Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy from Eidos Montreal is one of the most exciting triple-A games I've played this year. It doesn't have the deep design nerdery of Deathloop or the grand ambition of Halo Infinite, but it towers above the competition when it comes to visual spectacle and grand-slam character moments.
Gushing about the game's beautiful cosmic vibes would literally just be a slideshow of all the screenshots I took playing the game, but none of those beautiful moments would have had any meaning if the story hadn't been such a success. Even though it's a big universe-saving adventure, this game manages to merge the found-family themes of the Guardians of the Galaxy films with new ideas about parental protectiveness we usually see in games like The Last of Us or The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt.
But to talk about all that with honesty and sincerity, we need to discuss spoilers from Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy. So if you haven't finished the game yet, or are otherwise a spoilerphobe, here is your last chance to dodge those.
Last warning! It's all spoilers ahead. Get off now if that ain't your thing.
The game's best character (who is only in about 20 percent of the game)
When we're talking about the "dad" vibes of Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy, we're talking about the player's relationship to 12-year-old Nikki Gold. She's been a mainstay of the Guardians of the Galaxy comics since 1976, but hasn't made an appearance in Marvel's mainstream films.
Nikki is introduced in Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy as a precocious Nova Corps. cadet from the Kree species who claims she's been assigned to escort you and the rest of the titular guardians to the brig. Player character Peter Quill (alias: Star-Lord) quickly clocks that she's the daughter of L'Rell, his alien ex-flame who's arrested him and his crew.
Before the player has even had a chance to speak with L'Rell, they've spent almost an hour palling around with Nikki thanks to an explosion that sends the pair into the bowels of the ship. It's one of the few moments in the game where the player is separate from their team, and it's time well spent introducing us to this compelling and exceptionally earnest teenager.
After reuniting with L'Rell, players are given the opportunity to do a little math. The last time Star-Lord saw L'Rell was about 12 years prior--when they had a romantic tryst in the middle of an intergalactic war against mass murderer Thanos. True to Quill's character, players are given the chance to "ignore the math," temporarily, only for it to become extremely relevant several missions later, when they're forced to confront the notion that Nikki might be his daughter.
Nikki seems to believe it too, as it's the foundation of a "perfect day" dream sequence we see later where she wants Quill to help her throw a birthday party for L'Rell.
For a long time, that's the status quo the game operates on. But because L'Rell has since been killed by a parasitic alien being that is now using her power to start an intergalactic cult promising to fulfill everyone's wants and needs (long story), no one ever confirms this fact to him. What starts out as a mercenary quest to pay a Nova Corps. fine turns into a long-shot mission to not just save the galaxy, but also someone Quill has a new reason to care about.
But Nikki's story (blessedly) isn't just about Quill. Gamora and Drax, two other members of the Guardians, get wrapped up in their own feelings about the girl because of their own traumatic family history. Gamora is the adoptive daughter of mass-murderer Thanos and has very intense feelings about being abandoned and traumatized by an adopted father. Thanos killed Drax's family, and he very nearly gives into the alien parasite under the illusion that it can bring them back to life.
As both of them comes to grips with their trauma, it reinforces their desire to free Nikki from the alien's grasp (Rocket Raccoon and Groot, the team's other two team members, are on board with the plan but have their own trauma to deal with).
Quill has his own deadbeat dad and dead mom issues (the game follows a different-but-similar arc to the films where Peter's spacefaring father abandoned his family as a child, and his Mom dies right before he's yanked into a huge space adventure), but luckily those aren't front and center in his relationship with Nikki.
In order to get through the game's mid-point he has to set aside that angst fairly early on and stare hard at the fact that he's lost his parents and can never get them back.
The game doesn't just make Nikki and Quill's relationship this thing that only matters to Quill, and his own feelings about it aren't cast as some grand treatise on fatherhood. In the brief time you get with Nikki early in the game, you get the sense that she's this bright, creative person figuring out who she wants to be, and it feels so unfair that a parasitic cult literally harvesting the Universe's faith is using her as a prop to bend the universe to its own ends.
Nikki is offscreen for much of the game but she's never reduced to just being a prop for Quill. In fact for where this arc eventually heads, it's much better that she's not constantly by your side. Players aren't being tasked with "protecting" Nikki--she's not being picked up and carried away like Ashley in Resident Evil 4, and she's not providing covering fire like Ellie in The Last of Us.
For a game that starts to seem pretty "dadified" around this point, it manages to dodge all of the kinda-cynical tropes that have hit the game industry for the last decade. Let's take a detour to talk about those for a moment.
"The Dadification of games" is a term that began showing up in games criticism around 2013 with the release of The Last of Us. It's not just a phrase about the sudden trend of Dads-as-game-heroes, it's also a discussion about how an aging (predominantly male) game development workforce making more serious have games found inspiration in relationships with their own children (and maybe their own parents too).
There's tension in that notion, because on the one hand stories about fathers struggling to protect daughters (and it is mostly daughters, God of War notwithstanding) has emotional resonance, it also all frankly smacks of gender. Even when done well, there are these uncomfortable ideas hanging over different game stories about notions of ideal fatherhood, suppressing character traits like vulnerability or emotional strength, and imparting lessons of literal violence in order to form connections.
It's also been a glaring issue that few of these games have ever featured relevant maternal characters (or at worst, continued to kill off various mothers as traumatic emotional shorthands. Guardians of the Galaxy is definitely guilty of that trope, even if it's doing its best by a story point solidified by the comics and popular culture).
