Guardians Of The Galaxy video game interview – ‘a story of coping with loss'
GameCentral talks to the narrative director of Guardians Of The Galaxy about Fing Fang Foom’s shorts and what it’s like to make a hidden gem.
Nobody, least of all us, expected Square Enix’s Guardians Of The Galaxy game to be any good, especially not after the disappointment of their Avengers game. Not that the two titles are in any way connected, since they were made by completely different teams, but since Guardians also features a superhero team of bickering misfits it seemed reasonable to assume that both games would share a similar premise. But they do not. Guardians Of The Galaxy is not only an entirely single-player experience but it’s one of the best narrative driven games of the last several years.
Because nobody expected Guardians Of The Galaxy to be any good, and the marketing did little to convince them otherwise, the game wasn’t an immediate hit. In fact, it looked like it was going to be a certified flop, but as people started to realise how good it was, and the game began getting nominated for big awards, the vibe around it slowly transformed and more and more people got to enjoy it – especially once it came to Xbox Game Pass.
The recognition took a little longer to arrive than senior narrative director Mary DeMarle was probably hoping but she was in town recently because the game had been nominated at the Baftas (it had three separate actors up for performance roles but lost out on its narrative nomination to indie game Unpacking). We spoke to her last week about how the game came together, the logic behind its many surprising design decisions, and how she coped with the game’s initial lukewarm reaction.
GC: How fed up do you get with people using the word ‘surprising’ when describing how good your game is?
GC: It’s kind of a compliment, but…
MD: I know, I know that’s a thing. I mean, I look at it in terms of one of the our founding ideals is we always wanna break expectations. So when people are saying it’s surprising, we know we did our job.
GC: So how did this work, were you just given the licence by Square Enix or did you ask for it specifically?
MD: Well, I’m not a 100% sure of the full origin of the thing, because I know that Eidos’ studio manager David Anfossi was in close contact with Marvel and was really a fan of making this deal. And when we were looking at it, I will admit on my side, with all the Marvel licences we could have ended up with, I was relieved it was Guardians of the Galaxy.
I’m a big Marvel fan. I grew up with the X-Men and all that, but I was kind of like… I’d rather, at this stage of my life, deal with a group of superheroes who are not really superheroes and who are this lovable cast of misfits. Having said that, at the same time, I was terrified because I was like, ‘You want me to write humour?’ Humour is hard. Humour is the hardest thing you can write and to sustain over the course of a production, to hear lines again and again, and not question… it was funny the first time, but is it gonna be funny the 16th, 17th, 30th time you hear it?
So that was a bit terrifying for me going into it, but that’s kind of how it started and meeting Marvel and dealing with them was a great experience.
GC: Humour is hard. That’s true of any media, but it’s also extremely rare in video games. And when it does happen it’s usually pretty terrible.
MD: [laughs] Yes!
GC: Had you read the comics before you started the project? How did you get your head around everything?
MD: Well, when we started the project we met Marvel and Marvel told us: ‘We want you to make it your version of the Guardians, stay true to their essence, but make it yours.’ The first thing we said is, ‘We really need to know these characters from the get go.’ So not only from the MCU, but we read… we spent a couple of months in conception just reading comic books, day after day after day to get to know the universe in the comics and help that to inspire us.
GC: I can’t pretend to have read the original comics but my impression is that they’re not particularly funny, that that was an invention of the movies, so did you ever think about just playing everything straight?
MD: Well, you’re absolutely right that the comics don’t have the level of comedy, at all, that the MCU does. But when we started on it, I think we knew that we needed to… most people were familiar with the MCU. They were expecting it to be funny. But what we also did for ourselves was to realise, like you said, there’s not a lot of comedy in games and when it tries a lot of it falls flat.
And I think a lot of that is because people approach it from the sense of, ‘Oh, we just have to be funny and we have to wisecrack.’ And wisecracks, they can be fun… but they’re not gonna last. And what we realised is what makes this license funny is that if you stay true to who these characters are it’s them just being who they are and the dynamic that that creates.
