have been so much more. This isn’t limited to the female characters. Of all the characters, Jackie’s arch is probably the best told, although even that one falls into predictable cliche territory.

As a GTA clone, it is hard not to compare it to the ever popular Rockstar Games series. I have never been that drawn to the Grand Theft Auto series. They draw too much from Scorsese’s mobster films and try too hard to be a commentary on the deprived American culture. I can get on board with mobsters and commenting on depravity, but the mix of the two in Scorsese’s mobster works has always been off-putting. I am not sure I can put my finger on it, but I think it is because he spends so much time telling us things and showing us things that a lot of his works just seem over stuffed and poorly paced. On top of that, the unnecessary cursing and being more style over substance just leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

Martin Scorsese won an Oscar for The Departed which is a Hollywood remake of Infernal Affairs. Like The Departed, the GTA series tries hard to be edgy and provide commentary on American culture to the point it feels gratuitous and unnecessary, padding that adds no substance or value except perhaps to shock and tittilate. In comparison, Infernal Affairs and to a lesser extent Sleeping Dogs is more subdued, more intricate and more human.

This is accomplished by putting faith in the player/viewer to deduce relationships and tension between characters without being told over and over again what is happening.

There is a third part to the story here and that is of Wei, a Hong Kong Chinese who immigrated to San Francisco and who has now returned. We can see that it is a struggle for him in how he talks (only in English) even with other characters who only speak Cantonese. He is slowly adjusting to a culture he is not completely part of anymore and he stands out. When King, a music producer, comes over to Hong Kong to do business, Wei is tasked with showing him a good time. There are a few moments in this mission where I felt uneasy because Wei is a bit complacent with King’s attitude towards Hong Kong but this might be because Wei feels more American than Hong Konger.  The contrast between Wei and the others really highlight the extent of his Americanization and his fellow Triad members treat him accordingly. Over time, he comes to call Hong Kong home again but you never see him really fit in.

Ultimately, Sleeping Dogs communicates on multiple layers to the player – what do I do as a Triad? What do I do as a cop? What do I do as a person? – without beating it into you via exposition or other nonsense. Sure, you can explode your way through the game and enjoy the playground for what you want it to be, but there are moments in the game where there is so much going on if you want to stop and reflect.

Like the scene with Tiffany described above, we can choose how to respond and in what way. Do we let her go, do we shoot her? In the missions this is represented with the level system. Do we try to minimize the impact of our gang fight on the surrounding civilians and property or is winning the mission at all costs more important? If we don’t speak Cantonese, we have to rely on subtitles for a good part of the game and even Wei, who should understand some at least, according to his back story, doesn’t seem to catch everything. This is apparent in the scenes featuring Winston’s mother who speaks no English. Wei will sometimes scoff or act surprised at Chinese customs and traditions but praying at Buddhist shrines raises your max health. (I supposed they could do more with the duality of Hong Kong and China, but I may have missed it.)

There is a subtle duality of forces in this game that exist for those who stop and pay attention because it is not shoved into your face and I appreciate that. The game does much to improve on the open-world formula laid out all those years ago by GTA. Both the story-telling, the focus, and the mechanics are tighter, better, and more engaging. Still. it could have been more.

Recommended Reading:

Kevin Wong’s What Sleeping Dogs Gets So Right About Being An Asian American




The Methodology Behind The Witness

Much has been said about The Witness’s ability to teach the player how to solve its puzzles. In designing the puzzles, Jonathan Blow worked from simple to complex, and while the game is arguably genius in how it teaches the player, the methodological ideas behind it were defined 70 years ago.

In school, most of us probably “learned” by memorizing things. Facts, people, dates, rules, formulas – these were all presented to us as “important” and we had to remember them for some type of test or exam. How many of those things do you still remember? Chances are, you forgot them once you finished the test. Not only did we not see the relevance or the skills being taught, they were mainly being taught by reading and lecturing. These are hardly effect learning methods for most people but we knew we needed to know this stuff for a test so we studied. By studied, it means we memorized and then, after the test, we didn’t need this information before. We got the grades, but did it really reflect what we learned?

Bloom’s Taxonomy

Someone tried to change that. In 1956, Benjamin Bloom developed a taxonomy to promote different styles of learning besides rote memorization. It has been through some slight variations over time but still provides an effective guide for teachers in effectively presenting material to their students.

By using the principles of Bloom’s Taxonomy in the classroom, teachers try to add dimension and guidance in new subject matter. Rather than providing the information and hoping that the students will remember it, teachers can use the different verb groups to develop activities which should help enforce the subject matter in multiple ways. This should encourage a multi-faceted approach to teaching, where material is presented in many different ways to connect with as many different students as possible.

For teachers, Bloom’s Taxonomy is usually presented as a wheel. To use the wheel, you start at knowledge, pick a verb or two (this is what students will do) and a product (this is what the students will produce) and then design the lessons around that.

In teaching, we do not have to “hit” all six parts of the taxonomy, but we need to get around the wheel in chunks that build upon the foundation built in the previous chunk.

(For a more in-depth example, please see this table, taken from UNC Charlotte’s Center for Teaching and Learning)


So how does this apply to The Witness? The tutorial puzzles are all simple enough that, with some experimentation, we are able to solve them. In doing so, we remember the rules in solving them until we get to another puzzle that seems to go against what we have learned. But we use what we learn to solve the next one and then proceed.

