In October of 2021, Square Enix was able to achieve the nearly impossible; they conceived, designed, and released an excellent superhero game. Prior to this, Insomniac Games were seemingly the only ones able to accomplish this feat with their Spider-Man franchise. Alas, on October 26th, Square Enix released Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy to critical and commercial success, essentially cleansing the palates for those who had to experience their Marvel’s Avengers grindy, boring disaster a year prior.
The game is far from perfect — the combat especially leaves a lot to be desired — but the stellar plot, settings, vistas, characters, writing, and breathtaking visuals lead to one of the best gaming experiences of this generation so far, let alone one of the best superhero games to come out for some time. One thing that Guardians absolutely nails, however, is the exploration.
Guardians of the Galaxy is an action-adventure game with extremely light RPG elements (i.e dialogue choices, branching paths, and upgradable skills) with the Guardian’s ship — the Milano — serving as the central hub with which you return from each mission. It all feels very Mass Effect in the best way possible. When you do go out on missions, you’re given a medium-to-large-sized explorable level with multiple linear sections, but ultimately the way you explore each area is up to you. There are several collectibles throughout the game: text logs fleshing out the lore, items that offer unique interactions with crew members, and (my personal favorite) multiple costumes for each character spanning years' worth of Marvel designs.
These collectibles, while enticing, conjure up an issue that many adventure games struggle with. There are numerous areas that require the player to pass a barrier in which there is no return. This is a popular trope for games of this genre to keep the players moving forward and to keep the narrative going. Maybe there’s a slope that’s too steep to climb back up, so the player must slide down it, blocking their way back. Maybe an explosion will take out a doorway the player just passed through, rendering it unusable for return. While this makes sense from a design perspective as you don’t want your players taking too long in one area or getting lost, it causes a headache-inducing problem: decision-making for branching paths can be agony.
If you’re playing an adventure game chock-full of collectibles and you come to a branching path in a hallway, what do you do? If you head right, that could very well launch you into a corridor with one of these obstruction triggers, forever blocking off the left path until a future playthrough. Going left yields just as much possibility for an inaccessible area. I approached one of these areas while playing Guardians, and after making my decision, something subtle-yet-brilliant happened. Rocket Raccoon called out, “Quill knows he’s not going the right way, right?” to which Gamora replied, “Probably not, but we’ll let him have it.” finished with Quill saying, “Hey! I’m just exploring here, there might be something good this way!” After the interaction was over, I found a cool costume hiding in the passageway I decided to take. As I headed back towards the path I had originally ignored, story-driven dialogue ensued.
This level of interaction continued throughout the majority of the game, with snarky comments directing me towards more collectibles and ephemera. These conversations served to flesh out the characters and show the player where the characters were at mentally — as the adventure soldiered on and the characters continued to grow, the snark changed. The more important function of these conversations, however, was to gently remind the player that the decision they were making was either going to result in an inability to retrace their steps or result in finding some sort of secret hidden away.
If they started heading towards a path that resulted in conversations pertaining directly to their current situation, the player could be confident that the way they were going would continue the story forward and block them from finding more cool stuff. If the direction they chose led to some hilarious-yet-kind-of-rude remarks from their fellow Guardians about their navigational skills, players could be confident that they were going to find something interesting and worthwhile.
It’s worth mentioning that this did not happen every time I was faced with branching paths, and I did miss some collectibles my first time playing because of this. It’s also worth mentioning that not all linear adventure games can employ this. Silent protagonists or single-individual missions make the idea of this a bit silly, as only an inner monologue would be available to help guide the player character.
Regardless, the callout system employed in Guardians helped solve an issue plaguing this genre for a while: it gives the player confidence in their exploration and moves the game forward at the correct pace. It helps curb the amount of downtime spent trepidatiously tip-toeing through passages trying to avoid the dreaded triggers rendering any further investigation of an area irrelevant. It isn’t a perfect system by any means, but it’s a great step in the right direction of organically guiding players through levels without causing the anxiety-inducing fear of missing some small crack or crevice.
That is unless you find Rocket Raccoon’s comments galling. In that case, it’s just one more reason to not listen to the little weasel.
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