The Artful Escape is a game about rockstar created by a former rockstar, and it's everything you'd want it to be and more.
The studio behind Artful Escape (Beethoven and Dinosaur) was founded by Johnny Galvatron, the former lead singer and guitarist of the Australian band The Galvatrons. Galvatron has the kind of personality you'd expect from a rockstar – during our The Artful Escape preview, he sits in a room flanked by giant tropical plants, with a huge David Bowie tapestry hanging on the wall behind him. He never takes off his sunglasses.
But The Artful Escape isn't about an established or former rockstar. It's about Francis Vendetti, the nephew of a fictional, Bob Dylan-esque folk icon who's struggling to figure out his own persona. That struggle takes him (and you) through a cosmically psychedelic journey through space and time, set to a bitchin' soundtrack of original music with a star-studded voice cast that would make most AAA games jealous.
We had a chance to take a look at The Artful Escape ahead of its release later this year and speak to Johnny Galvatron one-on-one to give you an even better idea of just how much this game shreds. If there was ever a game that felt like it was made by a rockstar, The Artful Escape is it.
Johnny Galvatron's time in the rock world was very different from Francis' fictional journey. "I hate planes, I hate twelve-seater buses, I hate staying in No-Tell Motels with 10 different smelly musicians and roadies. I really hated it," says Galvatron. "The Artful Escape is a bit of the fantasy of what I thought the music industry would be like when I was a teenager."
That fantasy includes surreal space entities bobbing along to rad guitar riffs, an extraterrestrial rock museum set in a glittering, snow-capped forest, and a star-studded cast of voice actors that were brought in late in development. The cast includes Jason Schwartzman (Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World), Lena Headey (Game of Thrones), Mark Strong (Kingsman), and the iconic Carl Weathers (Predator).
The entire cosmic journey towards self-discovery kicks off just before Francis is set to perform his first show (where he's billed as the nephew of folk icon Johnson Vendetti) in the fictional town of Calypso, Colorado. "I didn't want to make a rockstar in Australia because it made me feel a bit sick in my stomach, 'cuz of my own experiences," explains Galvatron. "So I made it as far away and as fantasy as I could."
The Artful Escape introduces Francis as an incredibly talented but nervous new artist – nervous because everyone expects him to be a folk musician and follow in his uncle's footsteps. However, it's quickly established that Francis' music is antithetical to the kind of strummy folk he's expected to play. This man is far more sci-fi arena rock, the kind of musician you'd expect to see in a deep-cut leotard.
Play the Game
The path to finding Francis' rockstar persona takes you through a journey normally reserved for consciousness-expanding trips: multiple cosmic realms, an '80s mall on a boat in the middle of an intergalactic desert, and a planet with sea creatures spewing fountains of water in time with the music.
The Artful Escape preview includes one trippy level that centers around Carl Weathers' character, Lightman, who feels like a Prince/Hendrix crossover. Francis makes his way through a museum dedicated to Lightman, with each display representing a key moment in the groovy dude's career. Each signpost is read aloud by a hilarious Schwartzman, and throughout the tour, there are moments where you're prompted to 'hold x to jam with the environment'. It's at this point in the preview that I watch in awe as the world around Francis reacts in a myriad of psychedelic ways.
The gameplay in The Artful Escape is simple: bring up an ethereal guitar with a button press, knee slide down a hill with another button, slam the guitar down onto a platform that shoots off fireworks with yet another button. This isn't a rhythm game, but more of a free-flowing jam sesh that lets you traverse the world how you'd like... "I think the way the game is put together is that it tries to use every medium as a tool and lead you through the game as a song, like the verse, the pre-chorus, the chorus," Galvatron explains. "The gameplay is kind of like Smells Like Team Spirit… it's not about virtuosity, it's about being able to lead the narrative up to get to this crescendo, and then you're gonna lead the gameplay up to get to that crescendo. I feel like the gameplay is very accessible, but at the same time, I feel like it's quite powerful."
As a result of Galvatron's efforts to make a music game unlike any other, The Artful Escape feels like playing through a jam session with all the talent of Eddie Van Halen at your fingertips. "It's got that nice kind of jamming rhythm that you can get when you play music with other people, which is kind of hard to replicate," Galvatron points out.
It's Still Rock and Roll to Me
The Artful Escape captures rock-and-roll aesthetics spanning decades with an attention to detail that can only come from an almost fanatical fervor.
First, there's the music. When asked how much original music was recorded for the game, Galvatron responds with "too much. Far too much. Five hours worth or something? Too much for a soundtrack." He takes a pause to laugh before continuing: "We used every kind of synth that I could think of – an example of excess, like Def Leppard in a studio in the '80s just spending 10 months on a guitar solo. Don't tell Annapurna that."
Not only is every level in The Artful Escape in a different key – a bit of trivia that will make any audiophile swoon – but the music is intentionally written to be amorphous. No matter what chord you make Francis play, it still feels like it's perfectly in-sync with the background music. Galvatron likens it to the 'Dark Side of the Rainbow' phenomenon: the near-perfect pairing of Pink Floyd's seminal album The Dark Side of the Moon and the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz. "It's your brain that really brings it all together," Galvatron assures us.
The music and the psychedelic art style evoke the sights and sounds of the golden age of rock, but it's the gender-bending queerness inspired by David Bowie and Freddy Mercury that really makes The Artful Escape feel like a rock opera. During the preview, Galvatron takes us to a point in the game where Francis decides to pick out his new look from within the confines of the aforementioned mall on a boat in the desert. The customization options are impressively vast, from fishnets and tiny briefs to catsuits to flannel shirts, all with secondary and tertiary color options.
I ask Galvatron if the queerness is intentional, especially considering the context of Francis' story of self-discovery. "I don't know. I'm not queer myself, but there are queer people on the team," says Galvatron. "I think it comes from being influenced by [Bowie and Freddie Mercury]... I like the idea of a utopian future where everyone wears what they want."
"When we started testing the game with people, that's a lot of what came back. It's about finding yourself. And I think the queer community really digs it… I'm glad people feel that way about it, you know, what a lovely comment to say."
Galvatron pauses before continuing to discuss the costumes. "You can go just like, so drag," he says excitedly. Nothing says rock-and-roll more than shredding a guitar and the notion of gendered clothing.
The Artful Escape will be released on September 9 for Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, PC, and iOS.