This is the fourth piece in a series on the Sly Cooper video game series. To read the piece about the third game, click here.
The Sly Cooper franchise has always been obsessed with class, which means it has also always been obsessed with history. Every iteration of the franchise has focused on Sly’s storied lineage of master thieves that, bizarrely, extends into virtually every era of human history, from ancient Egypt to the American Old West. Almost every villain, in some way, has threatened the Cooper line’s place in the proverbial record books (in the case of the first game, the villains steal and scatter the Thievius Raccoonus, a literal record of the Cooper line’s exploits) as the world’s greatest thieves. So it was, perhaps, inevitable that a Sly Cooper game would eventually feature literal time travel as a conceit. Thieves in Time does exactly that, in an apparent pursuit of an ever-more-literal way of representing Sly’s quest to make sure that nobody ever forgets their place – by his and the narrative’s estimation – at his feet.
Deus Ex Time Machine
The initial moments of Thieves in Time elucidate a series of events thematically identical to the first game. Bentley assembles the core Cooper Gang – himself, Sly, and Murray – when two things happen: Penelope, his significant other from the end of the last game, disappears, and the pages of the Thievius Raccoonus start inexplicably going blank. It becomes apparent that somebody has been altering history in such a way that the Cooper line is being erased from the history books, including both the proverbial ones and the volume literally dedicated to nothing but the Coopers’ exploits. Bentley, in the trusty fashion of a reliable deus ex machina, unveils his own time machine that will allow the Cooper Gang to chase down the perpetrators through space and time, kickstarting the Cooper Gang’s journey through history.
The Usual Suspects
The first two villains Sly faces are emblematic of the narrative’s politics, but not particularly complex. “El Jefe” (the only name the tiger is ever given) is a mercenary who specializes in overthrowing governments. As an archetype, El Jefe embodies, at once, stereotypes of disingenuous, greedy Latin American revolutionaries and vainglorious, tinpot, banana republic dictators – call him Schrodinger’s South American. The latter archetype is particularly apt; El Jefe is jailing Sly’s ancestor, Riochi, mid-career to erase his exploits from history, while also building an obscenely large statue of himself in 17th century Japan. The political overtones of the franchise with regards to race and class suggest that this Latin American soldier of fortune is repugnant for the threat he poses to Sly’s bloodline, but we are also supposed to believe his vanity makes him villainous on its own. In fact, denigration of Sly’s ancestry and extreme personal vanity are the exact traits used to characterize one of Sly’s (supposedly) most repugnant villains, General Tsao, whose greatest hits include: incessantly talking to himself about how great he is, using black magic to conjure an army of vampire zombies, and kidnapping a young woman and forcing her to marry him while keeping her confined in a heavily patrolled mountain fortress. Following Tsao’s example, El Jefe is irredeemable – so the game says.
The second villain is a similarly lazy stereotype of a Soviet-bloc gangster with a vaguely Eastern-European accent, inexplicably named “Toothpick” (an armadillo). His affront to the Cooper line is to upstage Tennessee Kid Cooper in an Old West gold heist, and then to jail Kid for the heist anyway. Toothpick, as well, is excessively vain, somehow becoming the sheriff of Cooper’s town and using his authority to put up posters of himself and throw a holiday in his honor. This is also, supposedly, an unforgivable crime, but again, Cooper can’t seem to muster any particular reason that Toothpick is a bad person other than that he beat the Coopers at their own game. Toothpick is posing as a Sheriff, but the Cooper Gang has received help from shady law enforcement before, in the shape of Constable Neyla from Sly 2. In fact, Inspector Carmelita Fox, Sly’s recurring love interest and an Interpol agent, all but joins their gang later on in the same story. The hypocrisy is so blunt that the game’s support for Sly, and its scorn for his enemies, is essentially arbitrary – there aren’t even any other people for Toothpick to victimize in this town. There is a massive prison with a “high security wing” in which the only apparent prisoner is Tennessee Kid. At any rate, the Cooper gang eventually dispatches Toothpick by cooking him alive in the coal furnace of a train working at full capacity – a commensurate, appropriate response to being upstaged in a gold heist if ever there was one.
Making (Counterfeit) History
It is with the third villain that Thieves in Time crystallizes its own original contribution to the franchise’s toxic politics. The Grizz (a black bear, and yes, that is actually what he’s called) is an art thief and counterfeiter operating, bizarrely, in prehistoric times. He has captured Sly’s very first ancestor, the lazily-monikered Bob. Grizz has injured Sly’s heritage by upstaging his ancestor in the pterodactyl egg-thieving business, rendering Bob an unreliable breadwinner for his tribe, rather than the master egg thief he is known to be in the “correct” history. It is important to note that not a single member of Bob’s tribe is ever actually seen in the game, and the narrative never explicitly suggests, or even mentions, that they are starving because of the sudden loss of their food supply; Sly’s only concern is his ancestor’s reputation as the master egg thief of prehistory. Grizz is also using these eggs to create paint for his own original art, which he plans on burying in the past and then “uncovering” in the present day. He then plans to somehow sell these counterfeit antiquities for millions. His ulterior motive, besides the obvious get-rich-quick scheme, is that modern-day art critics scorned his “paleo-graffiti” style, driving him to crime out of spite.