From left to right, we see gradual increase in puzzle complexity, each variation building on the one that came before.

  • First, we are presented with a simple puzzle type with one rule that we can solve easily. From this point, we can recognize the puzzle panels and remember how to solve them (drawing a line)  – Knowledge
  • Second, we are presented with variations of the puzzle. We can explain how to solve them, even if we haven’t figured out the specifics for the puzzle. – Comprehension
  • Third, we can use what we have learned to solve other puzzles of the same or similar type. – Application
  • Fourth, we can analyze new puzzles and using the knowledge we have gained from previous ones (because they build on each other) we can learn the new rules. – Analysis
  • Fifth, we can use what we have learned to solve puzzles that combine different elements on the same panel. – Synthesis
  • Sixth, we learn to recognize the pattern to the world outside of the panels. – Evaluation

When the solutions are presented, we see same patterns require different solutions. In the final puzzle panel, we need to isolate the black squares instead of the the white ones.

The Witness cycles through these stages for each new type of puzzle we come across, building upon the foundation of puzzles that came before. In introducing new puzzle elements, The Witness will often end the tutorial sections with a puzzle that are designed to ensure that the player has understood the concept. In the example pictured above, the last panel’s endpoint is placed to make the puzzle seem much harder despite the dots having the same pattern. Instead of thinking of the puzzle as “contain the white dots”, it is solved by “containing” the black ones. It might not make much sense when I describe it, but the act of doing will hopefully make it clearer.

These types of quick review are known as CCQs, or Concept Checking Questions, in teaching. The purpose is to get the student to demonstrate that they have been learned what they were supposed to before going on to the next lesson. A good CCQ will push the student to provide an answer that enables the teacher to interpret whether the concepts taught in the lesson were grasped or not. Therefore, a teacher should not ask a student “Did you understand this?” because the student can just say “yes” and we can’t check that they actually do. The Witness accomplishes this by giving us a puzzle panel that is just a little bit off – as an example, the exit could be placed in a different spot in an otherwise identical puzzle – that can only be solved if the player actually learned what they were supposed to.

As a whole, they attempt to lead the player through understanding until they acquire enough knowledge to properly synthesize everything they have learned and apply them to the final puzzles deep within the mountain.

The infamous final puzzle is the culmination of all this knowledge and practice that came before. Under timed pressure, the player has to quickly complete 5 rudimentary puzzles, one of which they will have to memorize. Then, they will need to quickly deduce which of three sets of three puzzles have solutions  (the other 2 most likely aren’t). After that, they will need do complete the task again but also recall the layout of the puzzle they did at the beginning, lest they lose time. Finally, they will have to complete the hardest puzzles of all, where the grid has been wrapped around a column.

Just about everything you have done puzzle wise is necessary to either reach or solve that one final puzzle. The final stage, synthesis, I loosely prescribe to recognizing the panel puzzles in the natural world, with the ever so gentle push of the simple puzzle at the top of the mountain. We take what we have been taught and step outside the box so to speak and apply it to the rest of the game world.

Am I Dumb if I Didn’t Learn The Witness?

If you thought that The Witness’s puzzles were too hard and that the game did not teach you anything, you might this that this whole piece is trash. Maybe it is, but let’s consider Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences. Gardner proposed that people have seven distinct intelligences which dictate learning, memory, remembering, and understanding. These are visual-spatial, bodily-kinaesthetic, musical, interpersonal, intrapersonal, linguistic, and logical-mathematical.

In a classroom, material and media are broadly categorized as visual, text, sound, motion, and realia. It may seem hard to cater to all different intelligences when teaching a subject, but through the different media, the hope is that teachers are able to convey information and foster thinking through all of them.

The Witness is a little hard to classify since it is a videogame. It is both visual but at the same time the panels and the world construct a certain faux-realia. Additionally, the panel puzzles appear to be all catering to a mathematical-logical intelligence, even the sound ones. The shadow panels and others which are dependent on viewing angles suggest a more kineasthetic learning intelligence, albeit virtual. The puzzles in The Witness then really only fit into two types – mathematical-logical(the panel puzzles) and visual-spatial (the black obelisk puzzles and shadow puzzles). This does not open the game up to many different intelligences.

Remember the wheel? There is one important variable that is missing from game – product. If the product of the teaching is the solution to the puzzles, then The Witness does not do enough to challenge us in creating a range of different products with our new-found knowledge.

Does it Matter How The Witness Teaches If It Isn’t Good at Teaching?

The teaching that happens here is almost overwhelmingly directed at specific learner intelligences, for better or worse, with a single abstract product. In short, the game teaches players one thing very well within a narrow scope. (This mostly applies to the mechanics and actual playing of the game. Taken from a broader perspective as a whole, the game is really a great lesson in meditation and perspective, but perhaps that is for another post.)

The problem with educational games, in my experience, is that they do not use the medium to the fullest – they barely even get a quarter of the way. In games, we have an opportunity to present material in diverse and interesting ways. Yet, educational games tend to be just normal videogames with an “educational” layer on top of them. Oregon Trail doesn’t teach players about Manifest Destiny or the push for the West. Instead, we learn that fording rivers is hard.

In the end, The Witness does follow a well-developed pedagogical methodology for teaching and challenging the player without any form of instruction. Hopefully, this can serve as an inspiration for some truly educational games which actually try to teach.


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