So, you know, with the MCU turning Drax into a very literal person and the comics making him a very strategic tactician, blending that and knowing that Drax is a smart guy who’s very literal, and he just says what he means… he will always do that. And everybody else will bounce off of it in their own way.
My own experiences in my own life, is the times that I’ve cracked people up I’m like, ‘Why was that funny? I was just, I was just speaking a truth of myself.’ And then you realise after, so we were able to approach it that way and just always make sure that these characters are true to who they are and the comedy arises from that.
GC: Once you made that decision you really did go all in, because one thing I wasn’t expecting in my review is to compare the game to a Robert Altman film.
GC: Because those characters do not ever shut up. That was a big risk though, making the game like that, so at what point were you confident it was working?
MD: I can’t say it was ever actually a conscious decision. It was more, the decision was made in the very beginning that we wanna hang out with these characters. And what does that mean when you hang out and why do we wanna hang out with them? We wanna hang out with them because they are really interesting, unpredictable characters and what is it gonna be like to be at the centre of that group? Trying to lead them and yet dealing with the unpredictability.
Once we made the decision that way it became, ‘Okay, well, let’s look at that in terms of gameplay. That means while you’re exploring they are with you and when people are with you, they’re going to keep talking.’ So at that point, I think the writing team was just like, ‘We just have to constantly be writing dialogue and hope it works.’
And you’re right. I think, as we were putting it into the game, certainly the first time for ourselves, when we played the Quarantine Zone and all the dialogue systems were going in and all of this was happening, there were people on the team who were like: ‘These guys never shut up. Is it gonna all be like this?’
MD: And I, myself, one of my reactions was like, ‘Oh my god, is it too much?’ And our game director, JF Dugas, was like, ‘Nope, that’s our game. They don’t shut up and we gotta trust in the work.’ And eventually it does work and it was magic that it was able to work.
And I think part of the reason it worked… I’m going to talk about my writing team for a moment. It was a big writing team, there was seven of us. Plus, we had a couple others on the side with, like, our testers and our people who are strictly narrative. And we would work like we had a writer’s room and we would read scripts together. We would constantly be working with each other. And that’s where I think the quality of the jokes came, because one person would have written an idea and then someone would say, ‘No, no, no, no, this!’
And then in the end, for many of us… at one point there was someone asking, ‘Who wrote this joke? Cuz when Lady Hellbender says this, it’s hysterical!’ And no one in the team knew whose joke it was. Because of the way we worked like that.
GC: Lady Hellbender was my favourite, I have to say. That bit at the end where she just screams their name into the the video phone or whatever it was. For some reason that cracked me up.
MD: What’s really great is Sarah Levesque was really wild about it. It was her first real mocap gig. She’s an established actor.
GC: Oh, she was mocapping as well, was she?
MD: Yeah, she was mocapping it and she’s like five foot two [laughs] and it was wild to see her. She loved it. She was just like, ‘Oh yes, I wanna be this character!’ And she just would be there and she’s five foot two, but she just had this presence on stage that she just totally fit.
GC: I think the one character for me that came closest to not working is Rocket. I really hated him for a lot of the game. He got an arc – as did all of the characters, which is very impressive – but it was a fairly sudden turn, right at the end. He’s closer to his movie version than most of the others but then the movie Rocket is also walking a tightrope between being funny and aggravating.
MD: Rocket is a tough one, cuz Rocket is one of the most wounded characters of all. And his way of dealing with it… he’s one of those types of people who all his insecurities are there but the way the insecurities come across is antagonistically and through defensive. And internally we all knew that the heart of Rocket is that he’s been abandoned, he’s been hurt so many times that it’s hard for him to form the friendships.
He’s actually, at the beginning, he’s formed a friendship with Peter. And in the very beginning he’s even saying, ‘You know, it was better before those other two joined us.’ And that’s all coming out of his insecurity. We knew that and then it was a matter of trying to allow that out, trying to pull back and make him not always coming off angry. And we knew it was a delicate balance and we knew… and there were many times, I think Alex, the actor, did a great job with him and there were many times where it’s like, ‘Okay, we gotta pull the anger back a little bit.’
