Writing without the Reader: Reasoning Why Sleeping Dogs’ Plot Sucks Like a Black Hole


As you may gather from reading the post title, I’ve been playing Sleeping Dogs recently. Considering that Square Enix puts the digital version on sale all the time, there’s a good chance you’ve played it, too. Somewhere, they probably have it on sale right now. I hear that if you bump into a Square Enix employee on the street, they will literally beg you to take their game. It’s really easy to get at a discount, is what I’m saying.

It’s well worth the price, too. The game is good. You won’t see much new here, but the game pulls its mechanics from some of the best out there. I enjoyed almost every bit of the game throughout. But there’s one area in Sleeping Dogs that’s just rotten. The plot. The plot of this game is so weak the rest of the game still steals its lunch money. The plot of this game is so stupid it had to repeat the third grade twice. The plot of this game is so foul… eh, you get the picture by now.

So what’s the big deal about this game having a bad plot? After all, video games have excuse plots all the time. Well, excuse plots are one thing, but Sleeping Dogs’ plot isn’t even coherent. But Sleeping Dogs’ plot is bad for a completely different reason than most sucky plots. When I was playing the game, the plot really felt like the designers had a complete script, but were picking and choosing what moments to include based on what they could make a mission out of, and just discarding the rest. There’s a thing an author can do with a work that I call ‘Writing without the Reader,’ literary academics probably have some smarter-sounding term for it, and the average person would probably call something like ‘Crap Happening Off-screen, Now Stop Making Up Useless Names You Dumb Blogger.’ But yeah, it’s essentially major events happening off-screen. You don’t always need the viewer present for every single important happening in your story. Some events you can have going on completely in the white space between chapters, and leave the reader to catch up on it by working through the results. It’s a tricky thing to get right, and not a skill I have yet, but better writer’s than I have used it effectively to streamline their works.

Well, the creators of Sleeping Dogs are not one of those better writers. They take this concept and abuse it.  Leaving the viewer out of things has to be done with a gentle, knowledgeable touch; you need to make sure that whenever you’re skipping over events, it’s something that the reader will be able to easily catch up on without breaking the flow of the story.  This game, on the other hand, takes the freedom to advance the plot without anything actually happening and just runs with it until it’s calling you from the other side of the country.  The biggest single problem in Sleeping Dogs’ story is that there’s such a large gulf in between plot points that it’s hard to build any connection between them. There’s so much happening off-screen that what we do see seems to happen almost randomly, and we constantly have to reevaluate what we think is going on based on new information. As such, the plot can’t build up towards anything, because there’s no ability to maintain any sort of narrative momentum. We gamers aren’t really used to seeing our avatars do a whole lot without us there to direct it. Yet in Sleeping Dogs, that happens all the time. The game’s not even coy about. Wei Shen meets major characters, learns of upcoming events, dates women, and makes people disappear without the player’s knowledge, and then the results of these are dumped on us later without any sort of introduction or explanation.

For example, this is Peggy Li.


Peggy is your boss’s fiancee. You might be forgiven for not knowing your boss has a fiancee, because she is never, ever mentioned until you have a mission with her, at which point Wei already knows her, knows all about the wedding that you haven’t heard about, and oh! It’s in just a couple of days! And the game expects you to keep up with this. And stuff like this abounds in the game. Wei Shen is a ladies’ man. He’ll meet women, take them out on dates with some implied horizontal romancin’ going on, then never see them again. Or you think he never sees them again. Until he gets pissed off at one of them for cheating on him, because apparently he’d been going out with her the whole time. Or there’s one point, where Wei barely talks one character out of killing him on suspicion of being a cop. A few missions later, that character trusts him so explicitly he wants Wei to take care of his family and clan if anything happens to him. Or there’s the theme of Wei’s conflict being the purpose of his undercover operation vs. the pull of his triad lifestyle. (Minor spoilers incoming) Eventually, Wei goes off the deep end and seems to be truly pulling for the triads, getting in deeper and deeper, and that theme of conflict is more or less lost. Then, at the end of the game, all of a sudden he’s a straight-laced cop again. There’s events and character development in the game that’s just being lost here.

Again, I want to stress that Sleeping Dogs is a really good game. I had a lot of fun with it. Its plot is a mess though. How would I fix it? I would try narrowing the scope a bit. All in all, I think the problem stems from Sleeping Dogs having too much plot for their game, with too many actors and events, and having to just stick to giving us the highlight reel. There’s plenty of stuff that’s completely ancilliary, removing that and sticking with just what the game is able to say could go a long way to increasing the focus of the plot and making something that’s… well, probably not great, but at least sensible, which would be a lot better than the mess it is now.

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