(Spoilers for the entire Sly Cooper series).
This one might be a slight bit controversial. Sly Cooper is the beloved star of an equally beloved series of children’s games. It is probable that anyone who has ever played these games has never gotten the impression that Sly is in any way a bad guy.
Children’s media is often given a short shift. There is a prevailing notion that because this art is being designed for children to consume, there is no need to put in a lot of effort. This is a poor attitude that can lead to some ill-thought out story elements creeping in.
I intend on illustrating this problem by taking a look at the progression of Sly Cooper’s character motivations. As deadlines became tighter between games, Sly’s heroism started to fade away and be replaced by unfeeling recklessness regarding his friends. Of course none of this was intentional; that is what worries me.
Sly Cooper has a tragic backstory. Born into a family of career thieves, his parents were murdered by the vengeful Clockwerk when he was a young boy. He grew up in an orphanage, made life-long friends in the form of Bentley and Murray, yet lived every day knowing that Clockwerk was committed to wiping out the entire Cooper family.
So committed to this goal is Clockwerk (yes that is really how to spell his name) that he has encased his body in soulless machinery. Now more robot than man (or whatever evil bird he is supposed to be exactly), Clockwerk is essentially immortal. If left unchecked he will forever exist to menace Sly and the world at large.
What choice did Sly have put to fight back? Determined to live up to his family name, he becomes a master thief and eventually seeks out Clockwerk. Helped all the way by his two best friends, at the end of the first game he succeeds in defeating his great nemesis. At long last Sly can sleep safe at night.
All is well that ends well, right? Sly has gone on a fairly typical hero’s journey, from tragic beginnings to a victorious end. Indeed, if the original game had not spawned sequels, there would be no need to write this article. Yet it did, and the writer’s began losing sight of what exactly makes for a heroic protagonist.
Dropping your nemesis in a volcano is usually the best way to end things, but unfortunately Clockwerk is made of indestructible metal. The remains of his body (hitherto referred to as ‘Clockwerk Parts’) are reassembled and put on display. This terrifies Sly; what if Clockwerk fully reformed?
A plan is hatched to break into the museum and steal the parts. Unfortunately Sly has been beaten to the punch by the infamous Klaww Gang. This continental criminal organisation has split the Clockwerk Parts between themselves and are using them to further their own illegal activities. Sly and the gang resolve to steal the parts from each of the members in turn.
Clockwerk can only reform if all of his parts are put back together. This is a pertinent piece of information which hangs over every following action in which Sly engages. Provided the parts are kept separate, Clockwerk can never be a threat again.
The Klaww Gang have split up the parts and scattered them to the four corners of the Earth. Sly fails to realise that his mission is already accomplished. One could argue that he needs the peace of mind, given that these nefarious types might one day reunite the parts, so it would make perfect sense for him to steal one of these parts. If he could just lay his hands on any single one of the parts and hide it away forever, Clockwerk could never haunt him again.
Obviously he decides to collect them all; otherwise there would be no story and conversely no game. The obvious need for the developers to structure the game around numerous heists means the characterisation suffers. Not only is Sly acting against his best interests, he is endangering his friends by doing so. This is not how you get a player to view the protagonist as a hero.
Sleeping with the Enemy
Sly is somewhat infatuated by a certain Carmelita Fox. This is more than a little detrimental to his safety as Carmelita is an Interpol Agent tasked with bring him and his friends to justice (they are a criminal organisation, let’s not forget that). In Sly 2 his desire to flirt with Carmelita begin to severely endanger not just his freedom, but the freedom of Bentley and Murray.
During one of the heists the gang needs a lengthy distraction so that Murray can be winched into an occupied ballroom and steal some Clockwerk Parts. It is decided (and never directly stated whose idea it was, but this can only be a Sly brainwave) that the best possible distraction is to amaze the crowd with some incredible dancing. Sly will need a dance partner to pull this off. Who better than the also in attendance Carmelita Fox?
