Guardians of the Galaxy: How to balance gameplay, humor, and a good story

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Eidos Montreal took the wraps off the video game version of Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy this week at the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3).

It debuts October 26 as a single-player adventure where you play as Star-Lord, and you have to learn to work together with ragtag group of Groot, Drax, Gamora, and Rocket Raccoon. The game is coming out on the Xbox, PlayStation, and PC — and Nintendo announced a Switch version is coming as well.

The game is intended to capture the humorous banter of the Guardians as well as the serious mission of saving the galaxy. And it’s supposed to have fun gameplay as well. It could be hard to balance the competing expectations that fans will have about this, and so we talked with Mary DeMarle, senior narrative director at Eidos Montreal, about how the team is finding that balance.

I was in a group of three writers who quized DeMarle about the game during E3.

Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.

Above: Mary DeMarle, senior narrative director at Eidos Montreal.

Image Credit: Eidos

Question: How hard is it to make something funny in a video game? How does that wind up being ranked as a priority in this game?

Mary DeMarle: When I first started, when we first knew we were doing this, I looked at J.F. Dugas, the game director, and said, “Oh my God, humor is the hardest thing to write. How are we going to tackle this?” But what was great is that once you realize that the comedy from the Guardians — it comes from the characters just being who they are, being always completely true to themselves. The unpredictability of their characters comes from the fact that they are who they are. When you start playing with that, it helps to ground that comic bone.

I worked with a staff of writers here internally at Eidos who just feed off each other. They’re bouncing jokes off each other all the time, to the point that — I would assign scripts to individual writers, but then we’d do a round robin. We’d do script reads and people would read their work and be able to hear their stuff so they can judge it that way. The other writers would comment, and sometimes they wouldn’t give a script to me until all the other writers had commented on it. What was great about that was that at the end, we didn’t remember who wrote what anymore. One person would have a joke and someone else would grow on it, build from that.

Some of the gags are just visual gags that came through the mocap sessions, through the actors, or they came from the artists and animators working with it. Having that full focus helped to make — once we had that, I think we’d done it. I think we’ve managed to capture the humor in this game.

Question: Do you feel like playing as Star-Lord and just Star-Lord is going to help focus the narrative in a way that games like Marvel’s Avengers kind of lost themselves with? What led to the decision to just focus on him?

DeMarle: It’s funny. Eidos Montreal is known for its single-player, narrative-driven games. You’d have thought right off the bat for us as a design team, that’s what we were doing. But every time we start looking at a game, the first thing we have to do is look at, what is this we’re dealing with? What do we really want to play? Knowing we were working with a team of Guardians, of course we asked ourselves if this should be multiplayer. Should it be co-op? Should you play individual Guardians along the way?

Where we settled was, we realized that the heart of this group is these zany, unpredictable characters on the team. How they’re so strong and so independent, and yet they’re trying to be a team. We said to ourselves, “These characters are so alive, I just want to hang out with them. I want to be a part of this. I want to experience what it’s like to be a part of the team.” When we knew that, we knew the best point of view would be Star-Lord. He’s the human in the group, so we can automatically, hopefully, understand the human. We can build a strong narrative around him being a part of the team. We can see what it feels like to have to manage an uncontrollable group of characters. How can we go from there?

Once we settled on that, we realized the real challenge we wanted to undertake was, how can we redefine team gameplay from a single-player perspective? Because you’re playing Star-Lord, playing him on the sticks, and you have all his cool moves, his jetboots and elemental blaster and stuff. But the other Guardians are constantly with you. They all have their own skills and abilities that you can call on during combat, and you can call on it during exploration as well.

When you’re in combat, Drax is good at staggering enemies. If you have an enemy with a lot of hit points who needs to be staggered first, you can send Drax at him before you start shooting. That makes your shots more effective. You really are playing all of them in the adventure. By the end of it, they’re always there, always alive and with you. You really do feel like you were there, hanging out with these cool characters, and they were alive every single second. You’re guiding them through this game.

