They say that our first impressions are the ones that stay with you. I know that to be true for me, because within mere minutes of turning on my PlayStation 2 one amazing Christmas morning and booting up Sly Cooper and the Thievius Raccoonus, my young self was convinced this was the peak of video games. I’d only ever had a Gameboy Advanced up until then, and while I did love my Italian plumber device, Sly Cooper slapped him out of my mind the same way Sucker Punch slapped the obligatory ‘Sony Computer Entertainment Presents’ message on my screen.
Little did I know that what would follow would be an incredibly life changing experience that taught me friendship, loyalty, kindness, and how to best wack enough chickens for a ghost that wants to make stew so much he’ll betray his boss for it.
I owe a lot to this video game. It’s wild to realize Sly Cooper taught me some of the most important lessons I’ve carried with me throughout my life. There’s a hilarity I find in owning that a big part of who I am today is because of an anthropomorphic racoon and his two friends, a turtle and a pig — but it’s also part of what I love about the series.
It’s a silly thing to tell someone that so much of me comes from this source, but it also makes complete sense. The media we consume when we’re younger more than any other time in our life has a chance to be transformative in our characteristics and perspectives, and Sly Cooper came to me at what feels like the perfect time. It was a game aimed for kids with deep, adult life lessons that I still carry today.
I didn’t grow up as “the cool kid”. That may not really come as a surprise, that someone who at an early point in their life kept saying they wanted to play video games as a job wasn’t the most popular in school. Nonetheless as the mixture of few friends and low self-confidence have often pushed others towards a closer relationship to games, the same is true for me.
They were the biggest escape I had next to reading. My memories of reading Tolkien, Shakespeare, Louis Sachar, and Arthur Miller are all filled not with images and clips of times I’ve seen these works performed or recreated in other mediums, but of how I first imagined them in my head. I always loved to imagine myself in the midst of events that I was reading about. I would either be just to the side, watching or pretend I was in fact the characters involved.
With Sly Cooper being the first 3D game I ever played on a console, it felt like for the first time I could walk around inside my imagination. So I ran, and my young mind could not believe the freedom I felt within what is really quite a linear game. My imagination began to work differently from that point onwards — rather than picturing the visual of the world, I imagined how I could push its boundaries. I tried jumping off everything, even if it probably wasn’t meant to be a platform. I used every ability and little trick to just try and explore every square inch of the game world because I wanted to see how far I could go.
When I was in seventh grade at elementary school, my school offered a new program to go alongside the mandatory music class we all had to take. It was an optional, after school music program that offered a chance to be in a rock band and learn an instrument from scratch. This would then culminate in a concert performed by the students, and one of us would be the lead singer.
I don’t think I ever grabbed a form to take home to my parents faster when I heard about it. I decided I wanted to be the lead singer, to learn how to play guitar and set off on this new journey into playing music instead of just listening and singing along.
This happened to be also during a time where I was replaying the first Sly Cooper. Within the second chapter there are two levels that introduce new gameplay mechanics, but more than that they mark the first appearance of Murray, both in the series and as a playable character. In both cases, he’s nervous. Scared to be doing fieldwork, a task usually deemed for Sly. But Murray wants to help his friend, so he stares down a gauntlet of enemies, charging towards a much needed treasure key.
Eventually Murray becomes a staple in the series with a brilliant character arc all about finding peace within yourself and who you are. But that doesn’t happen without Murray taking his first nervous steps in the field, and trying something that could potentially go sideways. That’s a feeling I resonated with being in the after school band, because I didn’t get to be the lead singer.
My parents and I arrived late to the first rehearsal, and the only instrument that hadn’t been taken was the bass — I wasn’t given a microphone for the performance, either. Spoiled as it sounds, I almost didn’t want to do the program if I couldn’t be the lead singer. But my parents weren’t having any of that. I ended up reflecting and thinking what would have happened if Murray hadn’t gotten out of the van and out in the field, maybe he never would have had such a great story.
To be clear, the stakes in both situations are very different. I was acting like a selfish kid, upset because things didn’t turn out my way. Murray is putting his life on the line for his friend. They’re not the same thing, but Murray stuck his neck out because he trusted his friends would have his back, so I needed something to trust in. I decided to trust in myself, and that maybe I wanted to do this for more than just being the lead singer.
The end of that program was the first time I performed live on a stage, a first step towards auditioning for musicals and plays in high school, which in turn led me to study theatre at university, which led me to the people who would become my best friends and to meeting my partner. From such an early age Sly Cooper’s narrative instilled core guiding values in me like trying new things, even if they make me nervous, or if they end up being different from what I pictured, because you don’t know where they could lead next.
I also learned the importance of collaboration and history from Sly Cooper every time a new sneaking or jumping mechanic was added into the mix. As Sly recovers sections of his family’s book, the Thievius Raccoonus, he studies the new pages and learns what his ancestors have to offer him. By the end of the game Sly is a culmination of his ancestors and their talents, while also still being himself. I reflect on this aspect of the gameplay as extremely influential to my life, because each new learned skill was then pushed to the fullest in following sections with an array of challenges to overcome. I played it and understood not only do I need to broaden my own skills and horizons to achieve success in life, but most importantly I need to listen to those who came before. People who have lived experiences to share are very usually the ones I need to be learning from.
I learned lessons from the main cast, but also from the Fiendish Five, the main antagonists and bosses in the game. Muggshot only became the brute he was because of how he was bullied as a kid. Bullies taught Muggshot that being bigger meant you could push everyone around, so he decided it was his turn to be the big guy, so no one could push him around ever again. That story alone was scary enough for my young mind to never want to bully someone and turn them into Muggshot.
The fear I lived with of turning my childhood schoolmates into future villains because of how I treated them may not have taken into account factors like their own free will, but it took into account how I treated people, then and now. Only now though I understand that you shouldn’t bully someone just because you’re afraid they’ll turn into a muscular giant with machine guns.
The exploration and freedom I felt with the platforming and world of the game was the same mentality I took towards the next game I played, the stealth mechanics alone were in fact so influential that I’ve never needed another game to teach me how to be stealthy.
I also didn’t need anyone to tell me you shouldn’t conflate your level of success and happiness in life based on other peoples standards, because of the devastation I saw the Panda King unleash on his own town after losing a fireworks competition. And no one needed to tell me that jealousy is a dangerous emotion, one that can fuel hate if given enough coal. Clockwork’s terrifying visage, his metal wings and bright yellow eyes, kept alive and burning purely through his jealousy and hatred was telling enough.
Sly Cooper and the Thievius Raccoonus taught me lessons I took with me in future games, but also onto real life itself. It’s a game that has guided some of the most important decisions I’ve made, and one that remains as influential as ever to this day. I truly can’t imagine my life without theatre. Performing is one of my greatest joys and I might not have known that if not for Sly and the gang. Theatre is also something that my partner and I bonded over before we were even together. If not for Sly Cooper I do not know what my life today would look like, and everyday I’m thankful that I had a raccoon, turtle, and a pig to help guide me when I needed them most.