Dressing Up and Dressing Down: Clothing, Semiotics, and ‘Sleeping Dogs’

I’m always interested when games acknowledge the value of clothing within a human system (“Every Girl’s Crazy ‘Bout a Sharp Dressed Avatar”, PopMatters, 28 April 2010). Clothing has semiotic value, speaking as it does to the persona or front that we wish to present to the world, and fronts seem especially important to a game like Sleeping Dogs.

In the game, the player takes on the role of a Hong Kong policeman who has gone undercover within the gangster world of the Triads. Wei Shen, of course, needs to maintain a front in order to do his job. He must appear authentic, or he could end up dead. Clothing and dressing the part matters quite a lot to him. This is one book that will be judged by its cover.

Interestingly, the game does not approach the question of authenticity from a singular angle in terms of Wei appropriately “dressing the part.” His professionalism is enhanced by his clothing, depending on which front it is necessary to represent at any given time, be that of the sinner or the saint.

How this works out in the game’s clothing system is that in addition to some clothing that can be selected by the player to purchase and wear for purely aesthetic reasons, there are also sets of clothing that can be purchased that give experience boosts to Wei depending on whether he is running missions as merely a cop or for the Triads themselves.

On the face of it, the notion that wearing a different set of clothes would make you a better cop or a better crook might seem odd. Nevertheless, professionally folks are judged and interact with people for the better and for the worse, based on their “uniform.” There is a reason that all of those late night commercials for dubious pills that will “help” increase the size of your manhood always feature a doctor in a white coat. The advertisers know that we believe in that coat for some reason, believe that it appropriately indicates medical professionalism. (Heck, I am personally not fond of nurses in Spongebob Squarepants scrubs unless they are working in the children’s ward. When I’m bringing my father into the ER because I fear that he might be having a heart attack, I am really not looking for the “fun nurse.” Clothing speaks volumes about who we choose to present ourselves as and how others respond to that message is also relevant.).

In this sense, Wei’s choice of attire has an outward effect, speaking of his authenticity and professionalism to those that he encounters as a cop or as a thug.

Speaking of thugs, there is also clothing sets called “Minor Thug Set” or “Thug Set” that, when worn, give bonuses to melee attacks. Again, this might seem like an absurd concept — clothing increasing the damage done when slugging a guy. That being said, in truth thugs do dress in part to provoke fear, to be intimidating. They, too, wear a uniform. This concept actually dovetails rather nicely with the combat system itself, which features intimidation and fear as factors that have an effect on combat.

When Wei gets a run of combos going while practicing his martial arts on his opponents, a “face” meter is filled. If the meter fills completely, his attackers shrink back and cower before him, making combat generally easier. Fear matters, no matter how it is instilled, either through action (like beating the tar out of an opponent’s buddy) or by looking like a very bad man by dressing in ways recognizable to the general populace as being the way that a bad man dresses.

“Face” is also a concept that is represented through choices that Wei makes in his appearance. Now, the Chinese concept of face is not one that I am especially knowledgeable about, but I do have to say that Sleeping Dogs‘s other systems seemed sensible to me but that projections of face seemed altogether more confusingly presented.

Clothing sets do not produce face bonuses, instead, only accessories do. Chains, bracelets, watches, sunglasses, and the like all give bonuses to the face meter, implying to me that face is a concept that is connected more with economics and class than anything else. It seems that the more bling that Wei wears, either in his role as cop or criminal, the more face he represents and produces. The idea that representations of wealth are most suitable for demonstrating face doesn’t really jibe with my understanding of an idea that concerns maintaining one’s honor or personal reputation. However, again, my familiarity with the concept in Chinese culture is lacking.

The other systems that relates to face production are the systems in the game that alter Wei’s physiology. Energy drinks, herbal teas, food, and even massages give Wei temporary bonuses towards things like combat effectiveness, damage reduction, and, again, face bonuses. It is the latter of these alterations of Wei’s physical state, a trip to a massage parlor, that contributes to face bonuses, and this, again, is a concept that confuses me.

Now, Wei can go and get a legitimate massage at a Hong Kong massage parlor and spa. However, “massage” does remain a euphemism for less savory forms of physical manipulation in Sleeping Dogs‘s seamier Hong Kong setting. Sometimes Wei will visit a prostitute for a “massage,” as well. In either case, legitimate massage or sexual encounter, following the experience the player is informed that Wei’s “senses are sharpened” and that he will now receive bonuses to his face meter. Again, it is not clear at all to me why having one’s senses sharpened would increase one’s reputation or prestige or honor. Especially in the latter context, paying for sex, which seems like an act that, on the face of it, should reduce one’s prestige, not enhance it from a sociological perspective.

One way or the other, this latter bit of confusion on my part makes me want to investigate the cultural phenomenon of maintaining face a bit more than I have in the past. I am curious if Sleeping Dogs has managed to represent face in an interesting way and possibly taught me something about authentic Chinese culture or if this is one place that the game’s semiotics of appearance has merely broken down.