This is the third piece in a series on the Sly Cooper video game series. To read the piece about the second game, click here.
It is a testament to human creativity that after all the political garbage in the first two games, the third game remixes that old garbage into something fresh. This time around, the Gang is on a mission to open the fabled Cooper Vault, a giant safe in the side of a mountain on an island in the South Pacific that stores the stolen riches accumulated by the Cooper Clan throughout history. The only obstacle is that the island in question is already inhabited by a madman, named Dr. M, who has built a well-staffed fortress in order to crack the impervious Cooper Vault. The Vault’s key is Sly’s cane, but the Cooper Gang need to go recruiting to assemble the talent necessary to infiltrate the fortress and get anywhere near the Vault. More globetrotting ensues.
The first two enemies Sly faces walk the trail blazed by Jean Bison in Sly 2, namely, that of the evil white working class. The first thug, Octavio, is an Italian opera singer who was rendered obsolete by the onset of rock ’n roll. He and all of his diehard Italian fans form a mafia that sets out on a dastardly plan to sink Venice into its own canals in a bid to get attention (seriously). In order to destabilize the Venetian foundations, Octavio pumps tar out from under the buildings and into the canals, which enrages Sly, Bentley, and Murray, as an example of environmental degradation. This absurd scenario uses vapid, misplaced environmentalism to laugh at a white working class losing cultural relevance and clout, setting up Octavio and his goons as a punch line, rather than real characters.
But if the game sneers at Octavio, it snarls at the Australian miners Sly goes up against next. Out in the Australian Outback, Sly and his friends decide that to recruit a local mystic, they must first help him drive off the miners ravaging the environment in search of precious gems. There are no corporate logos or managers anywhere, just a mass of wayward workers, and the game reserves particular viciousness for these nameless average Joes. In order to drive off the miners, the Gang incinerates them on electric fences, unleashes pickup truck-sized scorpions into their mineshafts to slaughter them, and feeds several of the miners to a local crocodile in an effort to get the croc to “develop a taste for miner.”
All of this arbitrary retribution is exacted against the nameless working masses in the name of “the environment,” without ever showing the populations affected adversely by the miners. At the end of Sly’s conflict with the miners, a cut-scene shows the “rescued” Outback, an expansive open desert with little vegetation and no wildlife, for which you have slaughtered hundreds. But the game still presents this pointless violence as inherently good, for seemingly no other reason than that the protagonist “saved” something from the unwashed laborers.
But at this point, the game tires of pissing on labor, and instead pontificates on how terrible royal heirs who aren’t Sly can be. To illustrate, the narrative travels to China, where the Gang try to recruit the Panda King as a demolitions expert by agreeing to rescue his daughter from the ruthless General Tsao (a rooster). Tsao is the heir of a long royal line, and he kidnaps the Panda King’s daughter, Jing King, in order to marry her and augment his family line. Until the wedding, he imprisons Jing King and basks in his own image like a peacock. Like Rajan before him, he has the gall to show off his wealth in the form of an opulent mountain fortress/palace/monastery. But the way the game signals to you that he’s a Really Bad Dude is his insistence that his bloodline is better than Cooper’s. For some utterly unknown reason, Tsao is as obsessed with denigrating Sly as he is with preening himself.
While the game laughs at Tsao, it’s also desperately trying to convince you that bad guys can reform and become Good Guys by holding the Panda King up as an example. Sly is initially wary about the King (you know, because he helped murder Sly’s father). But the King slowly wins over various members of the team by helping them on missions. This all culminates in his mission helping Sly, before which he gives his reflection a pep talk. Here, the game sends you into a dialogue mini-game where the Panda King has to calm his fractured psyche by getting his Yin and Yang sides on the same page (it’s like the writers saw a National Geographic special on Taoism while high, and then insisted on plugging it here). Panda Yin wants to utilize Sly’s help to free their daughter, and thinks Sly is actually an ok dude. Panda Yang thinks Sly is an uppity jerk who disgraced them and that they don’t need his help. The game sides with Panda Yin, shockingly, and tasks you with convincing Panda Yang of Panda Yin’s point of view with preprogrammed options. The winning line of reasoning states that “Cooper is a teacher of humility” and that that quality is somehow spiritually useful to them for its own sake.
