Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy is funny. A fun game! There aren’t many of them – not really. Gaming is known to try a bit too much when it comes to comedy; A quick look at Duke Nukem, the latter Borderlands titles, and even the Activision-powered Deadpool game proves that. The games that really manage to make players grin are usually full of satire, mocking other games and making themselves out poking fun at archaic formulas in mechanics and storytelling (watch it here, Conker).
So what does it take to make a game – and an action game at that – really fun? Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy was released in 2021 and was quickly acclaimed for its outstanding writing. Our very own Alex Donaldson even said it was one of the best written games of the year in the headline for his review. You couldn’t avoid the quality of the writing in Eidos Montreal’s Marvel debut even if you tried; it was right at the heart of the experience. How did Senior Narrative Director Mary DeMarle and her team pull this off? Well, first off, they came in with no comedy experience.
“When we first got the project, I thought it was a bit difficult to recalibrate our mentality,” says DeMarle. “For me, it was especially like, ‘Oh, you want me to write comedy?!’ That’s really scary to me. I have a sense of humor, but my sense of humor tends to be a bit darker… and if you look at something like Guardians of the Galaxy — where it’s very light-hearted — I was like, ‘Oh my God’.”
DeMarle tells me that she often complained to creative director Jean-Francois Dugas about the comedic aspect. She tells me that she has complained to a lot of people about it. “Knowing when you’re working on a game that it’s a long process and you keep hearing these jokes… and you often get into the situation where it was funny the first time but not the 15th time. I was very intimidated by that.”
So she set about building a team; a crack team of writers all sitting in a writers room, bouncing off each other. From what DeMarle has said, it sounds like the Guardian of the Galaxy writing sessions worked in a similar way to how one listens to classic comedy show sessions. This could easily have been The Simpsons or Fraiser in its configuration.
“When the comedy comes from the characters, it’s like you’re not trying to quip—you’re just trying to be totally true to those characters, and that’s where the comedy comes from,” explains DeMarle. “And when we saw that, we saw the strength of the team — where one person cracked a joke and someone else said, ‘No, no, no, that!’ – everything is built on that.”
DeMarle explains that it was amazing for her to see how the writers lost track of who was making a joke as it was developed, passed around and made funnier by the collective. “They said, ‘Wasn’t that your joke?’ And then ‘No, that’s how it was yours!’. At one point, I actually had to look at our file system and say, “No, no, it was you [Ethan Petty], you wrote this line!’ and he says, ‘Oh, did I?’ [laughter]“.
DeMarle goes on to explain that one of the most important lessons she’s learned after 20 years in the industry is how to work together properly. For her, collaboration is key to making sure everything comes together as planned, leading a team of writers, filtering their posts, and making sure everything works when it’s consistent.
“When it first started on this project, I wanted to make sure we did script reading,” she explains. “One of the things about Eidos is that at 4:30 on a Friday they open the beer fridge and everyone can chill. And I said, ‘Okay, we’re going to call a meeting at 4:30 and book it for about two hours, and we’re all going to sit in a room with our beers and we’re going to read the script.’ But the crucial part is that once you’ve written the script, you can’t read it — you have to sit and listen to your part being read. And what was really great about it – with the beers and all and handling funny scripts – is that it created such a chilled atmosphere and really broke down the barriers in the room. It really made everyone trust each other.”
As it turns out, that trust is pretty important when dealing with a game like Guardians of the Galaxy. Sure, on the surface it’s about a bunch of misfit space pirates embarking on a space rock opera in the cosmos, battling sci-fi villains and saving the universe… but underneath it’s a game with a surprisingly dark edge . The narrative is hammered around the central pillars of trauma, grief, loss (there’s that dark side that DeMarle rears his head on), and the constant contrast between a chosen family and a family of abusers, a slain family, or a stolen family these key points really home.
“Writing, like all creative processes, can make you very vulnerable, and often you don’t want to share things or want people to see what you’ve created,” DeMarle continues. “But we learned very quickly that sharing with the group makes them stronger. And when we found that out, it all started from there; it really made everyone trust each other. We did these script readings and everyone took a character and when we started voice work the actors would come in to record stuff too – and if they were on a Friday we would invite them into the room and then they would come in and read actually prepared the parts of those first scripts for us. With a beer.”
That vulnerability and cooperative spirit led the team to the Guardians secret: that the comedy for this game would not come from constant, incessant quips and one-liners, but from the characters themselves – from their position in the world, from how they see things and how they treat each other.
“In real life itself, I’ve been in situations where I’ve just said things out of my truth and everyone starts laughing… And I was like, ‘What? Why was that funny?’ And that is because what is serious to me is very funny to someone else and their lived experience. So it’s those characters who are so true to who they are and the mix between them that makes it so fun.”
This mix of comedy and tragedy is important to DeMarle. In fact, I think that’s what makes Guardians of the Galaxy so fun; For every genuine moment of laughter, an emotional (probably raccoon-sized) belly punch is waiting just around the corner. And by contrast, just when you think the game has languished in melancholy for too long, Groot lets you do something silly, adorable (or both) to cheer you up.
“I like dealing with strong emotions,” says DeMarle – who also worked on Deus Ex: Human Revolution and Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, for what that’s worth. “I like to get into the truth of an emotion and the truth of a thing and be vulnerable. I like to see that in movies I watch, I like to see that in reading books, I like it in everything. I personally think some of the best things I’ve seen are the stories where they make you laugh and then, boom, they suddenly undercut it. And you’re like ‘oh wow’ Or there’s the opposite where you’re like in that intense scene and you’re like, ‘Oh my God! I start to cry’ and then – bam – the comedy helps you let it out. The interaction between the two is very important.”
Perhaps that’s why Guardians of the Galaxy has been such a hit – why it’s an absolute fan favorite for its humor and a favorite of the awards scene for its narrative in general. Maybe that’s why I’ve recommended it to all my non-gaming friends as something to play with if they fancy a Hollywood-grade production, full of the ups and downs you’d expect from one of the better Marvel films. Maybe that’s why this game will remain a classic in the minds of players for a long time to come and will also work outside of its Marvel licensing.
With Guardians of the Galaxy, DeMarle and the team at Eidos Montreal not only made a decent licensed game – once an unthinkable feat in itself – they managed to create a master class in comedy writing; something we can all learn valuable lessons from, both in games and in narrative media beyond.
https://www.vg247.com/how-to-write-a-funny-game-guardians-of-the-galaxy The secret to writing a really fun game like Guardians of the Galaxy? Vulnerability, tragedy and free beer