Monaco: What’s Yours Is Mine (2013)—Identity
Paying homage to another medium is a tricky effort for games. Hew too closely to your muse—whether it’s a movie, a book, or what-have-you—and you risk showing off all the things that make those other forms uniquely great while sacrificing the aspects that make video games a singular experience. The unkind might refer to this as “the Hideo Kojima problem,” in honor of the Metal Gear director’s tendency to transform his games into big-budget action movies that the “player” passively consumes. It’s far rarer for a game to sample from genre fiction or film and capture something of its own—something that could only be expressed through the interactivity of games—as it stumbles down those well-trod paths.
Monaco, Pocketwatch Games’ ode to the art of the heist, is clearly in love with the crime fiction it ably and consistently apes. The game—which sees a quartet of thieves launching a daring jailbreak and embarking on a cash-grabbing crime spree—does everything it can to invoke the feeling of playing through a candy-colored version of a bad-men-with-a-plan flick, like Ocean’s Eleven or The Usual Suspects. Accompanied by a dynamic and jazzy soundtrack, Monaco takes players through bank vaults, double-crosses, and every other trope of the genre. But it’s in the game’s approach to the hoariest of crime film clichés—the inevitable twist ending—that Monaco shows off its subtlest, most effective bit of criminal homage.
You know the sorts of twists we’re talking about: Danny Ocean used a fake vault! The Matchstick Men are rotten through-and-through! Kevin Spacey’s face glacially emerges from the world’s most sluggish fax machine! It’s more shocking these days when a crime caper doesn’t have a moment that radically redefines everything that’s come before; once desperate criminals start lying to each other, it’s hard for directors and writers not to get in on the fun.
Monaco lies all the time. Its first major deception comes at the point that would be the “big twist” in a conventional crime thriller, when the player’s original protagonists—the colorful thieves known only as The Pickpocket, The Cleaner, The Lookout, and The Locksmith—are betrayed and framed by a second team of playable thieves—The Mole, The Hacker, The Redhead, and the group’s enigmatic leader, The Gentleman. (In a sub-twist, the conniving escapees then immediately turn on each other for a bloody, cinematic shootout in a church.) It’s a big climax and the moment everything clicks into place.
But it’s also merely the end of the game’s first act, when storytelling duties shift from the interrogation of The Locksmith to his yellow-clad companion, The Pickpocket, allowing him to lay out his own version of events for the police. The Pickpocket’s story is more nuanced, more obtuse, and more, well, twisty, and it builds to an artfully crafted finale that rivals any other in crime fiction. (This was the case with the game’s original release. Pocketwatch continued to expand Monaco over the years, a laudable act of devotion that had the unfortunate side effect of shifting its brilliant finale, Identity, to a mid-point climax.)
Identity’s attendant twist doesn’t come from the often-clunky devices crime thrillers use to express their big surprises—there’s no revelatory flashback or smug voiceover here. Instead, outside of a single line of pre-mission dialogue, Monaco delivers its big twist through your own actions, allowing the revelation to subtly, slowly creep up on players as they act out its big finale.
A bit of background: In Monaco, each of the game’s eight thieves has a single unique ability. The Mole can dig through walls. The Redhead can distract and mislead guards. The Gentleman can take a moment to cloak himself in a disguise any time he’s hidden and out of sight. In every heist, players are forced to work as a team and strategically combine characters’ skills to sneak through a facility’s defenses and grab the loot. But when you begin to play through Identity, that’s no longer the case.
As the level starts, your crew is once again locked in a set of jail cells, the same cells they began the game in way back at the start of The Locksmith’s story. There’s piano tinkling on the soundtrack, thunder in the background, and a simple prompt: “Sneak out of prison and disappear forever.”
It’s subtle, at first, as you jimmy open the cell doors and move past the game’s artfully arranged credits. Your thieves’ designs are suddenly a little bit different: The Locksmith is bulkier, The Lookout is showing more skin. It’s a little like meeting people you’ve only ever heard descriptions of, finally appearing in the slightly unexpected flesh. And then, out of nowhere, you hear the distinctive “ziiiip” of The Gentleman slipping into one of his always-ready disguises. Except that The Gentleman and the rest of his perfidious sub-team aren’t available to be used on this mission. Instead, incongruously, it’s The Pickpocket who’s now wearing The Gentleman’s distinctive, attention-deflecting suit.
He’s not the only one displaying the abilities of one of his alleged betrayers, either. Suddenly, The Locksmith can smash down obstacles as though he were the thickly accented Mole. The Lookout can charm away opponents like The Redhead, while the mute, psychopathic Cleaner is suddenly a hacking genius. Each of your characters has the power of one of the compatriots who supposedly betrayed them, left them to rot in a jail cell, and spilled their guts to the eagerly listening cops. Cops who, like you, only know who these people are and what they can do because of what they’ve been told throughout the game. Cops who’ve been lured off on a wild goose chase by The Pickpocket’s final story, leaving your team to finally appear, not as characters in a story but, as themselves for the first time in the entire game. All four of them.
Because—you slowly realize as you make your forward with these barely recognizable, seemingly super-powered criminals—there were never eight thieves at all. There was never a second set of criminals intruding into the story and setting our “heroes” up for a fall. Instead, Monaco is, and always has been, the story of a quartet of thieves launching a daring plan to break themselves into jail, convince the cops that their fictitious associates have betrayed them and flown the coop, and use their multiple areas of expertise to embark on a cash-grabbing crime spree from within the sturdy, cop-filled walls. The Pickpocket, Locksmith, Cleaner, and Lookout are The Gentleman, Mole, Hacker, and Redhead. The presence of the supposed second team and the game’s division of the characters’ skills into two characters apiece, the entire “He said, he said” model of the narrative—it’s all a game-length piece of misdirection, played on both the Monaco police and the player.
It’s a powerful moment, all the moreso because there’s no director or editor cutting desperately between every piece of relevant evidence, no belabored scene pretending the game’s a movie as it begs you to understand. It’s quite possible to play through all of Identity—which can be ridiculously short if you ignore the game’s ethos and walk past a prison full of loot to make your escape—without ever noticing the change and the additional powers you’ve been granted. When a movie deploys its climactic twist, it usually has to go big because visual cues and dialogue are the tools a director has at their disposal. But Monaco can hide its biggest reveal within the ways the characters control and trust players to understand the change.
Even more than that, it’s an empowering and rewarding moment. You’re seeing and being these four malcontents as they truly are, free of artifice, for the first time in the entire game, and they’re far stronger than you’ve been previously led to believe. More than just a narrative climax or a chance to show off storytelling chops, then, Identity is Pocketwatch’s reward to the player for picking their way through a tapestry of lies and getting to some semblance of the truth. (The same goes for the rest of the level, a brutal mission designed to push your new-found powers to their limits.)
To end with one more comparison to the films from which Monaco takes its cues, take a second and think back to the end of The Usual Suspects, when a triumphant Kevin Spacey strolls away from the police station, working out his fake limp and untwisting his supposedly crippled hand. It’s the only time in the movie that we see the mythical Keyser Soze in the flesh, as he sheds the disguise of Verbal Kint like so much useless snake skin. It’s also the only time the movie shows us the real, objective truth. Identity taps into that same feeling of true power being unleashed, except instead of simply sitting back and watching, it lets the player control and play through the freedom of that powerful reveal. It’s a twist that you don’t just watch, but participate in, and it’s the one moment when Monaco transcends its crime thriller influences to show the old dogs what a crime game can really do.