Everywhere you go in AAA gaming lately, there are dads. They’re making the games, they’re having those games be about their fears and hopes—from God of War to The Last of Us, from Hades to Resident Evil Village, the complex emotional tribulations of fatherhood and father figures are omnipresent. Not even the Guardians of the Galaxy can escape this trend, but their latest game offers some interesting jukes and jives in its own examination of it.
To say that Guardians of the Galaxy is a story of families is not exactly original these days—especially not in the long shadow of James Gunn’s work with the characters in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. His take has shaped and influenced every iteration of the team we’ve seen in the comics, cartoons, and now—in Eidos Montreal’s Guardians of the Galaxy, released late last month—video games as well. The ‘80s-retro soundtrack, the down-and-dirty punk-rock sci-fi aesthetic, the general premise of a gang of sarcastic lone wolf assholes coming together to find a sense of kinship as they save the day, much of the DNA that suffused Gunn’s Guardians movies can be found in this game. But unlike the recent Avengers video game, which had to turn to an unlikely new star to distract from the fact that its assembled heroes felt like their movie counterparts with the numbers filed off, Guardians gives its entire core unit—Star-Lord, Rocket, Drax, Gamora, and Groot—a unique identity linked by this ephemeral video game trend in the “Dad Game” trope.
Some of this is just because this idea is baked into the Guardians and their backstories in the source material. Gamora naturally has a long, frosty relationship with her adoptive father, the Mad Titan Thanos. The game’s Drax, much like the comics and movies, is still haunted by the death of his wife and child at the villain’s hands. Rocket and Groot have a kind of sibling vibe that, when the duo clashes with the group (mostly Rocket, being the one who can actually constantly express his abrasive, often mean-spirited musings, in an understandable language), it feels like two kids biting their thumb at the actual adults in the room. Then, of course, there’s Peter Quill himself, who is a walking wound of parental grief. On his father’s side here, like the comics, he is a child of the King of Spartax who abandoned him long ago with his mother Meredith. She is also a tragic figure in this Quill’s life, as she’s killed on his 13th birthday by a Chitauri raiding squad, part of a larger intergalactic war between the Kree and the alien race that forms the past backstory of Guardians’ galaxy at large coming into the game.
But Dad Games and Daddy Issues games, while overlapping in content, aren’t quite the same thing—the latter is more about issues with our own parents, rather than the question of whether or not our heroes, or we ourselves, are ready to become parents in turn. Where Guardians plays with the former concept, then, is in introducing an intriguing new wrinkle in the form of a young Kree girl named Nikki (a loose approximation of Nicolette Gold from the comics). Early on in Guardians, the team draws the ire of the Nova Corps for illegally trespassing in a quarantined sector of space, filled with relics from the old Chitauri/Kree war.
Peter in particular draws the ire of the Centurion leading their arrest, Ko-rel, who it turns out—in true Star-Lord fashion—is actually a former lover. The two fought together and fell for each other 12 years prior in the war. Which complicates things further when, as he attempts to negotiate down the Guardian’s very high fine with the Nova Corps, Peter crosses paths with Nikki, Ko-rel’s daughter... who is roughly 12 years old. Multiple times after his first encounters with Nikki, Peter, and the player themselves, are invited to “Do the Math” in Guardians’ limited dialogue choice mechanics. Even then, the choice isn’t much of one at all: Peter can embrace that Nikki is absolutely his child, or deny it and then essentially be told by all of his friends that Nikki is absolutely his child.
But as quickly as Peter is asked to reckon with the reality that he has been, unintentionally, an absent father, Guardians throws another curveball at its protagonist by asking him if he’s ready to become a singular parent to his “new” daughter. Shortly after the Guardians race off to try and take on a mission to get the credits and pay off their Nova fine, they return to Ko-rel’s cruiser to find chaos left in their wake. A strange being that was unintentionally unleashed by a small gemstone Peter and Rocket found in the quarantine zone kills Ko-rel in front of Nikki. In her grief, she’s shaped by the Universal Church of Truth’s Grand Unifier, Raker, into becoming the religious cult’s new Matriarch: a vessel who manipulates the faith energy of brainwashed converts, lured to “The Promise,” a faux-reality claiming to offer the return of dead loved ones. Guardians then quickly becomes both a race to save the galaxy from being brainwashed into Raker’s cult, and a race for Peter to save his newfound daughter and help her confront her grief over Ko-rel’s death.
So far, so Dad Game. But while Guardians does make Peter consider his fears of having become a father, a late game twist puts the idea on its head. Eventually, you learn that the gemstone was, of course, the Soul Stone, and the entity that killed Ko-rel—and now possesses Nikki—is none other than Magus, the evil shadow of Adam Warlock. As Peter finds himself flung into Nikki’s own version of “The Promise,” a sliver of Ko-rel’s soul trapped within stone reaches out and tells Peter the truth: Nikki isn’t his biological daughter, but a Kree war orphan Kor-rel adopted because she faced persecution on her homeworld for not being pure Kree. But it’s not presented as a hoodwinked gotcha, or that suddenly the joke is that Peter went through the events of the game up to this point for seemingly nothing. The struggles he had processed over the course of Guardians before this help him grow and mature as a person, leader, and friend to the family unit forged in the Guardians themselves. He sees the parallels in fatherhood he’s experienced, discussed, and understood from helping people like Gamora and Drax process their own traumatic relationships as parents and children.
It’s a unit that, by the games’ denouement, is presented with a sincere, loving connection between its members, a found family that is made better by the healing each of them goes through across the game’s events. Peter didn’t need to be Nikki’s father to go on this path, but the potentiality of it serving as the catalyst for that growth, rather than it being treated as a burden for him to bear and work through, is what makes his throughline across the game so surprisingly earnest and worth rooting for. That Peter went through these connections regardless of his paternal status is important to his arc as a person throughout the game. By its climax—when Nikki is embraced into the Guardians team, not as Peter’s daughter, but an ally and hero of her own right—it provides Guardians of the Galaxy with a refreshing twist on a kind of story that’s come to prominence in the major story-based games of the moment. In doing so, it helps Guardians which, upon its first reveal, did little to impress that it would be able to step out of the shadow of its cinematic predecessor, stand on its own two feet as a worthy and intriguing spin on Marvel’s cosmic supergroup.
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