When done poorly, Dad-centered stories in games can be isolating and self-centered, mostly asking both how other people expressly impact the player character's emotions, and refusing to consider how selfish, paternalistic attitudes might impact the rest of the world.
Critic Mattie Brice's 2013 piece identifying the tensions at play in "dadification" neatly sums up how isolating this worldview can be. "Basically, our audience and developers are getting older, but are still not observant of how they make all other types of people serve them for their character growth," she wrote.
"For some reason, we think making people assholes who might change to be nice one day morally complicated."
When "dadified" games do well, they can help players explore real relationships with family members and be honest about the hurt their family may have inflicted on them. Or it can help them explore anxieties they have about inflicting that pain on future generations. At worst, they can come off feeling like those weird T-shirts that make you realize your next-door neighbor fantasizes a lot about literal murder.
Guardians of the Galaxy thankfully, blessedly, is one of the former games. And there's one big twist that helps it stick the landing:
Seriously it's a big twist here's your last chance to get out before I ruin the game for you
Nikki isn't Peter Quill's daughter.
All the jokes about "doing the math," the visions of familial perfection, and projection from Gamora and Drax fall away when L'Rell's ghost (don't ask) tells Peter the truth about Nikki's heritage. She's not his daughter. She's not even her daughter. She's a war orphan who was in danger of being slaughtered by the eugenic fanaticism of the Kree overseers. She isn't fully Kree, but Quill isn't the source of her non-Kree heritage.
(TLDR: A sub-conflict introduced via dialogue and chat logs explains that the Kree are obsessed with maintaining the purity of their species' bloodlines. Inter-species breeding is forbidden, I did Nazi that coming, etc. etc. etc.)
L'Rell adopted Nikki and made her a junior Nova Corps. cadet to make it easier to hide her from Kree authorities. She never told Nikki about her heritage, leaving her to fill in the gaps and make the same assumptions Quill did about her parents.
It's an 11th-hour twist that throws everything players know about Quill, L'Rell, and Nikki all on its head. It's an echo of the war with Thanos from the game's backstory that has left trauma on every single character. It's just as difficult a moment for Quill too, who still feels protective towards Nikki and has reasons for wanting to rescue her beyond saving the universe.
A shittier version of Quill (and a way worse game) would have had this be a moment that leads Quill to care about Nikki less. They aren't linked by blood, and they don't know each other. So why should he give a "flark" about what happens to her?
Oh, right, of course he should care. He spent the whole game connecting with his teammates and helping them through their traumas, even while razzing them and getting into fights the entire time. Quill's life is all about found family, and actively choosing who you care about and who you bring into your inner circle.
Quill doesn't hesitate. He does what he needs to do to save Nikki, and after she's free of the parasite's grasp, she's able to join the Guardians as their newest member. A post-credits stinger shows that she still calls him "dad" every now and then just to throw him off balance.
Nikki isn't a paternalistic product in need of protection. She's her own person who can form her own relationships with L'Rell and Peter, and even though it's a final-hour reveal, the game makes clear that she's no less valuable just because there aren't blood ties at play.
The vibes of "dadification" do hang over the whole game (a lot of dialogue makes this game feel like you're drifting towards another The Last of Us), but this last-minute serve brings the game to something better.
Who needs a "flarking" family anyway?
A cynical mind might look at this twist and wonder if it's just writing that's a slave to surprise reveals. Ever since Darth Vader told Luke Skywalker who his father was in 1980, surprise family reveals (or anti-reveals) have been a fixture in pop culture. I could write a different essay about where Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker took this far, far for the worse, but we don't have time for that so I'll shorthand it by saying that "surprise for surprise's sake definitely feels cheap."
But by the time this reveal's rolled out, Peter Quill has helped Rocket Raccoon find coping mechanisms for his torture-driven Trauma. He's talked down Gamora and Drax from really dark spots driven by memories of their deceased family members, and if the player's made the correct choices, he's convinced reluctant allies like The Worldmind and talking space dog Cosmo into rejecting their fear and anger and joining the fight to save the galaxy.
Of course he'd accept Nikki. She's another misfit the galaxy spat out and isolated--and now that he can hear out her pain, he can help her find a path forward.
Eidos Montreal's decision to make all of these choices interactive--and leaving some possibility for failure--brings players into the process of talking through these different colorful characters about their anxiety and pain. The best narrative outcomes emerge when players pay attention to what other characters are saying, and respond to their trauma by treating it with validity.
That means Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy isn't just a game about "family," it's a game about paying attention to other people. About centering their needs and putting your own feelings and hurt above the greater good. It's got a sharp eye clearly trained on anyone who promises you it can make your life better if you just do "one weird trick," and it's cynical as hell about the idea that pure, traditional families are what people should be striving for.
The Guardians of the Galaxy and their allies are outsiders and rejects. That's not just a cool backstory thing, that is a literal act dropped upon them by the universe, each of them having been abandoned or had their lives torn apart by violent, self-interested forces.
Each of them should be dead a thousand times over, and they are still here, spitting blood and thunder, caring for each other and coping with pain from the past. As someone who's been through a fairly similar wringer (less cosmic though, disappointingly), these people and their stories feel real and meaningful.
Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy is an authentic triumph for the outcasts, told with big-budget style and substance. And in a breath of fresh air, it does well by the "dad tropes" I thought I was tired of.