It took Johnny Galvatron, former rock star and lead developer of The Artful Escape, over six years to create his debut game. Galvatron’s studio, Beethoven & Dinosaur, has agonised over the title – tweaking elements of it, fiddling with various knobs, and getting everything to sound and look and feel just right, like the gaming version of a shoegaze band setting up its pedalboard before their debut show. The result, though, is barely a game. It’s an experience. It essentially plays itself as you sit back, occasionally mash some buttons and watch the psychedelic journey of self-actualisation and discovery play out in front of you.
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On a surface level, The Artful Escape is about teenage guitar prodigy Francis Vendetti, a small-town boy with a world-class talent, living under the monolithic shadow of his famous uncle – a dead musician suspiciously reminiscent of Bob Dylan. Everyone expects Francis to live up to his name, to play the music of his dead forebear and smile whilst doing it. They don’t see that this kid – with his bedroom full of spaceships, sci-fi novels and cosmic miscellany – isn’t simply a vessel to play folk for folk’s sake. He’s an intergalactic megastar. And he yearns to be reborn.
After a brief exposition dump introduces you to his hometown of Calypso, establishes the pressure threatening to swamp Francis and outlines his desire to escape – physically and metaphorically. There’s basically no gameplay; it’s a visual novel at this point where you walk and talk and soak in the gorgeous, artfully crafted vibes of this peculiar mountain town somewhere in Colorado.
Then the acid hits. The night before Francis’ first big gig, an imposing alien tour manager appears (yes, really) and recruits Francis to open for intergalactic megastar, Lightman. This Santana-cum-Hendrix analogue takes young Francis under his musty wing and shows him stardom. Literal stardom. Galaxies sprawl out before you, rendered so beautifully you’d think you were lost in a Tool album cover as you shred your guitar with creatures so obscure you’d think you’d seen them in Yellow Submarine or some forgotten Monty Python sketchbook. You step out on your journey to adopt your Ziggy Stardust-inspired persona in the depths of space (or a particularly long trip on powerful hallucinogens, who knows) and for the next 6 hours, reality is suspended.
The only gameplay comes in the form of incredibly simple platforming (run, then jump, then shred) and a rudimentary Simon Says button prompt that encourages you to hit certain notes in order to impress a menagerie of alien creatures. If you’re expecting to demonstrate the dexterity, skill or timing you’d find in the likes of Rocksmith, Sayonara Wild Hearts or even Parappa the Rapper, you’d be better off looking elsewhere. The point of this game is not to challenge you with a pad in your hands, no; it’s to fly you through the sky with diamonds.
The game plays itself, and you’re just tagging along for that eponymous escape – but that’s fine. It’s fine because Beethoven & Dinosaur has managed to wrangle an absolutely hypnotic experience in The Artful Escape; every soaring note of Francis’ guitar, every spaced-out vista inspired by 60’s psychedelia, every line of dialogue injected with life by its all-star cast (Lena Headey, Michael Johnston, Caroline Kinley, Jason Schwartzman et al) just makes this game ooze with personality.
Perhaps the reason the game formerly known as The Artful Escape of Francis Vendetti is so remarkably compelling is thanks to its semi-biographical nature. Galvatron was something of a celebrity, previously signed to Warner, attracting a record deal after playing one show with his band, The Galvatrons. Watching Francis wrestle with the weight of the world, the expectation, the pressure of being a creative in a world where you can never make everyone happy is alarmingly personal at times – even in spite of the skeletal space giraffes, the hairy cosmic whales and the psychedelic vignettes that make up the meat of the game.
You will never have played anything like The Artful Escape before, and chances are that you’ll never play anything like it again. “An artist’s job is not to give people what they want,” says Lightman at one point in the game, “it’s to give people what they couldn’t have possibly imagined.” It feels poignant, pointed. You hear those words coming not from the music industry veteran slowly turning jaded in front of your very eyes, no – you hear it from Johnny Galvatron himself. This game is making a point about the music industry at large, positioning itself as a narrative about the dream job that every teenager that’s ever smoked a joint and listened to The Dark Side of the Moon has fantasized about at some point.
The game, at its core, is about ascension – the physical journey of climbing and overcoming something mimicking the fickle beauty of fame at every turn. It elicits sympathy from you constantly, and even the most stone-hearted, music-hating sociopath would be hard-pushed not to feel for Francis and his myopic journey of self-discovery. The Artful Escape is as much a love letter to the dearly departed David Bowie as it is an autobiographical commentary of falling in – and out – of love with the music industry. It doesn’t matter that it’s barely even a game, then, because, everyone that professes to call themself a music-lover should play it.
The Artful Escape launches on Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, PC, and iOS on September 9. This review is for the Xbox Series X|S version.
The Artful Escape is beautiful, sad, compelling and mind-blowing in equal measure. It’s more of a concept album than it is a game and that’s fine, because with so many set-pieces, such well-realised vignettes, and such awe-inspiring talent behind it, you’re more than happy to sit down and take in the journey as your fingers dance on the pad from time to time to keep the game moving forward. You’ve heard of prog rock music before, but this might be the first prog-rock game.
- Incredible visuals supporting an intimately personal story
- Gorgeous, soaring soundtrack
- Impeccable voice talent
- Don’t expect deep gameplay