So it’s definitely a difficult balance. And then you’re always, in terms of the character arc, when you’re writing a game like this, you’re often writing out of order. Or, let’s put it this way, for example: we wrote all the cinematics, we had a schedule for our cinematics and we had a schedule for the missions. And the cinematics had to be done early. So we wrote them relatively in order, but not with the missions.
So some of it was like, ‘Let’s hope we get this right!’ So you kind of had a sense that the arc has to be here, the arc has to be here, and then as you’re building it you’re trying to maintain that. So sometimes… I can understand why you might feel it’s like, ‘How did he suddenly switch so quickly?’ That’s part of the challenge of game writing, I think.
GC: In contrast, Star-Lord is very different from his movie incarnation. He’s less pathetic and more responsible, which also makes him less intrinsically funny. Were you worried that he would just come across as the boring straight man, which wouldn’t be what players were expecting?
MD: Yeah, we did have that concern. And what was interesting with Star-Lord is, I would say it’s two things. Number one, I will credit Jon McLaren, the actor. He auditioned relatively early and we had written a script and I think the script was Star-Lord trying to sell the team as an I idea to a client. And when we saw Jon’s audition, what was great about it is that he brought an innocence to the character that was underlying it.
We knew from his performance that he’s a guy who’s really well intentioned. He, at his heart, he’s genuine and he’s well intentioned. He’s just bumbling. He’s just screwing that up at times. And he’s growing into the role. In our story arc, we knew in the beginning he’s not very good as a leader, but he has to grow into it.
So that gave us the room to have the character grow. The second thing was, like I said, we had a lot of writers working on the project. We all had similar takes, but we were all slightly different. And my my role was to kind of mediate as all of the scripts were coming in and I had some writers who were writing him very much like the inept, bumbling idiot.
But I had other writers who were like, ‘This is the hero character! He can’t be inept all the time.’ And they were like making him, you know, American macho. And then it was like, ‘Okay guys, you gotta pull back a little on that American macho, you have to pull back a little on the inept…’ And it was blending it in that sense.
So I think it really was a combination of having a vision, and an understanding that this character is genuine, this character never got a chance to grow up. Now he’s going to be growing up, and seeing all the elements of the writers and Jon’s performance coming together to really help us create that character.
GC: One of the things that really surprised people was that the game is single-player, even though it’s about a team. Was there really no thought of having a multiplayer option, because there were those leaks about ex-team members implying that was the original idea.
MD: Well, in truth… I mean, in the very beginning, when we started, we weren’t sure what we would do. Okay. So when we’re considering everything, yes. We’re like, should we make it co-op? Should we make it, you play everybody? Should we make it single-player? And we did at one point think of a multiplayer, but the multiplayer wasn’t the kind of multiplayer you’re thinking of, we were actually gonna do something with spaceships and stuff like that.
GC: Oh, I like space combat sims.
MD: But very quickly, when we started to really look at it and when we realised we wanted to be able to hang out with the Guardians, it very quickly coalesced that the best way to do that is to play single-player and to be only one of the characters and you had to be Star-Lord, cuz he is at the centre. We made that decision relatively early on and, yes, it was controversial for a lot of people. Like, when we pitched it to Marvel everyone was like, ‘Really? You’re gonna do that?’
But we just stuck with it and it infused everything. It made the combat the way the combat is, because the Guardians are strong individuals, they can fight on their own, but you are the team leader and if you start using them tactically you gel as a team and you become better. So it kind of informed all our decisions and we never really seriously considered maybe we shouldn’t do this, once we made that decision.
GC: I think it’s about midway through the game where you get to that sequence, which I better not spoil, but where you realise that there is a serious point to the story. That all the 80s nostalgia isn’t being self-indulgent, it’s helping to make a point and… I’ve got to ask, how did you get Pac-Man in the game? Did you just have an infinite budget?
MD: [laugh] No, but when we decided that we wanted to set our Star-Lords’ youth in the eighties, largely because many of us grew up in that timeframe, we wanted the icons of that and we really wanted to go for it. And that’s what we tried to do. We got lucky on a lot of it, we didn’t get some of the stuff – I can’t remember which ones – but we didn’t get some of the stuff we were hoping for, but Pac-Man was one we got.