Just to recap, Sly is the kind of guy who cites his bloodline as evidence of his existential superiority over the Panda King, and pisses on him for being upwardly mobile. Sly is the kind of guy who routinely involves his best friends in harebrained schemes to achieve his inherently selfish ends, without ever really asking them how he could lend them a hand with their problems. Sly is the kind of guy who gets angry with cops when they put him in jail for breaking the law. If Sly taught anybody humility, it sure as hell wasn’t by example, and so Panda King’s insistence that he can learn humility from Sly reeks of kowtowing. The game says the Panda King can be a Good Guy… if only he learns his place and stays there, at the feet of Sly Cooper, thieving royalty.
All of this confused classist nonsense culminates in the heist, where the Gang not only rescue Jing King, but also seek to ruin Tsao by robbing him of his family treasures. In the process of doing this, the Gang destroy Tsao’s ancestral temple and take his most prized heirloom treasures, and the game portrays his justifiable outrage as evil and megalomaniacal. Remember, the first game had you traveling all over the globe to ruin and brutalize five people in order to recover one such prized heirloom of the Cooper family that was stolen. But doing the same thing to Tsao is all well and good, because he is a Bad Dude. In anger, he even yells at Cooper, “Hear me Cooper, my lineage surpasses yours in every way!” It is at this moment that the game, in an attempt to simultaneously erase and embrace its own blatant elitism, has its protagonist utter the single most inane line of the series, “It’s not about the family name pal… it’s what you do with it!”
What does Cooper mean by this statement, precisely? What should one do with his family name? How have Cooper and Tsao, respectively, measured up to that standard? Who knows? The game never answers any of these questions explicitly. In fact, there are only two explicit reasons we are given to hate Tsao, one of which is the kidnapping of women. But the reason that is placed front and center, that is repeated more often than anything else, is the fact that Tsao believes his lineage is superior to Cooper’s. It is this apparent megalomania that really shows that Tsao is evil. Tsao is a villain because he failed to learn his place, at Cooper’s feet, as the Panda King did.
All of the troubling politics thus far coalesce neatly into the final level of this game, when we return to Dr. M’s island. After many further hijinks, aimed at infiltrating M’s fortress, Cooper, Bentley, and Murray manage to crack open the heavily guarded door to the Cooper Vault, and Sly insists that the three enter the front door of the vault together, having gone on so many adventures. But the game treats this touching gesture of friendship with cold, hard cynicism. The very minute the three friends step into the Vault, there is another door that only Sly is agile enough to even access, and so he is rescued by circumstance from having to actually follow through on his offer to his friends. As if the narrative had to make it clearer that it didn’t think Sly’s friends are worthy enough to access his heritage, Bentley voices the sentiment explicitly, “…this place was built for you [Sly]. We’ll hold down the fort here.”
While Sly is making his way through the caverns of the Cooper Vault, in which the Cooper Clan seems to have stored a non-negligible percentage of global GDP in the form of gold, jewels, and art, that second statement in the above quote proves prophetic. Bentley immediately doubles back on the sentiment he expressed by asking Murray, “Do you ever feel like you’re playing second fiddle to Sly? Like he treats us as sidekicks?” Murray doesn’t see it that way, responding, “… we’re all in it together!” And all at once, Bentley starts unraveling the games politics in one fell swoop, “Sure, we’re all here, but are we equal? Who went into the Vault? Sly. By himself.” But Bentley never gets to finish his point, because it is at that moment that the Vault, now opened, is invaded by Dr. M’s goons. Murray succinctly summarizes the situation and their options, “Think of it this way, Bentley. If it were you in that vault, and Sly and I were out here, what would he do?” Bentley responds with the only answer, “Stop these thugs and protect his friend.”
It’s as if the game only had Bentley raise these questions in order to swat them aside. The crushing thing is that Bentley had almost discerned the game’s politics from within the game itself. Bentley, the brains of the team, was approaching a fundamental truth in his world. Sly doesn’t treat he and Murray as sidekicks…but the game sure does. The narrative certainly does not see Bentley and Murray, let alone any other characters, as equal to Sly. Sly went into the Vault, alone, because this is his story, and nobody else’s. And it’s the moment Bentley begins to realize and articulate this that the game puts him back in his place with a sentimental appeal to friendship. Besides, Bentley isn’t in the Vault to question the politics of the situation, he’s there to “hold down the fort.” This is Sly’s show after all, and Bentley’s not even on the fiddle. He’s on the drum set at the back of the stage.
