Guardians of the Galaxy is linear. But it isn’t linear. An open-world game might say, “See that mountain? You can climb it.” But Eidos Montreal’s Marvel story smartly sets its exploratory sights on memory instead.
When we say that a video game is linear, or nonlinear, we’re typically describing how progression through its content is structured. If the player’s path is largely determined by the developer, we say that it’s linear. Titles like Guardians of the Galaxy, Call of Duty: Vanguard, and The Last of Us Part II are considered “linear” because players complete their content in largely the same order. They are structured like trains, broken up into discrete sections and arranged in a straight line. You can’t get from the metaphorical caboose to the cab without passing through the dining car — and you can’t just hop off the train and go exploring in the countryside, either. On the other hand, games in which the player is free to determine their own course through much of the content are considered non-linear. So, if that’s what linearity is, what do I mean when I say Guardians of the Galaxy is also not linear? What does this contradiction say about the limitations of how we talk about linearity in games?
As Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy begins, you are in control of Peter Quill — but not the Peter Quill you know from the movies or comics. This Peter Quill is a fan of a band named Star-Lord; he has not yet adopted that moniker as a self-aggrandizing title. Instead, he has it emblazoned across the back of his sleeveless jean jacket. His room is filled with markers of a particular time period: a Chewbacca action figure, a cassette tape playing through his headphones, and walls covered in wood paneling. A few in-game decades later, Peter joins Gamora, Drax, Rocket, and Groot to form the Guardians of the Galaxy. He trades in his mullet for an undercut, and leaves his tacky ‘80s bedroom behind in favor of a slightly rundown starship.
This introduction isn’t especially noteworthy on its own. In fact, developer Eidos Montreal’s opening takes a page out of James Gunn’s playbook. The writer-director’s 2014 take on the motliest crew in the MCU started with a flashback to Peter’s childhood, as the young earthling stood by his dying mother’s bedside before getting abducted into space.
Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy is notable for when it opts to leave the past. When we move to the future, Peter’s mom is doing just fine; nothing of interest has even happened. She asks him to come upstairs to celebrate his birthday, and as soon as he opens his bedroom door, we flash forward. If we’re paying attention, we likely suspect we aren’t finished here. That suspicion is correct. For the first half of Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy, we repeatedly return to this scene from Peter’s childhood. Though Guardians of the Galaxy is linear, it also isn’t linear.
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The limitations of language mean we also use the words “linear” and “non-linear” to discuss a story’s relationship to time. If you’ve ever watched Pulp Fiction and were surprised to see John Travolta’s Vincent Vega alive and well shortly after Bruce Willis’ Butch Coolidge mowed him down with a silenced uzi, you understand the curve balls that a non-linear story can throw at an audience. Though we experience time chronologically in reality, storytellers often find fertile ground in showing us their story out of order. This could mean using a frame narrative, in which characters in the present recall events that occurred in the past. Call of Duty: Vanguard uses this structure so that we can play through the exploits of its central cast despite the fact that all of them are jailed early on in the story. The Last of Us Part II (skip ahead to the next paragraph if you want to avoid being spoiled) shows us the same three-day stretch from two different perspectives, and uses flashbacks and dream sequences to take us back to the past. Though Naughty Dog’s latest is — with the exception of one open-ended level — a linear game in structure, it is one of the least linear games I’ve played in the way it presents the chronology of its story.
Guardians of the Galaxy’s approach to non-linear storytelling isn’t quite as ambitious as The Last of Us Part II. And it doesn’t need to be. Guardians of the Galaxy takes players into the past to show us one specific, defining moment in Peter Quill’s life. As part of its narrative function, it informs the audience about who he is and, crucially, what his deepest desires are. But its gameplay function is equally important. Just as structurally non-linear games provide variety by allowing players to leave the beaten path in favor of side activities, chronologically non-linear games offer a change of pace by taking players to a different setting than one in which the bulk of the story takes place. 95 percent of the time, Guardians of the Galaxy is an action game in space. But a few brief glimpses into Peter Quill’s mundane earthbound existence give players a chance to breathe and a break from the action.
The same dynamic plays out in the way these sections of Guardians of the Galaxy eschew combat in favor of Life is Strange-style environmental interaction. Instead of picking up and firing a blaster, Peter Quill can pick up and comment on a cassette tape for a band he likes. Rather than examining the alien landscapes around him for objects to move, gaps to squeeze through, and gunk to shoot, we get to explore the lovingly recreated ‘80s home that Peter inhabits with his mom. Not everything is explicitly communicated — for example, the house’s size serves as a bit of environmental storytelling with respect to the shift in economic reality between the ‘80s and today, considering that a single mother can afford it. In addition to his relationship with his mother, we gain an understanding of the world that formed Peter, not the alien world he currently inhabits.
This is possible because Guardians of the Galaxy is not entirely tied to the present. Eidos Montreal understands that, in order to relate to a character, we sometimes need to experience what they experienced before we met them.