GC: But yeah, the themes of the game are basically coping with loss and learning to let go, which you do not expect going into the game. That was handled so well, it was the pivot point of the game, but was it intended almost as a sort of narrative gotcha moment?
MD: Well, it was always intended… it wasn’t a gotcha. They always say you should write what you know. And several years before the Guardians I actually lost both of my parents. I mean, they were old, I lost ’em both. So when we started working on this game and I’m like, ‘Oh s*** we gotta do comedy!’ And we started thinking about different things.
And as soon as we mentioned the idea of a galactic war in our preliminary thinking, and loss, I was like, ‘Yes, that’s it! I wanna tell a story of loss. I wanna tell a story of coping with loss.’ And so for me, I was always pushing the writers: ‘Guys, you gotta remember, we’re talking about loss here.’ And they’re like, ‘Yeah, but Mary we’re supposed to be funny!’
And I’m like, ‘Yeah, but you gotta push it and we gotta find that balance.’ So it wasn’t ever intended as a gotcha kind of thing. It was the story I wanted to tell. And thank god I had such a wonderful team, not just the writers and the cast, but everyone else who fully supported the creation – the artists, everybody – and we were able to kind of pull it together and make it something.
Because I do believe that the power of games is that. That’s the power of games, is the ability to explore those things and engage you in a more meaningful way than then just passively watching movies or things like that. And let’s start exploring those deeper topics in ways that appeal.
GC: I agree entirely. If a video game story ever has a point then it’s invariably that war is bad and people are awful, and that’s if you’re lucky.
GC: Subjects which dominate other media, like humour and romance, they’re almost unknown in video games. It was obviously a conscious decision not to have any romance between Peter and Gamora but that just meant there was none in the game at all.
MD: I mean… it was definitely a conscious decision with Gamora, because…
GC: Are they an item in the comics? I get the feeling that’s maybe something the films made up too.
MD: The films started it but Peter’s relationships in the comics, I think he was with Kitty Pryde from the X-Men at one point. And then Gamora was actually with Nova, Richard Rider. But in the early comics they were never a romance. And that was partly why I really wanted to make sure that we didn’t make a romance because I’m like, ‘Look, you’ve got the one woman on the team. Why, why do we have to have a romance?’
GC: I knew that would be your reason. And I can absolutely see your point but while that may be a cliché in movies and TV it’s certainly not in games. In games the default is to never have any romance with anyone, which I think is unfortunate.
MD: Had there been more women on the team, maybe there could have been romances, but she’s the only one so I was very much like, ‘No, let’s try not to push that romance. I think what we also do is try and let the player… if the player wants there to be romance maybe they can believe there is one and they can look for it. But we don’t need to actively show it.
GC: I’m sure there’s lots of that on DeviantArt.
MD: [laughs] Yeah. And with the other characters… I mean, it would’ve been nice. Like I think the one that we had the most fun with was Mantis, who apparently in different realities had romances with almost all of them. But they were secondary characters and you’re focusing on the heart of the story of the core team. So it’s hard to create a romance with someone else. Although Peter and Ko-Rel had a very strong bond and romance. And that was another reason we didn’t want Peter and Gamora, because it’s Peter and Ko-Rel in our story.
GC: One of my favourite bits was when you find out about Gamora’s doll collection. But since she didn’t have Neblua or Thanos to bounce off of, or even really talk about, it just seemed there was something missing from her character. Do you regret anything about how you handled that side of things?
MD: Well, before I answer, I’m gonna have to ask you how many Guardian collectibles did you find and did you engage in the conversations? Because Thanos and Nebula play a major role in many of the conversations that she has with Peter, if you find collectable objects for her and then you go into the Milano and you interact with them in her room, she’ll come in and talk to you and she’ll tell you her backstory.
The dolls are a huge part of it because, yes she’s embarrassed about the dolls, but then later on you discover why she collects the dolls and it’s all tied to Nebula and the loss of Nebula.
