I once punched a man. It was in self defense and there were extenuating circumstances, like the fact that I was sixteen and wearing a white t-shirt on which I had written Fuck Communism. It started when a man with the biggest ear-gauges humanly possible hit me on the nose. My vision got fuzzy. Then I hit him, he stumbled, and a bouncer at the bar made sure the fight ended there.
I refused numerous high-fives from friends after that. I wasn’t proud of getting violent with a stranger. I haven’t punched anyone since and I don’t plan to, since I now wear shirts that have buttons and lack references to an occult comic series. But, despite my shame and modesty about punching someone in the face, I couldn’t shake a particular feeling.
I felt powerful.
It was a shameful pride, because I share nothing in common with those that gain their sense of self-confidence from violence. I’m not one of the bullies from Karate Kid. I don’t go around revving dirt bikes and punching new kids on the beach. Sometimes I dream of punching shitty people, but I don’t do it. I have composure. Still, that moral compass doesn’t stop the internal fantasies of knocking out the guy who put his elbow in my sauerkraut during German-fest.
In Sleeping Dogs, beating drug-peddlers and brutal pimps is as common as eating in pellets in Pacman and, each time, it feels like punching the man that spit on me in that pit when I was sixteen. A hundred times over. I even earn in-game points and unlockables for doing so, as if I needed the motivation. It feels like a sick satisfaction to have, but certainly not as twisted as killing off all the buffalo in Red Dead Redemption for an achievement. Not as catastrophic as shooting a pleading survivor in DayZ because I needed his hatchet. Everyone lives in this scenario, only with black eye and a wounded pride.
There is a greater narrative of an undercover cop infiltrated within the Triads of Hong Kong trying to conjure up justice from sleaze. Amongst the troubling complexity and secrets, whispers of the classic emotional conflict and moral struggles of undercover work. But it’s just trapping for another sandbox game, where the course of play is dictated by your own motivations and mine was to punch unpleasant men.
When brutalizing these mobsters, combos can be linked and distributed in whatever order you please. Your fight location will also be glowing with interactive pieces of the environment. Throw a thug into a phone booth. Smash another into a circuit breaker. Finish off the last by pushing him partway onto a store counter and bring down the steel shutter onto his ribcage. The variety is up to you, but the results are always the same. You stroll away from the skirmish with a scattering of criminals writhing where you left them, battered but alive enough to crawl back to their homes.
There is some gunplay, but it’s limited. Gun laws are strict in China, even amongst gangsters. The shooting sections do start to ramp up as the tension between the gangs escalates, but that takes a bit. Once you get your hands on a pistol, you’re capable of taking it out and opening up on anyone in the street. I never did. In a way, it’s a nice break from the usual action-game genocide left in your character’s wake in other titles. Like playing Mirror’s Edge without firing a gun, it’s easier to emphasize with a protagonist that doesn’t slaughter enemies like obstacles simply because they had a marker over their heads. But, that’s not truly why its enjoyable.
I’m not comfortable admitting that I find some satisfaction from hitting people, but I’m less proud of the time I really did. In Sleeping Dogs, its framed in a righteous context and, of course, its not really happening. After a play session of busting forced prostitution rings and pummeling street thugs, I’m less inclined to yell at other drivers with my windows rolled up. I fantasize less about turning my bike around to confront the drunk Cubs fan that called me a faggot from the sidewalk, even if I would come out of the fight with more bruises than victories. As abhorrent as violence is, gaming presents the opportunity to wallow in it. To recognize that you have it within you and then get it out of your system.
I realize that’s the pleasure I get from handing out digital beat-downs as I let a man’s face singe in the open hatch of an industrial furnace. I pull him out before any real damage is done and hurl his body into another thug. The gun icon flashes at the top of the screen, reminding me the pistol is tucked into the back of my jeans. I ignore it. I don’t need it. I already feel that sensation of power, except this time, no one gets bounced from a dirty show venue in Cleveland. No one worries about what unchecked emotion drove them to injure a stranger. Everyone gets to go home.