Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy - the Road to Knowhere

It’s one of the highlights of the game, but how did the team make Knowhere a ‘Land of Temptations?’ Get the full story here.
By Duncan Heaney

If you’ve played Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy, you already know that the team’s initial visit to Knowhere is a highlight of the game.

This lively mining port, based inside the head of a dead Celestial being is full of places to drink, gamble and reflect - a perfect place for a gang of misfit heroes to lick their wounds and relax. And potentially spend all their money.

We recently spoke to the game’s Creative Director Jean-Francois ‘JF’ Dugas, and Art Director Bruno Gauthier-Leblanc about what went into the creation of this unforgettable section of the game.

The discussion was full of fascinating information - so much so, we had to split it into two articles. This time, we talk about the attractions and environment of Knowhere, starting with the big question: why include it at all?

Knowhere in Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy

Why Knowhere?

One of the biggest discussions during the game’s planning phases was where the Guardians of the Galaxy would go.

Having access to the cosmic side of Marvel’s universe was a gift in that it offered up a seemingly endless list of amazing destinations the group could potentially battle and bicker their way across. But with so much choice available how did choose?

Dugas says: “In our early brainstorms, we spent a lot of time thinking about the locales that would be interesting to visit. At that point we didn’t have a story yet, but we made sure to identify the places in Marvel’s cosmic universe that were both known and unknown. We wanted players to tread between both the familiar and the non-familiar.”

The goal was to include locations that casual fans would be excited to visit and others that only the most hardcore Guardians of the Galaxy fans would recognize. In that sense, Knowhere was a Know-brainer.

“We realized early on that we definitely wanted to include Knowhere,” says Dugas. “Even if someone wasn’t a massive Marvel comics fan, they’d still probably recognize it from the Guardians of the Galaxy and Avengers movies.”

Knowhere concept art

The contrasts in Knowhere

Although the team wanted Knowhere to be clearly recognizable, it also wanted to give it an identity unique to the game. Art Director Bruno Gauthier-Leblanc says:

“In the comic books, Knowhere is still the head of a Celestial, but it looks kind of like a robot almost. We wanted to veer away from that and give it a little more of an original take, so we went the more organic route.

“It’s still mechanical in its essence, but the whole thing is made out of bio-material. We played with organic shaders and curves to give it this sort of bio-mech design.”

For the interior of the head, the team took a very different approach, and the results are striking.

Gauthier-Leblanc says “It was very important to create a contrast within Knowhere’s design, so while the outside is very curved and organic, inside it’s essentially cubes stacked on cubes.

“Our art direction is based around shapes - that’s the essence of every area in the game. For Knowhere, we started by stacking lots of different shapes - playing around to discover what we could use to make buildings that look alien.

“We came to cubes pretty early in the design process, and then started layering on patterns to give it that sort of ‘eclectic’ look you wouldn’t find on Earth.

This square design, combined with the sleek bio-mechanical look of the exterior and the soft, squishy curves of the dead Celestial’s brain matter, became a strong visual signature for Knowhere - unique, yet clearly a place that fans would recognize.

“That was really our thought process for everything, says Gauthier-Leblanc. “You study the original source material, identify the key feature, and then no matter what you do, so long as you keep that key feature, it’ll stay familiar to the players.”

Knowhere from Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy

A story-first approach

Of course, Eidos-Montréal couldn’t just drop Knowhere into Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy without context. It had to be in service to the story they wanted to tell.

Dugas says: “As we brainstormed the story, all the different ideas we had for the locations started to mesh together into something cohesive. Although we started by talking about the potential locations, it was only when we had our story that we could refine our selection and bring them all together into something that made sense.”

The Guardians visit Knowhere at quite a pivotal point in the story. The team’s still facing prosecution from the Nova Corps, the Milano’s damaged and a new threat is rising in the galaxy. The team’s under pressure and starting to crack.

“We needed to give players a breath,” explains Dugas. “As we worked on the story, it became clear that Knowhere would fit this role perfectly. It’s an intentional pace-breaker because the structure of this chapter is different than the rest of the game. We just give you one objective and a small hub, so you can just go wherever you want.”

A tempting merchant on Knowhere

The Land of Temptations

One of the key ways Knowhere makes players slow down is through the many, many attractions they can interact with. From shady stores and garish games, to extravagant exhibitions, there are lots of different ways for players to fritter away their hard-won cash. Even if that’s not the most responsible thing to do.