This is nowhere near the first time the Sly Cooper franchise has used the bizarre archetype of a failed artist being vengeful against the critics who rendered them a failure, but Grizz is even more incoherent than that. He’s tastelessly garish, wearing expensive bling, fur robes, and speaking only in terrible rhymes, rendering him as a racist stereotype of an obnoxious black hip-hop artist. He was supposedly turned into a brief pop-art sensation when a critic found his graffiti on the streets, promoting him until the rest of the art world brought him crashing down. When the Cooper gang finally confronts him, he confesses that all he wanted to do was ice-skate, which is never mentioned before, and is somehow meant to explain or justify the bizarre, intensive counterfeiting scam.
Minus the racist caricature of black musicians as tasteless goons, Grizz is a carbon copy of a previous character, Dimitri, who was introduced as the first villain of Band of Thieves, the second game in the franchise. Unlike Grizz, Dimitri is redeemed over the course of Honor Among Thieves, the franchise’s third installment, and the differences between the two are illuminating in the worst way. Grizz’s historical revisions are twofold: first, he usurps the Cooper line’s canonical rank as the world’s greatest lineage of thieves, and second, he falsely implants his own art – explicitly stated to be mediocre by the narrative – into a historical position that renders it valuable. Both sins heavily imply that there is a “correct history”, and that any change to it, however inconsequential it may seem, is sinful and dangerous. It’s hard to tell why it would be so bad if Grizz got rich and famous from his scheme; the value and quality of art is subjectively appreciated. Insisting Grizz’s badness as an artist is a historical ground truth that must not be misrepresented is snobbish and silly, as is the insistence that everybody recognize that Sly’s ancestors are the best. The insistence on these points by the Cooper Gang has all the discursive coherence of a 12-year old child screaming that he deserves dessert because he wants it.
Dimitri starts out as almost exactly the same character, turning to forgery and theft after being cut down by critics in a legitimate career as an artist. However, in Honor Among Thieves, the Cooper Gang decides they might need his skills as a diver to infiltrate the island vault-fortress run by Dr. M. It turns out that Dimitri’s grandfather, Remi, was a treasure-seeker, and he used his own specialty diving equipment to search for sunken treasure. However, he ran afoul of pirates, who, inexplicably, were still using 17th century vessels and living a similarly anachronistic lifestyle. Remi’s diving gear was stolen by the old-timey pirates, and Dimitri grew up on stories of his grandfather’s adventures many years later. Dimitri offers to join the gang in their quest to reach the Cooper vault that Dr. M has seized control of, which contains the many riches stowed away over millennia by the Cooper line. In other words, Dimitri is redeemed, and the Cooper Gang agrees to help him, when they discover that he has his own epic ancestry. It is the realization that Dimitri has a “bloodline,” a “heritage,” a “family legacy” of note to uphold (one that, importantly, does not clash with Cooper’s, as General Tsao’s did) that redeems him in Cooper’s eyes. But the journey into the anachronistic world of the pirates that Cooper and Dimitri must confront is, itself, an act of time travel; they enter a microcosm in which the last 300+ years of sociopolitical change is almost irrelevant, a time-bubble that has all-but-perfectly preserved a particular historical aesthetic. In a way, Dimitri’s arc in Honor Among Thieves is the biggest hint given in the series that it would eventually feature outright time travel.
And so, we have Dimitri, a supporting protagonist in Thieves in Time, who redeems himself by revealing a thieving bloodline of note to the Cooper Gang. In contrast, Grizz is a debased huckster, profaning natural hierarchy that puts the Coopers on top and the losers at the bottom of the proverbial pile. Grizz’s sin is to think he has any right to try and change the fact, taken as an irrefutable moral and historical ground truth, that he is, ontologically, a loser.
The Knights of Circular Reasoning
Of all the characters in the Sly Cooper franchise, Penelope is treated the worst. She was introduced as a love interest for Bentley in the third game, but before that she was trapped in disguise as a competitive fighter ace (it’s a weird series). Able to retire her identity as “the Black Baron” when she lost her own dogfighting competition, she joined the group as the RC vehicle specialist on the Cooper Vault job. From then on, despite the fact that she is repeatedly stated to be the only member of the gang on an intellectual par with Bentley, and even has a turn in a sword fight later on, her presence never pushes the narrative to satisfy the Bechdel test. She is never, not once, depicted taking any actions independent of Bentley, Murray, or Sly, and she is kidnapped, temporarily blinded, and otherwise attacked in order to motivate Bentley to new heights of heroism and manliness. Her sole role in the narrative of Thieves in Time is to be conspicuously absent, so as to worry Bentley.
