Rock The Spacebar is a twice-monthly column investigating the great music that underpins your favourite games. This week, Dom Peppiatt explores how studio head Johnny Galvatron of developer Beethoven & Dinosaur took a deeply personal journey about pressure, creativity, and identity and managed to make it into the best interactive concept album you’re ever likely to experience.
When I was a kid, I’d walk my dog up to an abandoned brick factory in the village I grew up in and sit listening to Iron Maiden CDs on my Sony Walkman. I’d imagine I was Bruce Dickinson, belting out ludicrous ballads about Icarus, the Crimean War, or Pagan rituals. When I was a teenager – after picking up a guitar – the fantasies shifted; now I was Johnny Marr or Tom Morello, showing off with my fingers and not my falsettos. Hitting adulthood, it all came together, and I’d walk around my University campus listening to Coheed and Cambria on Spotify and putting myself in place of Claudio Sanchez, shredding and singing at the same time.
I don’t think you ever grow out of wanting to be a rockstar. Not really. I still play music recreationally, I’ve been in bands, and I try to write the odd song here and there. But playing games is what I do for a living – and I never thought a video game would scratch that daydreaming itch I’ve had for over 20 years. I never thought, when booting up The Artful Escape from fledgling developer Beethoven & Dinosaur, that I’d get to indulge my rockstar fantasies in such a complete and arresting way.
And that’s because it’s made by someone who knows the grimy, often-disappointing underbelly of the rock world. By someone who has been on tour, slept in the back of vans, grumbled at roadies that have been a bit too heavy-handed with all that expensive gear. Johnny Galvatron – frontman of Aussie band, The Galvatrons – crafted the game from elements of his personal experience. Well, sort-of.
“[The Artful Escape is inspired by my time on the road], but I’d say it’s the opposite of my experience,” he tells me. “I found touring and the music scene to be unglamorous, odious, poverty-stricken and generally pretty sad. The Artful Escape is what I imagined the artistic lifestyle to be: a world of secret doors and unimaginable experiences. It’s a high school fantasy.”
Perhaps that’s why it resounds so harmonically with the brooding emo still skulking away inside me, then. In the game, you play as 17-year-old guitar prodigy Francis Vendetti, stuck in a small Colorado town living under the monolithic shadow of his definitely-not-Bob-Dylan uncle, Johnson Vendetti. Francis – after being chided he ‘wears folk like a cheap suit’ – sets off on a journey to discover himself in an odyssey that’s remarkably similar to a particularly vivid LSD trip one might have whilst listening to some ELO.
The result? An experience that’s probably more akin to a playable, genre-bending concept album than it is a traditional video game. And that’s such a bloody fantastic idea, I can’t believe it’s not been done before.
“There’s a lot of theatre in The Artful Escape, it’s an overpowered rock opera,” explains Galvatron. “There are influences from across the musical spectrum but I’m usually attracted to artists that have a sense of fantasy and theatre: the wailing Steve Vai mysticism, Talking Heads Afrobeat, roaring 80’s cinema score, that dope solo in the intro of ‘God Gave Rock n Roll to You’ at the end of Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey, the Devo or Kraftwerk button-punching.”
Funny Galvatron should mention Bogus Journey, because that’s a pretty tight descriptor for The Artful Escape’s whole intergalactic premise. The game is simple: hold right, jump every now and then, shred like a bastard so you hover through the air, and get to the next platform. But its simplicity doesn’t matter; the whole game looks like the cover of a Cream EP mixed with Yellow Submarine-era Beatles with a dash of King Crimson for good measure. It focuses as much on Francis finding physical accoutrements to suit his new prog-powered persona as it does him finding his sound. Because that’s what the glam or rockstar-dom is about, after all; the complete audio-visual package.
“I’ve always been attracted to the satellite aspects of artists’ creative mediums; not the music, but the image, the stage clothes, the rumours, the lighting, the film clips, the debauchery,” says Galvatron. “I enjoy putting on a cape, because I write better songs when I’m wearing a cape.”
Assumedly, Galvatron makes better games when he’s wearing it, too – there’s no criticism from me about The Artful Escape; it does everything I want a game about a 17-year-old’s self-centered journey to the center of stardom to do. And what genre to show off complete self-obsession than prog?
“There’s something historical and indelible about it. It is done,” says Galvatron when we ask him why this genre – in particular – was such a focus in the game, especially considering things like prog and glam aren’t really respected that much any more in the music space, let alone gaming. “The guitar is a medieval weapon in the drone-machine-gun world. But it is the high watermark for a kind of overblown, self-indulgent excess. It’s perfect for wailing over as you skate across a purple alien glitter world. Plus it’s got a swell of sci-fi cover art to run our fingers through. And, ya know… I like it.“
Beyond the extra-terrestrial and inter-dimensional introspection The Artful Escape offers on a surface level, there are also some deeper meditations on the nature of fame and success for anyone willing to look. Notably, the game asks: ‘what’s in a name?’ Early on – following in the footsteps of Elton John, Eminem, Gene Simmons, Snoop Dogg, Lady Gaga, and, yes, even Bob Dylan – you’re asked to discard the plain old Francis Vendetti moniker in favour of something more… suitable. It’s a process Galvatron has been through himself.
“I kinda feel like, sometimes, the creative force within you doesn’t necessarily match with your vision of yourself,” he explains. “Sometimes it needs a new name to grow and to allow yourself the freedom to let it take control. Or, like me, your actual name is Jonathan Mole and you just cannot rock that.”
The Artful Escape caught some sideways glances at launch from gaming types that divined it ‘didn’t have enough game in it’. But I think criticisms like that missed the point; this is an interactive musical project about identity, about finding yourself, and about indulging that sensitive 17-year-old inside that never really goes away. “This game is what we wanted it to be,” says Galvatron. “I understand it floats around a few different mediums, and some people have trouble pinning it down, but I’m cool with that.” Spoken like a true prog devotee, then.
“I wouldn’t change anything. This was our first game, we’re very proud of it. I generally don’t worry about what boxes I’ve gotta tick for it to be a ‘game’ or not, I just wanna do my thing.”
I think that’s what I like most about The Artful Escape; the same way I love prog for unashamedly being prog and having 14-minute tracks to close out the album (record labels be damned), Galvatron eschewed gaming conventions to put forward something that he wanted to make. We’ve seen him flirt with many genres up to this point, but there’s something undeniably punk about that.
And so, to the big question for all of us that have never had the privilege to live the rockstar life: does The Artful Escape actually sum up what it’s like to get up on-stage, freed of your birth name, and rock out completely unselfconsciously? “It’s what it feels like in your head, not in real life,” says Galvatron. “In real life it’s you crouching in a dark room with Vangelis on imagining yourself as a starman. It’s not very glamorous.”
That’s rock and roll, baby.
The Artful Escape came to PS4 and Nintendo Switch in January 2022. It initially launched on Xbox and PC in September 2021.