Well, literally anyone. Involving an Interpol Agent who hates you in your heists is generally not advisable. Nor is dancing the best way to distract a ballroom full of people who are also dancing. Really this plan does not hold up to any kind of scrutiny and it only works because presumably everyone at the party was off their faces on hallucinogenic drugs (more on that in a bit). Sly just wanted any excuse to dance with Carmelita.
This is reckless endangerment of his friends for the sake of getting his rocks off. One might argue that Sly is in love with Carmelita and that love makes people to crazy things. Well, if he is in love with Carmelita, then why does he ask Neyla on a date a couple weeks later? This man who just endangered his friends to dance with an Interpol Agent decides to ask out A DIFFERENT INTERPOL AGENT (Sly apparently has a very particular fetish).
There is no romantic way to spin any of this. The developers wanted a smooth protagonist, but actions like this just result in Sly looking selfish and dumb.
The Best Laid Plans…
Where does having romantic dalliances with law enforcement inevitably lead a gang of thieves? Why jail of course! Neyla ‘betrays’ Sly, arresting him and Murray. Though they will eventually all escape (thanks to Bentley, not Sly), that hardly alleviates the trauma Murray was subjected to while imprisoned. Controversial though this opinion might be, it is not necessarily beneficial to the mental well-being of a person to be locked in solitary confinement and fed hallucinogenic drugs.
(Carmelita also ends up losing her job and being imprisoned due to an incriminating photo of her and Sly dancing during the heist. She is then subjected to high-tech attempts at brain-washing. It sure is weird how everyone Sly ‘loves’ keep suffering awful fates because of his actions, isn’t it?)
Soon the gang are back to stealing Clockwerk Parts. Then the inevitable happens. When they have almost amassed all of the parts, one of the members of the Klaww Gang finds their stash and sells them all to the other remaining member. Sly’s master plan of collecting all of the parts to avoid them falling into the wrong hands led straight away to them all falling into the wrong hands.
Which means Sly has risked the lives, the freedom and the mental well-being of his closest friends all in the name of stopping a great threat (which probably would not have emerged) that he ends up ensuring comes to fruition. His recklessness has unleashed a potentially immortal evil being on the world. This no longer sounds like much of a hero’s journey, does it?
Once again the developers just needed some high stakes for their dramatic finale. There is nothing wrong with a heroic protagonist failing; in fact it is a good way of demonstrating their vulnerability. When every action of the protagonist is all for nought, however, and succeeds in achieving the exact opposite of their goal (and this being entirely foreseeable), they do not end up looking much like a hero.
Carmelita lost her job, her reputation and was subjected to mind-invasive torture. Murray was also psychologically tortured and even lost the van he has owned since adolescence. Bentley has so far escaped lasting damage. Guess what is about to happen.
After foiling the reanimated Clockwerk’s new master plan (which involved driving the population Paris mad with hallucinogenic drugs. Oh sure, it’s a kids game so they keep calling it ‘illegal spice’, but it is pretty clear the Klaww Gang are running a drug empire), Bentley devises a plan to destroy the menace once and for all. He climbs into the bird’s mouth and rips out the technology that has kept Clockwerk alive all these years.
Then the mouth closes suddenly, shattering Bentley’s legs. Which Murray blames himself for and has a total mental breakdown.
So there we have it. Sly’s grand scheme to pre-emptively stop Clockwerk for a second time (that ended up directly causing his return) ended up permanently paralyzing Bentley and psychologically breaking Murray. Sly, meanwhile, walks away entirely unscathed and immediately does back to flirting with a newly reinstated Carmelita. He disappears into the night without a single lesson learned and the game ends.
All of this assembled proof suggests Sly is a reckless asshole, and these are not even the most questionable acts he has committed. There is a third game in the original series that has not been explored. Surely the developers have learned some kind of lesson by then? Nope, instead they double down on their hero being selfish.
