The following contains incredibly mild spoilers for Square Enix's Guardians of the Galaxy.
Let's start by laying cards on the table: Guardians of the Galaxy is a good game. It's nothing groundbreaking, but it's charming and inoffensive and endearing, with a beating heart at its core and some clever ideas to back it up. After all, it's hard not to like a game where you're a member of the Guardians of the Galaxy! The sly underdogs of the spaceways, the hardworking heroes surviving paycheck-to-paycheck and keeping the cosmos safe one day at a time!
At least, that's the idea in theory. The Guardians of the Galaxy game… sort of meets that idea. It's a pretty linear experience that starts with the whole scrappy smuggler shtick, then elevates naturally into bigger, galactic-scale events as the Guardians obliviously stumble into something and have to help clear this mess up.
Small events leading to big events is the natural progression of most stories, and I have no problem with the latter as it's presented here. What sticks with me is the lack of the former, the working-Joe aspect that seems to me like the most interesting part of the Guardians, as it is in so many games, and it brought me to a realisation: more video games need to embrace the idea of work.
Working hard or hardly working?
Let me clarify straight away, I don't mean proper work. Dealing with horrible customers, chopping baskets of vegetables, and scrubbing toilets are all experiences I'm very happy to keep out of my escapist fiction. Likewise, something like Doom Eternal probably wouldn't be improved by seeing the Slayer do his tax returns. And I definitely don't mean grinding – God knows we have plenty enough of that already.
No, what I mean is that there's a lot of games that miss a trick by immediately accelerating to large-scale events, and don't realise that sometimes a unique setting, character, or world can be interesting enough to make their day-to-day life worth exploring. Take, for example, Remedy's cosmic creepfest Control. Despite being the official Director of the FBC, I was rather disappointed that you never actually do any directing, and that we never get a chance to run the Bureau properly – managing its various teams, responding to crises, hiding evidence, and setting up containment prisons for feral fridges. It's an intriguing enough idea on its own that not including it rather feels like a missed opportunity.
No rest for the wicked
Work needn't be a bad thing to put in video games, if it's something fun and unique. The best parts of The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt were always the standard Witcher contracts, pulling wanted posters for jabberwockies off the bulletin board, and trekking into the woods with three feet of silver in one hand and a local guidebook in the other. XCOM 2 has you fiddle with power generators and research budgets between alien killing sprees. And Metal Gear Solid 5 made a whole system about kidnapping hired goons and watching them get dragged screaming into the sky, all so you can put them to work on the world's most over-budgeted oil rig. It was a vast improvement and elevated what otherwise might've been another passable sandbox action game.
The key here is emphasising what it is that makes a game unique and your characters interesting. Guardians of the Galaxy is at its most memorable when you're crawling over pink slime and spaceship debris looking for rare monsters, trying to cuddle up to colourful crime lords in full Warhammer cosplay, or drunkenly singing karaoke in a dive bar with Skrulls on one side and Russian dogs on the other.
Later on, when the whole universe is at stake, the whole thing eventually slides into becoming a Mass Effect game with more soul – not bad, but a lot less memorable as an experience. In fact, the best idea in the game is early on when Star-Lord and his band are given three days to pay a police fine or risk having their spaceship impounded. That is a really solid hook for a spacefaring business sim.
Insufficiently organised crime
I found myself dreaming of a Guardians of the Galaxy game that takes this to heart, one where the actual mechanics of running this team as a business ties into all the other elements and elevates them all as a result. The Guardians of the Galaxy are superheroes, yes, but they're also bounty hunters, assassins, smugglers, scavengers, thieves, mercenaries, bodyguards, pilots, black marketeers, investigators, con artists, explorers, and general ne'er do wells to boot.
Developer Eidos Montreal nailed the hero part of the package and it did it well, but a potential sequel would be vastly enhanced by embracing all these other parts. The ability to travel freely, balance finances, invest in your team, take on side jobs, and even occasionally break into somewhere if the security doesn't seem too resilient wouldn't just be distractions – it'd be adding to the integral core of what makes the Guardians of the Galaxy… well, themselves.
Oh, also, please give me proper ship flying, not just little arcade moments, please. Honestly, if I can planet hop in the Milano, all the rest of this can wait. Too few sci-fi games let you actually fly the spaceships in them, and it's outrageous.
Looking for more material on Marvel's beloved team of spacefaring heroes? Check out the best Guardians of the Galaxy comic book stories of all time.