And it turns out that the villainous Dr. M voices exactly the same critique Bentley just brushed up against. Dr. M follows his goons into the cave and reveals that he was the brains of Cooper’s father’s gang, much like Bentley is the brains for the modern Cooper Gang. Once you learn this information, Dr. M tries to build a bridge with Bentley, “… I know the pain you suffer working under your inferior.” The inferior in this sentence is Sly, and we know from Tsao’s example what that means about Dr. M’s character. Of course Bentley refutes this logic. It doesn’t matter that Bentley organizes the heists, does all the research, does his own R&D for the Gang, and in general vastly outstrips the rest of the Gang in terms of hours dedicated to the Gang’s success, because the Cooper Gang has one thing—”brotherhood.”
Dr. M scoffs at this, “Brotherhood? That’s just what he wants you to think. It’s a tool to keep you in line!” Dr. M is right about the nature of the tool, but he’s wrong about who’s holding it. It’s the narrative, not Sly, that insists on relegating Bentley to not-even-on-the-fiddle status. But Bentley has been blinded by his own vapid appeals to friendship. The game has decided he’s not worthy to bask in Sly’s heritage. Only His Highness the royal heir can do that. When Dr. M makes a move to enter the Vault proper, even Bentley says so, “That haul is for Coopers only!” Dr. M pragmatically replies, “Maybe it’s time for men such as you and I to change all that.” Dr. M insists that the work he put in as the brains of the old Cooper Gang makes him worthy of the Cooper fortune his work contributed to…and the game, in its infinite wisdom, is absolutely certain that this basic act of self-respect makes him a megalomaniac. How dare he think he’s worthy of Sly’s fortune!? He’s not part of the bloodline!!
In the end, like every Big Bad before him, Dr. M tries to kill Sly because (surprise!) he hates Sly’s father and, by extension Sly’s bloodline. After they fight, there’s a short scene where Sly and Dr. M discuss that, despite Sly’s maniacal obsession with his lineage, he’s just an individual, and Dr. M can’t blame Sly for the fact that Sly’s father was, apparently, a dick. In the process of reminiscing, the comparisons between Dr. M/Sly’s father and Bentley/Sly come to a head, with Sly insisting that he would risk his life for his friends. The problem with that is that the game has rescued Sly from including his friends meaningfully as equal partners in the story. Saying he’d risk his life for them is just the game’s way of showing Sly is a good person without actually making him do anything to assert, by action, how much he values his friends.
And the game makes it known exactly how much Sly’s friends are worth without him after Dr. M is defeated. Sly manages, through feigned amnesia (long story), to run away with Inspector Carmelita Fox, leaving his friends behind. In the aftermath of his escape, Bentley narrates the epilogue, explaining that, “Without Sly as our leader, for the first time we each had to step out on our own. A difficult thing; we’d been together ever since we met at the orphanage.” In other words, Bentley and Murray finally strike out on their own, as individuals separated from Sly’s legacy…except not at all. Murray goes into stock-van racing, driving the Cooper van with Sly’s raccoon-faced logo on the side. The game refuses to let Murray have his own unique identity. But what happens to Bentley is even more insulting. You see, Sly left Bentley and Murray an enormous trove of treasure he managed to evacuate from the Cooper Vault before leaving his friends behind. So what does Bentley do with their newfound wealth? Does he spend it on furthering his own dreams?
Not at all! Instead, he builds another, much higher-tech Cooper Vault to bury the treasure in. The treasure really only served to show how generous Sly was. The game never had any intention of validating Bentley’s worth by insisting he deserved a cut of Sly’s legacy. And the game makes this even clearer in the final frames of the epilogue, where you see Bentley writing his narrated words, “So while this might be the end of our adventures, it could be the start of something even bigger!” The hitch? He’s writing those words in Sly’s family book, from the first game! The game refuses to allow for any possibility that Sly’s friends might have any identity beyond upholding his royal legacy, or that they are worthy of being equal partners in that legacy. Even after Sly is gone, living his own life, his friends are not allowed to do the same. The game won’t let them, because, as we’ve seen throughout this series, anybody who thinks they have an inherently meaningful identity outside of Cooper’s lineage, or who merely insists that they deserve more than they were born into, is a villain, and Sly Cooper will always be there to put them in their place.