Above: Guardians of the Galaxy

Image Credit: Square Enix

Question: Especially during the last decade, this franchise has been very big, mainly through the movies. There’s a weight to these characters. What was the biggest challenge working with such an important franchise?

DeMarle: You’re right that there is an essence to these characters that, no matter what medium they’re in — most people became familiar with them through the movies. Yet when you look into the comic books they’re very different in the comics. But there’s an essence to them that’s always the same. Knowing that, we were able to say, “As long as I know the essence, as long as I get familiar with that and understand that Star-Lord will always be the space pirate cowboy, Drax will always have the grief and trauma of losing his wife and daughter and wanting revenge” — when you realize that you can tweak them and make your own and build your own backstories to them.

But I’d say the biggest challenge we had was the fact that there are five of them. We’re constantly dealing with five characters. From a story perspective that means we’re writing an ensemble story, and every single one of these characters has their own journey through it. They have their own character arcs, their own emotional beats that we have to see. It’s not just one character with side characters. In gameplay it’s the same thing. You’re always on screen with these five characters there, with you through every exploration, through every combat. How can we make them feel alive, like they’re not just this AI character that’s following you?

All the work that had to be done, from the programming side, from the gameplay side, to make sure these characters stand as individuals — they can’t overwhelm or overtake your gameplay in combat, because they’re very powerful. How do we deal with all of that? And then, again, from the writing challenge, they’re always talking. They’re always alive. They’re always with you. You’re interacting with them. Writing all this dialogue — basically the biggest challenge for everyone on the team is just dealing with five very strong, independent characters.

Above: You can play as Star-Lord in Guardians of the Galaxy.

Image Credit: Square Enix

Question: I was curious about examples of how your teammates can get you into trouble. It sounds like that’s some of their purpose, that they get themselves into trouble and you have to extract them from it.

DeMarle: It’s not so much that. It’s more dealing with the unpredictable nature. This game, even though it’s a linear storyline, we do infuse it with choice and consequence. There are moments in the game where you are making decisions. You’re asked to make a choice. It impacts the characters around you.

You saw in the demo, do you throw Rocket over the cliff or not? The thing is, you’re going to have to deal with the repercussions of that, because Rocket, if you choose to throw him — Rocket, of course, will be furious with you. Rocket is a very strong individual. Later in that mission, as you’re going around, you’re going to come upon another challenge, and you need his help to do it, but he won’t do it. You have to find other ways around that challenge. Or if you hadn’t thrown him in the first place, you have a different pathway open to you there.

It’s the same with the other characters. Knowing that Drax is a bit of a — he lets his emotions get ahead of him. He might dive into stuff immediately when you’re not ready for it. Okay, now the choice is, do you follow Drax, or do you wait and get a little more defensive? But it’s never a situation, I would say — I hate games where your side characters are always ruining your gameplay because they’re starting something you didn’t intend. It’s not really that. It’s much more controlled. But there are moments when you have to make a decision. Do I trust this Guardian, or do I not? How do I deal with the consequences of the decision I’ve made there?

Question: You’ve been very quiet about the development of this. As near as I can tell there were just rumblings about the game. People knew that maybe something was coming. We didn’t know anything for sure until we got the email and the video. How hard was this to keep this a secret and make the surprise work?

DeMarle: It was hard, because we’re working on a game, and as we’re seeing it progress we’re getting more and more excited. Not being able to tell anyone about it, giving family and friends the typical line — “If I tell you I have to kill you.” Knowing that we have Marvel on our back, who are the people who are going to come and kill us if we do that, it gets challenging in that sense. I can only really speak from my perspective, but you just focus on your job. You have to shut out the outside world and come to work every day and put all that excitement and all that energy into building the game. Then you really hope that it’s going to be a surprise, because we want it to be a surprise.