GC: I remember coming into a room and she had them all out on the floor and she was embarrassed, which I certainly can sympathise with.
GC: But I don’t remember it again after that, so maybe I missed some collectibles.
GC: But this brings us to the obvious question of a sequel, because it felt that a lot of the references to Thanos were maybe setting up a second game. But I’m imagining you can’t talk about that?
MD: I’m gonna be totally mysterious on that one and not answer you.
GC: I’m shocked! Except, usually when I ask a dev that question I already have a good idea of what’s really going on, of what the chances of a sequel are, but in this case I really couldn’t guess at all. The game might not have had a great start, but it does seem to have had a large peak of interest after the fact.
MD: It has. It has, definitely. I mean that’s been an exciting thing to watch too, is to watch how people are discovering the game, how they’re spreading the word of mouth to other people. Because we created a game that we want people to love and to hear them love it enough that they’re actually generating other people’s interest in it. It’s been a wonderful experience. It’s been absolutely wonderful.
GC: Licence or not, having a big budget, mainstream game being so unpredictable and ambitious… it’s very rare. And I’d hate for Square Enix, or other publishers, to feel that Guardians was a risk that didn’t work out.
MD: All I can say is when I work on games all of my focus is on that game. I mean, one of the first games I did with Square Enix was Deus Ex: Human Revolution. And we wrote that game self-contained. You can’t think about, is there gonna be a sequel? If you’re thinking about is there gonna be a sequel you’re not focusing on your project. So for us on Guardians, we gave it our heart and soul and we focused on it entirely. And then we needed a long vacation.
[At this point we’re told we’re on our last question.]
GC: Oh, okay, well I’ll just ask my silly final question first, to get it out of the way. The only thing that I was genuinely annoyed at in the game is that Fing Fang Foom didn’t seem to be intelligent. And where were his boxer shorts?
MD: [laughs] I know. Well, um…
GC: That was actually really good writing because when Drax starts to get all excited about it, and you realise that the game really is going to go there, you really feel in synch with the energy of the crew. I just wish you had left some of the sillier elements in.
MD: To be honest, I don’t think when we were… me personally, we knew he was gonna be a boss battle and the concept art for him as the dragon was so impressive that I think I just, even though I know Fing Fang Foom can speak, I think we just didn’t think about it. We did throw in the joke with Rocket where he’s like, ‘Yeah, I heard he wears purple shorts.’ You know, that was fun. That was a fun, little joke to do it, but we kind of embraced the whole dragon identity and worked out it from there.
GC: So just to finish, there must’ve been a point at which you realised the game was working, that your risk had paid off. So how did you feel when you realised that buzz wasn’t there at launch? I imagine it’s been quite the roller-coaster of emotions for you, this last six months.
MD: I think for me, I tend to try and block out a lot of the stuff that’s out of my control. Okay? Marketing, all that stuff is outta my control. I can focus on the game. And the one thing we did do throughout the course of the game is we did do focus group testing with it. And so I always knew the results of the player tests, even though certain things were rough and certain things weren’t happening and people were not understanding some of the combat and everything. But the one thing that kept coming through is that they loved the story and they loved the experience and the more they kept playing it, the more they wanted to finish it.
So I was able to hold onto that and hold onto the fact that we’re making this game for players. And if they can get their hands on it, they’re gonna enjoy it. And I know they’re gonna enjoy cuz I’ve seen it. And so, for me, I’m able to kind of look at it, not from, ‘Oh god, I wish that it had better…’ I look at it from, ‘See they’re getting it and they’re playing it and we’re getting the recognition for it’, which is great.
GC: You can’t talk about a sequel, but can you at least confirm that the team behind this game are going to stay together?
MD: Yes. I mean, you can never tell, people might get offers from other companies and want not, but the core team who made this is the core team who did the Deus Ex games and we love working with each other. We have a creative synergy that really works.
We know each other. I mean, after 15 years of working together, yes, It’s like a 15 year marriage but we recognise that it’s very rare to find that synergy. So yeah, we wanna stay together. Definitely.
GC: Great. Okay, well thanks very much for you time.
MD: Not at all, great to talk to you.
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