Once More into the Breach
The third Sly game sees the Cooper Gang trying to reclaim the Cooper Vault, the lost sanctum of treasure that the Coopers have been collecting for hundreds of years and…
Wait just a Goddamn minute! In the first game Sly’s life was threatened, so he turned to his friends for help. In the second game Sly was (allegedly) trying to stop an evil menace returning to the world, so he turned to his friends for help. Now he is just trying to get a bunch of money, so he turns to his friends for help. One of these things is not like the others. How the Hell does he justify any of this?
Bentley cannot walk because of Sly’s last adventure. Murray left the gang to try and heal his damaged psyche. Now he’s dragging them into another dangerous adventure where the motivation is simple greed dressed up in ‘preserving the family heirlooms’ (which are stolen, just FYI). There is no hint of self-defence or heroic motivations in this quest. Sly is simply risking his friend’s lives yet again for incredibly selfish reasons.
This what I mean when I talk about Sly being terrible. He is very clearly leaning on his shared history with these people and their obvious affection towards him in order to manipulate them for his own ends. It does not matter how much they might suffer, either physically or psychologically. At the end of the day he will always force them into yet another adventure.
Obviously these are all unintended implications and it is clear the intent was clearly always to create a charming hero. Which Sly is, provided one does not consider his actions all that closely. Children are unlikely to consider the implications of Sly’s rampant selfishness while distracted by an exciting caper. Undoubtedly the likelihood of things going over a kid’s head is what leads developers to being careless.
At the very end of the third game Sly takes an injury to the head. He immediately takes advantage of this turn of events to claim to have amnesia. This is genius plan for finally having his feelings towards Carmelita reciprocated. He knows that she could never date a criminal, so he pretends he never knew he was one in the first place. Now he just as to lie forever and he will be happy.
The supposed hero has resorted to tricking a woman into a romantic relationship with him by deceitfully feigning mental illness. Let’s all say that again. He has RESORTED TO TRICKING A WOMAN INTO A ROMANTIC RELATIONSHIP WITH HIM BY DECEITFULLY FEIGNING MENTAL ILLNESS! How can positive consent possibly exist in this relationship? How can this be defined as anything other than serious emotionally abusive behaviour?
Carmelita has no idea what she’s gotten herself into. She genuinely believes that Sly has amnesia, so she tells him that he is her partner in law enforcement, meaning he is finally a proper candidate for her affections, so that she can…
Wait a second. So she comes across a man experiencing memory loss and her first instinct is to essentially brainwash his identity into something more palatable for her tastes? All so she can date him? Okay, Carmelita is also a terrible person. No wonder Sly has always been attracted to her.
By the way, to pull off this plan, Sly immediately abandons Bentley and Murray without explanation. While he does make sure they’re monetarily compensated, he drops his lifelong friends with nary a word to manipulate a woman into loving him through constant lying.
In this case there is no justification for this situation. It is just awful from whatever way you look at it, which is really the logical conclusion for not taking enough care while writing stories for children.
This whole idea came from a joke I once came up with it cover up some minor plot holes that snowballed once I started finding more and more evidence. Certainly the developers never intended Sly to be viewed this way. These are children’s games starring a talking raccoon whose entire character is basically ripped from Ocean’s Eleven. These games are supposed to be fun romps, not dark commentaries on recklessly endangering your friends.
Yet while intention is important, it cannot excuse all actions. The fact that these are games designed for kids is particularly concerning; I am not one to lose my mind over the idea a child might be exposed to a mature idea, but presenting recklessness and one-sided friendships as heroic is not exactly an ideal situation.
It is up to you to decide whether or not any of this is cause for concern. Personally I think those writing children’s games in particular should put a little more care into not accidentally making their protagonists sort of terrible. After all, the ending of Sly 3 in particular is really hard to explain away. I am not saying developers need be as methodical as George R.R Martin while making games about a raccoon who pulls off heists. I just expect them to not teach children that lying about mental illness is the key to a woman’s heart.