Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy is funny. A funny game! There aren’t that many of those – not really. Gaming famously tries a bit too hard when it comes to comedy; a quick look at Duke Nukem, the latter Borderlands titles, and even that Activision-backed Deadpool game prove that. The games that do genuinely manage to raise a smirk from players are usually steeped in satire, mocking other games and poking fun at archaic formulae in mechanics and storytelling alike (here’s looking at you, Conker).
So what does it take to make a game – and an action game, at that – actually funny? Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy launched in 2021, and quickly became celebrated for its stellar writing. Our 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 core of the experience. So how did senior narrative director, Mary DeMarle, and her team pull it off? Well, first of all, they came in without any comedy experience.
“When we first got the project I think there was a bit of a struggle of readjusting our mentality,” DeMarle tells me. “For me, it was especially like ‘oh, you want me to write comedy?!’ That's really scary to me. I do have a sense of humour, but my sense of humour tends to be a little more dark… and when you're looking at something like Guardians of the Galaxy – where it's very light-hearted – I was just like ‘oh my god’.”
DeMarle tells me she complained to creative director Jean-Francois Dugas about the comedy aspect of it a lot. She tells me she complained to many people about it a lot. “Knowing, when you're working on a game, that it's a long process and you're gonna be hearing these jokes again and again… and you often get into the situation where it was funny the first time you heard it, but not the 15th time. I was very intimidated by it.”
So she got to work building a team; a crack team of writers that would all sit in a writers’ room and bounce off each other. From what DeMarle was saying, it sounds like the Guardian of the Galaxy writing sessions worked much in the same way you hear classic comedy show sessions working; this could have easily have been The Simpsons or Fraiser in its setup.
“When the comedy comes from the characters, it's like you're not trying to make wisecracks – you’re just trying to be completely true to who these characters are, and the comedy comes from that,” DeMarle explains. “And once we realised that, and we realised the strength of the team – where one person would throw at a joke and then someone else would be like ‘no, no, no this!’ – it all builds from there.”
DeMarle explains that it was amazing for her to watch how the writers no longer knew who’s joke something was as it was developed, passed around, and made funnier by the collective. “They were like ‘wasn't that your joke?’ And then ‘No, way it was yours!’. At one point, I actually had to look into our file system and say ‘no, no it was you [Ethan Petty], you wrote that line!’ and he's like ‘oh, I did?’ [laughter]”.
DeMarle goes on to explain that, after 20 years in the industry, one of the most important lessons she’s learned is about collaborating properly. For her, managing a team of writers and filtering through their submissions and making sure it all works when it’s unified, collaboration is the key to making sure everything comes together as planned.
“On this project, when it started, I wanted to make sure that we did script reads,” she explains. “So, one of the things at Eidos is that at 4.30pm on a Friday, they open up the beer fridge, and everyone can relax. And I said ‘okay, we're gonna call a meeting at 4:30pm and book it for like two hours, and we are all gonna sit in a room together with our beer, and we're gonna read the script’. But the key part is that if you wrote the script, you cannot read it – you have to sit there and listen to your part being read out. And what was really great about that is – with the beers and everything and dealing with funny scripts – is that it created such a relaxed atmosphere and really broke down the barriers in the room. It really got everyone to trust each other.”
That trust, it turns out, is pretty important when you’re dealing with a game like Guardians of the Galaxy. Sure, on the surface it’s about a misfit bunch of space pirates embarking on a space rock opera around the cosmos, fighting sci-fi baddies and saving the universe… but underneath that, it’s a game with a surprisingly dark edge. The narrative is built around central pillars of trauma, grief, loss (there’s that dark side DeMarle was on about rearing its head), and the constant contrast of chosen family versus a family of abusers, a family killed, or a family stolen from you really hammers those key points home.
“Writing – like all creative processes – can make you very vulnerable, and a lot of times you don’t want to share things or want people to see what you’ve created,” continues DeMarle. “But we very quickly learned that sharing with the group makes it stronger. And when we figured that out, everything took off from there; it really got everyone to trust each other. We’d do these script reads and everyone would take a character, and then as we started doing the voice work, the actors began coming into 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 they would they would actually read the parts for us on these first scripts. With a beer.”
This vulnerability and collaborative spirit lead the team to the Guardians’ secret: that , for this game, comedy wouldn’t come from constant, incessant wisecracks and one-liners, but instead from the characters themselves – from their position in the world, the way they see things, and the way that they interact with each other.
“In real life itself, I've been in situations where I've said things just from my truth and everybody starts laughing… And I'm like, ‘what? Why was that funny?’ And it’s because what’s serious to me is very funny to someone else, and their lived experience. So it’s these characters being true to how they are and the mix between them that blows this whole thing into being so funny.”
That comedy/tragedy mix is important to DeMarle. In fact, I think it’s what makes Guardians of the Galaxy quite so funny; for every genuine laugh-out-loud moment, there’s an emotional (probably raccoon-sized) gut-punch waiting right around the corner. And, by contrast, just when you think the game has spent too long wallowing in melancholia, you’ve got Groot doing something stupid, adorable (or both) to cheer you up.
“I like dealing with heavy emotions,” says DeMarle – who also worked on both Deus Ex: Human Revolution and Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, for what it’s worth. “I like getting into the truth of an emotion, and into the truth of the thing, and being vulnerable. I like seeing that in films that I watch, I like seeing it in reading books, I like it in everything. I personally think some of the best things that I have seen are the stories where they get you laughing and then, boom, they suddenly undercut it. And you're like ‘oh, wow’. Or there’s the reverse where you're like in this heavy scene and you're like ‘oh my god! I'm gonna start crying’ and then – bam – the comedy helps you let it out. The interplay of the two is very important.”
Maybe that’s why Guardians of the Galaxy has been such a success – why it’s a firm fan-favourite for its humour, and a darling of the awards scene for its narrative at large. Maybe that’s why I’ve been recommending it to all my non-gaming friends as something to play if they fancy a Hollywood-level production, full of all the ups and downs you’d expect from one of the better Marvel cinematic efforts. Maybe that’s why this game is going to stick around in the minds of players as a classic, for a long time to come, and would work even outside of its Marvel licensing.
With Guardians of the Galaxy, DeMarle and the team at Eidos Montreal didn’t just make a decent licensed game – an unthinkable feat in and of itself, once upon a time – they managed to create a masterclass in comedy writing; something we can all learn valuable lessons from, both in games and in narrative mediums beyond them.