The Dubious Morality of Impaling People on Swordfish

Like many of us, I’ve spent the last few weeks mournfully looking at the dozens of games I purchased during the various holiday sales and bemoaning my hubris at thinking I could play them all. In desperately trying to justify my purchases, I’ve finally gotten around to playing Square-Enix’s Sleeping Dogs, a GTA style crime drama set in the bustling city of Hong Kong. It’s a great game, the driving mechanics are a perfect balance of arcade-y and realistic, the hand to hand combat mirrors the fluidity of Arkham City, and the setting and story ooze style. It’s a classic HK action flick given life.

As is always the case, the protagonist, Wei Shen, is an undercover cop. His goal — to take down the Triad from the inside – is first and foremost one of justice. Early fights are entirely hand to hand, a refreshing break from the tiresome gunplay most open-world games rely on. You counter, combo, and crush your way to victory, leaving scores of writhing and broken men in your wake. You don’t kill them though. Wei Shen is still a cop, right?

That is, until you impale a guy on a pile of swordfish heads.

Yep. Swordfish heads. Impaled.  It’s a context sensitive execution move that opens up when you drag someone over to the pile of future sushi. It’s also not the kind of thing you walk away from.

Yet Wei Shen doesn’t even break stride. He continues on in his combat, potentially shoving someone’s head in a running air conditioning fan, then tossing another guy into a vat of electric eels. It’s almost comical how casually he unleashes complete hell upon his weakened foes.

He’s still a cop though. He still finds himself waking from nightmares of the various atrocities he’s witnessed. Doesn’t stop him from hoisting a guy up and leaving him on a set of fish hooks.

Is he doing this because it’s part of his character? Has he slipped so far down the ethical ladder that he, like Captain Walker of Spec Ops: The Line, has unleashed some sort of personal demon that craves only crushed skulls?

No, he’s doing it because the gameplay demands it. You can shred a person’s face or stab them to death long before seeing Wei Shen shaken by shooting somebody with a gun, questioning his willingness to take a life in pursuit of justice. No matter that he just ran down twelve people on the way to the mission. Death, outside of the storyline, carries absolutely no weight in Sleeping Dogs. It’s a virtual genocide whose only purpose seems to be to detract from the character of the protagonist.

The need for death and violence to drive gameplay seems to be something we take for granted these days. With the idea of violence in video games getting coverage all across the world, we might want to ask ourselves: does a swordfish execution add anything to the game other than needless brutality? Does the story stand to gain anything from Wei Shen’s transformation into something dark and vile in this brief moment, only to be heartfelt a moment later?

It’s this incidental death that worries me the most about video games going forward. Murder that doesn’t serve a purpose, lead to anything of value in the story, or even fit the character; mortal violence that exists simply because that’s what games are about, right?

I worry that, like Wei Shen, we gamers are finding ourselves doing terrible things and never skipping a beat.


  • // Tom Auxier

    I find this funny because apparently we not only play exactly the same games, but in this case I have a very different reading of the game. I’m not ready to write about Sleeping Dogs yet (seriously, there are too many video games) but I’m not sure the violence is as meaningless as it sounds.

    • // Jason Rice


      The brilliant term for what I was feeling that I totally just came up with while driving home right now is Narrative Dissonance. It feels like the incidental grievous bodily harm Wei Shen inflicts on foes is always at odds with the story of his character, especially during the early to mid game, before his descent into darkness.

      I could be reading him as way more of a boy scout than he actually is, but it seems like he at least is moved by the brutality he sees during cutscenes, even if he doesn’t let it show in order to maintain his cover.

  • Mike

    Narrative dissonance is also a big problem with another big open-world game: Grand Theft Auto IV. Throughout the narrative, we see the main character saying he wants to do better for himself than in his native country. At the end of the day, however, there are no really tangible methods for the player to better the character of Niko Bellic AND move the plot ahead. Sure, you can pretend to be a normal citizen for a while, but there’s not pay-off, no long-term incentive to turn around Bellic’s fate. It’s one of my biggest gripes with GTA IV on the narrative end of things because it exposes how narrow the plot of GTA games have been in contrast to their open worlds.