There’s a new(ish) Guardians of The Galaxy game that I’m finally getting around to playing. As someone who really dug the second volume of Guardians comics, I’m really enjoying the way the game weaves that version of the mythos with the MCU’s iteration to create something that really feels like the best of both worlds, all while offering up a solid action-adventure game. But somewhere between the nonstop quipping and 80s anthems as combat power-ups is a genuinely affecting story that is built around processing trauma.
Which, yeah, a story about trauma is what you’d expect from a game like The Last of Us Part II, not the one that features a space raccoon and his tree best friend. But in the great tradition of superhero comic books, the game takes a lot of outlandish ideas and uses them to dig into genuine human emotion. In this case, it’s trauma and how it affects our lives.
The Guardians are a traumatized bunch, there’s really no denying it. Peter Quill lost his mother as a teenager. Gamora got indoctrinated into a killing machine by an omnicidal tyrant. Drax couldn’t save his wife and daughter. Rocket’s the product of relentless experimentation. And Groot, well, Groot is Groot. These tragic backstories all make for compelling enough characters; James Gunn’s movies tell a story about how a bunch of misfit screwballs find a sense of belonging amongst each other. They’re all motivated to do better by a history of screwing up and so end up saving the galaxy.
This game, however, intertwines each Guardian’s trauma into the very fiber of the story’s conflict by tailoring the antagonist to push everyone’s most sensitive of buttons. The villains of this story are the Universal Church of Truth, a brainwashy cult bent on galactic domination under the guise of salvation. Like any good adaption, the game takes these guys and tweaks them in service of our characters’ arcs. Take Peter, our protagonist and hero character. The Church promises him a world where his mother never died, a reality that Peter desperately wants but knows he cannot have. After escaping from that fantasy, he’s now presented with the challenge of trying to help someone else accept the death of her mother.
With that, Peter’s internal conflict and trauma are made external; getting over his trauma means helping others get over theirs. Gamora dealing with her childhood abuse means making sure no one else has to go through the same nightmare she did. In this narrative, trauma, courtesy of the bespoke antagonistic force, is not just within. It’s an external force made real through the events of the story, and something the Guardians can strive against and, maybe, if they can defeat its manifestation in others, they can overcome it within their selves.
I know that this sort of story isn’t entirely novel; there’s a whole narrative thing around fighting one’s inner demons. Guardians of The Galaxy takes the concept and puts a really elegant spin on it, intertwining it within both internal and external conflicts and even comic relief (much of the Guardians’ bickering is rooted in their own past issues). This is a game about saving the galaxy, yes, and it’s also a game about trauma. It’s a testament to the tightness of the plotting that both of those are narratives are one and the same.