Just the other day, someone asked me what I do for a living. I usually respond with “Writer”. It’s accurate, but kind of vague at the same time. Technically, I’m a novelist, but it just sounds so damn weird to use that word. You’d think after seven years, I’d be used to the title. But it’s a little like introducing my wife as “My Wife”. It just doesn’t sound right. I’m sure I’ll get used to it. Eventually.
So not to post anything more about Mass Effect, but while replaying the game recently, I was struck that it’s been a while since I’ve been so immersed in a game and its universe. In fact, there’s only one series of video games that has garnered my devotion to its characters.
I might be the only one to draw this comparison, but that’s what makes it worth drawing. On the surface, Sly Cooper and Mass Effect are very different games. One revolves around funny anthropomorphic animals and their criminal misadventures. The other is an epic space saga about saving the universe. One has a predetermined storyline. One is far more flexible in how it can unfold. Yet both games succeed in probably the most important manner possible for good writing.
Both games create memorable characters with distinct personalities. Both games are also about the psychological journeys of their heroes and supporting cast. And both games do a solid job of integrating gameplay into their narrative.
If you’re unfamiliar with the Sly Cooper games, Sly is a raccoon who comes from a family of thieves. His family steals only from criminals though. Think of them as a long line of Robin Hoods. Sly himself is an orphan. His parents were killed by a gang of rival criminals.
Yep, killed. Sly has some pretty dark stuff going on.
Raised in an orphanage, Sly and his childhood friends, Benton and Murray, grow up to carry on the family tradition. In the first Sly game, which is mostly an action platformer ala Crash Bandicoot, you’re tracking down the gang that killed his parents and shutting them down. It’s a solid game, though the series really doesn’t hit its stride until Sly Cooper 2. This is more of a free roaming game where you complete various missions as you sneak around and prepare to commit elaborate heists. The levels aren’t huge, and it’s not so much a sandbox game as an elaborate playground. Half of the fun is scaling vines, pickpocketing guards, or otherwise discovering treasures to take back to your lair.
Meanwhile, a story is unfolding, and we learn a lot about Sly’s relationship with his friends as well as his enemies.
Special mention should be made of how much effort is put into Sly’s enemies. They aren’t just one-dimensional characters. My favorite is The Panda King, who is a major character in the first and third game.
The Panda King was part of the gang that killed Sly’s parents. But in the third game, part of the master plan involves recruiting the King to Sly’s new gang. Needless to say, Sly isn’t too happy about this, and who could blame him? But somehow, the game manages to make the King sympathetic. He starts out as a noble villain who eventually finds redemption. And he and Sly come to an uneasy friendship. It says something about the game that this turn of events, so implausible, come across as natural and believable.
The Panda King is like Darth Vader, but with a more believable story arc. Mostly because Darth Vader never exhibits any positive traits through the original Star Wars films, and his moment of redemption just comes from nowhere. He’s followed the Emperor blindly throughout the story, and then, suddenly he decides not to. But there’s no justification for it other than the shallow excuse that the Emperor is killing his son.
Of course, this is somewhat of a problem in Star Wars for Luke as well. He really has no reason to seek the redemption of his estranged and evil father. In fact, until he learns that Darth Vader is his father, he has absolutely no sympathy for the guy and would happily see him destroyed. The moral of Star Wars seems to be that it’s okay to destroy bad guys as long as you aren’t related to them. But if you are related, it’s okay to risk the lives of billions in pursuit of their redemption.
It’s a pretty crappy moral.
On the other hand, the redemption of the Panda King is far more nuanced and believable. To begin with, the Panda King starts out as honorable, even if only following his own code. Still, when we first meet him again in the third Sly game, he’s a tortured soul, tormented by all the things he’s done as well as his own inability to protect his family. As the story progresses, we see him go from a broken warrior to an inspired hero. Inspired by the company he keeps.
On the surface, it might seem a little ridiculous, but the basic framework is there. One of my favorite moments is when the King must help Murray save his van. The van is very important to Murray, like family. As you rain fireworks down on bad guys trying to stop Murray, the King finds himself admiring Murray’s conviction and absolute commitment to protecting what he loves. And in the end, the King thinks how it was a conviction he lacked, even toward protecting his own family.
So it’s a scene about a hippo rescuing a van, but it’s also about the lengths we can go to for those things that really matter to us. And while it should be ridiculous, I’ve always found it inspiring. Whenever I get down, I think about Murray and the Panda King and that van. Because that’s what it’s all about. It’s about putting yourself at risk for what truly matters and about supporting each other when those things are in danger.
I won’t get into the other characters, though there’s plenty to discuss. Jean Bison, the villainous unfrozen lumberjack who “would’ve been a hero a hundred years ago as he tamed the wilderness, but was an environmental disaster today.” The team dynamic between Sly, Benton, and Murray. The quest for family, both old and new. The nature of obsession. And the power of friendship and cooperation.
Also, you get to fight a giant octopus with fireworks in the third game.
The Sly Cooper games are far more cartoon-ish than Mass Effect, but it doesn’t change the fact that there’s some rock solid writing and characterization going on there. And I realize just how much I like these games, and how I’m happy to consider them an important influence in my writing. They’re fun games, well worth checking out. And if you’re a writer looking for how to do it right, it’s definitely worth taking notes while you play.
Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,