“We call Knowhere ‘the Land of Temptations’,” chuckles Dugas. “Since the beginning of the game, we’ve told players: ‘You need to pay the Nova Corps fine’. But now in Knowhere, we offer all kinds of minigames and other options to spend money on.

“We didn’t reinforce the need to pay the fine to players - we knew that was in the back of their minds already. We wanted them to see a slot machine and think ‘can I play it?’ or try out the food, or visit the Collector’s Emporium, even if it’s super-expensive.

“Basically, our goal was to create a place where players would want to spend time and money, while knowing that they need that money for something else. It was us being cruel!”

A Bar on Knowhere

Las Vegas in Space

For their insidious plan to work, Dugas and team knew they that whatever temptations they put in front of players would have to be interesting and compelling. Fortunately, there was no shortage of ideas from across the team.

Dugas says: “We thought of the area where the Guardians land as the ‘Las Vegas’ of Knowhere. That’s why the games were designed as they were - we saw it as this place where all the travelers from across the galaxy can cross paths, hit the bars, gamble, and generally have a bit of fun.

“For the attractions, we did a number of brainstorms with the designers and artists and evaluated the idea against our capacity to produce stuff.

One concept that immediately caught the imagination was a museum of Marvel miscellany - the Collector’s Emporium.

Collector's Emporium

A museum of marvels

This large (and expensive) museum holds artifacts from across the Marvel universe - everything from the Superhero Registration Act that kicked off Marvel’s Civil War, to the beloved frog version of Thor known as Throg.

Dugas and Gauthier-Leblanc needed ideas for what to include, but fortunately they had a secret weapon: a team positively overflowing with Marvel fans.

Throg in the Collector's Emporium

Dugas says: “We asked everyone in the studio: ‘Come up with cool items that would be nice to see in the museum.” We built a long list and we sent it to Marvel, who added a few ideas of their own, and sent back an approved selection.

Gauthier-Leblanc says: “I think we had a final list of around 24 approved items. I did have to go back to JF and the team to point out that some of them were huge items that would take more than a room to display! I was like: ‘Can we stick to the smaller ones so we can actually fit them in here?!’

The interior of a bar on Knowhere

Attractive Attractions

Of course, the Emporium wouldn’t be enough - the team also needed a large range of other attractions to lure players into spending their loot.

Gauthier-Leblanc explains further: “We had one-liners from JF and other designers - basically simple concepts like a slot machine, or a cup game. It was then up to us to see how we could interpret those ideas in weird and interesting ways.”

One of the weirdest interpretations of an idea was the afore-mentioned cup game. The idea was to present the players with the classic street scam - a ball goes under one of three cups, they’re mixed up and the sucker… we mean ‘player’ wins money if they pick the cup with the ball.

Of course, this idea needed a spin to make it feel authentically Guardians - and also partly out of necessity.

Dugas says: “Originally, our idea was to have an alien spin the cups around, but we realized there was no way we were going to be able to produce and animate something so elaborate for such a small moment.”

It was up to Gauthier-Leblanc and his team to find a different approach, and they did so by embracing the sheer imagination of the Guardians of the Galaxy series, “We had the idea of the alien just being a giant brain that moves the cups telepathically,” he laughs. “It was one of my concept artists came up with something so funky and it’s perfect. You understand it right away but at the same time there’s such a comedic aspect to it. It was really nice teamwork.”

Knowhere brain matter

That’s far from the weirdest thing you’ll encounter in Knowhere, and the team discovered that no matter how out there or wacky their ideas were, Marvel was overwhelming supportive.

Gauthier-Leblanc says: “Marvel loved it all! I think they approved every game, everything attraction on the first pass. They didn’t push back on anything! There was a lot of freedom, - perhaps too much because we had so many ideas! For example, I think someone suggested a hot dog eating contest.

“It was a bug-eating contest,” says Dugas. “If you remember the movie Stand by Me, the kid tells the story about the pie eating contest and we thought about having our own version!”

With so many concepts, it was inevitable that some wouldn’t make it into production, and the team knew they had to avoid getting too carried away.

Gauthier-Leblanc says: “We had to bear in mind that Knowhere is just one map within 16 chapters, and the variety in the game is pretty intense already. For the art team - actually for the whole team - all that variety comes with a cost. In the end though, I think we’re winners with the amount of variety we have in the game.”

Dugas agrees: “We had to make some tough choices, but for the most part, we were able to fulfil the vision that we had.”

Many thanks to Dugas and Gauthier-Leblanc for sharing their experiences. Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy is out now for PS5, PS4, Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One and PC.

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