That is, until her reappearance as the fourth villain of Thieves in Time. She reappears in disguise as “the Black Knight,” taking over a medieval English village by using anachronistic mechanized armor and mechanized soldiers. Whereas Jefe, Toothpick, and Grizz had motivations for messing with the Cooper lineage that had to do with their own wealth and prestige, Penelope is holding a grudge; she believes Bentley’s loyalty to Sly has been holding him back, preventing him from showing the world what he can do, independent of Sly. This is a fair criticism given that Bentley, the reputed “brains” of the Cooper Gang, has been spending his time since the end of Honor Among Thieves keeping custody of the massive fortune Sly left him at the end of that story. He builds a new Cooper Vault, with the Cooper clan’s raccoon-faced logo on it, and holds every dime of the riches Sly left behind without spending any of them. He even keeps the Thievius Raccoonus, the Cooper family’s historical tome, in a specialized case. Even with Sly Cooper absent, Bentley spends his time and resources being a steward for the Cooper family’s inheritance.
Penelope’s grudge is more or less identical to Dr. M’s grudge, from the last game. She argues that Bentley’s talents would be better served by going into business for himself, and it’s hard to find fault in that. Nevertheless, the game takes care to fabricate that fault, as the last installment of the franchise utterly rejected the idea that Bentley could establish his own identity and worth apart from Sly. So, of course, the business that Penelope suggests Bentley go into is weapons development, because that was the only business that was transparently evil enough to discredit Penelope entirely. As a result of this suggestion, and the realization that Penelope is working against the Cooper family, Bentley rejects her entirely, going from lovesick over her disappearance to actively scornful of her.
Forging Into the Future Past
The latter fifth of the game shows us the mastermind behind the last four super-goons – the heavy-handedly named skunk, Cyrille Le Paradox. Le Paradox, we learn quite soon, also holds a grudge against the Cooper family; he, too, comes from a lineage of thieves that he believes has been outshone by the Cooper family. His father suffered a peculiar humiliation at the hands of Sly’s father; while attempting to steal a priceless gem and frame the elder Cooper for the heist, Sly’s father stole the gem out from under the elder Le Paradox and left him to be arrested for the crime. Le Paradox grew up with no father as a result, and ended up pining for the day he could take revenge on Cooper’s family line.
His exact methods are as circuitous as his background. Not only has he been instructing his various hench-goons to steal the Cooper ancestors’ canes, humiliating them in the process, he has also bestowed a special extra task on the fifth goon. This last super-criminal, an elephant named Miss Decibel, has inexplicable hypnotic powers that she uses to compel the last remaining members of the legendary Forty Thieves (of medieval Arabia) to forge documents that validate Le Paradox’s fraudulent claims to a noble lineage. Decibel is tasked with – almost literally – rewriting history.
The Cooper Gang fails in their initial attempt to prevent Le Paradox from returning to the present in possession of the Coopers’ heirloom-canes and the forged proof of his hereditary nobility. As a result, they return to a present where, inexplicably Le Paradox’s face has been plastered on every available surface, and the Coopers have been…forgotten? It’s never made clear why this new reality is so damned, or why it’s so damning for Cooper himself. Their memories and personal lives are still intact in their recognizable forms. Le Paradox is only shown to be vain, which makes him ostensibly no worse than Cooper, who has fed working miners to crocodiles and freakishly gigantic scorpions. The only explicitly-stated difference between this horrible dystopia and the “original” world is that Le Paradox, depicted as a vindictive sore loser, has triumphed. This horrible dystopia is only a dystopia at all because Sly lost.
This sheer arbitrariness is silly and childish, but it is also vicious. Le Paradox is a figurative and literal pretender to nobility – the very documents that show his noble blood are forged, whereas Sly Cooper’s Thievius Raccoonus is “authentic.” Sly’s hereditary supremacy is, because of its heredity, linked to class, and so all of the threats he faces are seen as, in some way, plebeian. But that heredity also engenders an abiding interest in preserving an “original” history, a history in which Sly’s inheritance is seen as morally and competitively superior to every possible rival and threat. Time travel functions as a narrative means of policing the contours of that history – historical revision is impossible when the revisionists are chased down in space and time. It is through this violent and vicious policing action that the Thievius Raccoonus, under threat of being erased, is reestablished as the complete and authentic record of the Cooper family’s supposed greatness. Le Paradox is unceremoniously jailed in solitary confinement, yet another revisionist caged for the crime of daring to change the world.