Sleeping Dogs has been one of the surprise critical hits of the year, offering a fresh take on the open-world genre with its unique Hong Kong setting and its well-penned story. Still, for all of the new ideas that it brings to the table, Sleeping Dogs also heavily derives in areas such as its combat, gunplay, karaoke (*shudder*), and liberally borrows from Grand Theft Auto. One of the many features Sleeping Dogs draws inspiration from the Grand Theft Auto series is its dating mechanic, which allows you to go out on dates with various characters you meet in the game. While these dates are certainly more fun than Grand Theft Auto IV’s (car races and parkour are much more exhilarating than heading out to dinner), there was something about the game’s dating mechanics that didn’t sit quite right with me.
My uneasiness was fueled by a side-mission that happens early on in the game. One of the first dates available to you in the game is with a character named Tiffany. Nothing wrong there, the date is all well and fine (except for that damn karaoke). However, after completing a date with any of the other dateable characters, a side mission opens up in which the player character, Wei Shen, becomes suspicious of Tiffany seeing other men, so he decides to do the only reasonable thing one would do and maliciously stalks her. Keep in mind, this is done by Wei after one date, and while also seeing other women himself. Upon confronting Tiffany about the cheating, Tiffany turns the accusations right back around to Wei, who then realizes “Oh yeah, I was cheating,” and apologizes profusely. The mission then ends, and the game rewards you with experience points. To see the mission for yourself, check out the video below:
Now, I’m no relationship expert, but the hypocrisy, misogyny, and sociopathic creepiness in this scene is downright horrifying. This is only the third time these people have met each other, and are already accusing each other of sleeping around. Sure, it’s definitely frowned upon in many societies to be seeing multiple people at the same time, but by no means are these two characters in a serious, committed relationship with each other. The degree to which these characters approach their relationship borders insanity.
Most disturbing is the degree to which Wei becomes a stalker to follow, track down and confront Tiffany. The game never addresses the double-standard Wei ignores by seeing other women himself, only adding to the poor characterization of women in general in this game. The player is given no choice in how to approach the mission, other than to not do the mission at all. However, by choosing the latter, you will lose out on experience points and other bonuses rewarded by completing the mission. Anything negative the game has to say about the relationship exhibited is thus negated by rewarding the player for acting like an abusive, controlling douche. I don’t think this is what developer United Front Games intended, but they are essentially giving quantifiable rewards for promoting abusive relationships.
Why do I pick on this game, then, when Sleeping Dogs essentially borrows the dating concept from Grand Theft Auto IV? What's the difference, really? There are quite a few, actually, though most of them subtle. Though Grand Theft Auto IV allows you to date multiple people at the same time, each relationship takes time and work to manage to earn the various benefits each potential girlfriend gives you. There’s a risk-versus-reward system in place since, like Sleeping Dogs, your other girlfriends can discover you cheating, but unlike Sleeping Dogs, you lose the gameplay bonuses offered by the girlfriends if they break up with you. Through Grand Theft Auto IV's dating system, infidelity is punished, not rewarded.
Furthermore, nearly all of the dateable women in Grand Theft Auto IV are terrible, terrible people - self absorbed, materialistic, and, well, annoying. The only dateable character who isn’t a horrible human being is Kate McReary, who not only serves as protagonist Niko Bellic’s moral compass, but is also the only dateable character that Niko cannot sleep with. Depending on actions taken during the game’s story, Kate can potentially die, accidentally gunned down by hitmen at the game's conclusion. Kate’s death, in essence, serves as a punishment for Niko’s actions throughout the game; the death of his moral compass and the loss of his soul. Grand Theft Auto IV may seem to glorify Niko Bellic’s behavior on the surface, but at least the game’s themes are reinforced by the gameplay. Sleeping Dogs is different, with virtually no downside offered in response to the abhorrent actions Wei Shen takes.
I am not preaching the merits of 100% monogamous relationships, nor demonizing those who choose otherwise. That’s your business, not mine. I just find the way Sleeping Dogs approaches relationships, and how it rewards creepy and outright abusive behavior slightly disturbing. I’ll never argue that actions in video games can influence actions in real life, a criticism often thrown at Grand Theft Auto and similar games, but I will argue that developers take responsibility for the ideas they present. Grand Theft Auto IV may reward you for morally reprehensible actions, but also at least makes an attempt to condemn your actions through other gameplay mechanics. Sleeping Dogs rewards you for being a scumbag.