Now we’re so excited. We wanted to wait to reveal it until we knew that it was coming for sure. We didn’t want to have one of those situations where we’re going to announce it and then, oh no, we need to delay it. We didn’t want that. We waited for as long as we possibly could to be sure that the game is in the state that we want it to be in so that everyone will enjoy it. Knowing that also helped to keep it under wraps.

Above: Guardians of the Galaxy

Image Credit: Square Enix

Question: What was your favorite part of working with these characters, working with the Guardians?

DeMarle: My favorite part of working with it — I hate coming back to the Guardians themselves, but it’s the fact that this story was different from many of the stories I’ve worked on in my career making games. We got a chance to focus on a story that has a lot of heart, a lot of soul, and is funny. It has deep themes going on. It has the themes of family and faith and loss, things that do make you, at moments — oh my God, I could actually cry in this emotional scene that’s happening with these characters. But then we turn around with comedy, or we have comedy leading into that. To know that, in the end, we’re building a story that’s about beating the odds, because that’s the heart of the Guardians.

These characters are the misfits who nobody believes in, who stumble their way through everything, and who are so totally chaotic and impulsive, and yet that works for them. Working on that, especially once we were in the pandemic and all this was going on — to be working on something that makes you laugh out loud and makes you feel genuine emotions, that was the kicker for me.

Question: If there are things happening related to a movie coming up, did you have to coordinate your story, or otherwise consult with Marvel to make sure that your narrative was going in a canonical direction?

DeMarle: Not in the sense that I think you might be thinking of. We did collaborate with Marvel and they were with us every step of the way. Marvel Game Studio, Bill Rosemann and his team, they were with us every step of the way as we worked on ideas. But we didn’t know what was going on with any of the movies. It’s completely separate. That, from the get-go, was one of the reasons Eidos was excited to work on this game. From the beginning Marvel said to us, “The MCU has its thing going on. The comics have their thing going on. We want you to create your version in the game and make your game world distinctly different and yours.”

That gave us a lot of freedom and flexibility. We didn’t have to know what the movies were doing or what we had to stay away from. All we had to do was concentrate on creating the game that we wanted and creating the story we wanted. We would go to Marvel and say, “We have this story. We need a character. We know these three characters in the Marvel toolbox. Would they work?” They’d say, “We think you should go with that one.” Or they might sit back and say, “Well, for that role, why not look into this character?”

That’s how Lady Hellbender got into our story. We had created a character in our story. We codenamed her “Mama Rosa.” This was a character who’s a gangster, a badass gang boss, and the Guardians are going to try to con her. The question was, is there anyone in Marvel lore who’d work?” At that time Bill Rosemann and the guys came back and said, “Hey, we have this new character who’s coming out in this series. Why not take a look at her and see if she’d work?” We dove into these comics and knew we could tweak the story to make her the perfect character for this role.

It wasn’t a sense of, you can’t use this, you can’t use that, you can’t do this because the MCU is doing that. It was more a matter of, “Tell us what you’re doing and we’re going to find the right pieces for it.” That worked really well.

Question: Guardians was inexplicably the second trailer this week to kick off with Bonnie Tyler, although you guys had the best use of it. How important was the music to the story, to the design of the game? Is there any song that you’re stoked that you got? Also, since I’m a streamer, will the game launch with any kind of streamer mode to avoid using licensed music so nobody gets in trouble?

DeMarle: As far as your last question, I’m not the right person to ask for that, but I’m sure someone can get you the correct answer. Talking about the soundtrack and how we use it, though, we have this killer ‘80s soundtrack. Once we, in our story, decided that Peter Quill was kidnapped in the ‘80s, a child of the ‘80s, stuck in the ‘80s, we knew we had to get the great songs of the ‘80s. We did a great job. We have more than 30 licensed songs. Everything from Iron Maiden to Rick Astley to KISS to Wham to Blondie.

The way we use the music in the game is fun. Of course we’ll use it as part of the cinematics or to heighten drama in some scenes. You’ll be in big battles and hear something amazing like “The Final Countdown,” because it matches the story. But at the same time, we have two unique ways we use it. One is, in the Milano, you have moments where the story takes you to the ship and you can hang out and talk to all the Guardians. There’s a jukebox in the Milano where you go over and pick the song you want to hear as you explore. You can listen to the songs on your own, how you want, while you’re hanging out.

Above: Guardians of the Galaxy

Image Credit: Square Enix

The other way, you saw a bit of it in the trailer. We have this gameplay feature called the huddle. The huddle is this wild card that you can use in battle when the huddle gauge has reached a certain point. Now your huddle is available. You can call it and activate a huddle. What happens is, the Guardians all come forward like in a true American football huddle, and you have to listen to them, because it’s all based on how they were doing in combat. Maybe they were doing great and they’re super excited, so excited that they may even be yelling at each other. Or maybe they were doing terribly, and now they’re all down. “We can’t do this!” You have to listen to them, and then you have to decide if you’re going to motivate them or calm them down. You have a dialogue choice, and when you choose it Peter gives a speech that’s loosely based on the lyrics of one of the songs.

If he’s chosen correctly when he gives the speech, you all dive back into the battle, everyone’s on fire. Everyone has power-ups, full health, cooldowns over, and you go for it. If you choose wrong, Peter still thinks he did a great job, so he’s still boosted and he gets the bonus. Then you dive into the fight and you’re listening to the song that he chose to make his speech. You can sit there and be playing in this final battle to one of the licensed songs.

PR: To answer the first part of it, yes, there will be a toggle in the game to turn off licensed tracks for streamers.

Question: Without thinking about sales or numbers of any kind, what would you like to see to know you succeeded with the game?

DeMarle: First of all, I’m glad you’re not asking about numbers, because numbers aren’t my strong point. But to me, I’d love to see this game come out on October 26 and see both fans of Marvel and gamers — I’d love to see them grab it and start commenting among themselves about the story. There are so many different choices in it. You can start relating with each other — “Oh, did this happen to you?” “No, Gamora didn’t do that!” “I didn’t know that could happen!” To see that happen and see the feedback on what they really feel. You really feel like you’re hanging out with the Guardians. I’d love to see the reactions to how it feels to be a part of that team and have that with you and see their growth. For me that’s the big thing.

Question: Did you have any lessons from Avengers that you applied to this project?

DeMarle: We were really working on this game simultaneously with Crystal Dynamics and Avengers. I wasn’t necessarily paying a lot of attention to Avengers. I will say, when Avengers did come out, what I liked was I thought they did an excellent job at creating an original origin story for Kamala Khan. It’s cool because in our game, we’ve also invested so much in creating original stories for all of our Guardians and seeing that. Beyond that, though, we were very separate productions. We worked very hard on creating the best Guardians experience that we could.

Above: Guardians of the Galaxy

Image Credit: Square Enix

Question: One of the big things we saw was no DLC, no microtransactions, none. Is that for sure?

DeMarle: For us, for now, here’s the game, enjoy the ride. What I love about — it was important to us. We’re all gamers too, and it was important to us that everything be available when you start the game. All the outfits, and I think there’s about 39 outfits that you can pick up, they’re just cosmetics. They don’t change any gameplay style. But you find them by exploring the world and you can put them on the characters. Finding all the crafting parts and perks, it was important to us that it’s all in the game and you can find it from day one. That was our focus. It was such a challenge to get the five characters correct that we just wanted to focus on getting this one done, putting everything we can into it.

Question: Between now and launch, it’s just a few months away. What’s the biggest challenge that remains for the team in the time that’s left?

DeMarle: One of the big challenges is just constraining our excitement to get it out there, and our impatience to see how everybody feels about it. Now we’re just putting all our focus and energy into debugging the game and making sure that when it comes out, it’s going to be the best experience for everyone. That’s the big one. And then vacations.


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