Get ready to rock!
Who could forget that E3 2017 trailer? The striking visual style that combined marionette puppetry with a psychedelic 60s rock infusion that you couldn’t help but be captured by. But the beauty of that trailer was that it managed to give away little of what the game actually was, while leaving you wanting to know so much more. There was also an extended gameplay demo which gave us a deeper look at what we had seen in the trailer. An eclectic mix of platforming with a dash of snowboarding and a jam session style “boss battle” (for want of a better term) thrown in. The music blended beautifully with the gameplay and the entire package was shaping up to be a truly unique gaming experience, with emphasis on the word experience.
It wouldn’t be until X019 that we’d see The Artful Escape again. Another short trailer that gave us two things, firstly was the year the game is set – 1972, but it also showed us a noticeable upgrade to the already gorgeous visuals. While the characters still fluidly animated like marionette puppets, the models and other assets themselves received a bump up in quality. Gone were the flatter, cut out paper like characters and in stepped more rounded, fuller 3D ones that remained in a 2D plane. But in the transition, the game lost not a shred of its visual charm and flair.
In 2020 we got a deeper look into the game itself with the developer Johnny Galvatron, whose story is as fascinating as the game he’s developing. We’re introduced to Francis Vendetti, (fun fact: the game was once called The Artful Escape of Francis Vendetti) a young guitar prodigy from Calypso Colorado who is trying to carve out his own musical identity from underneath the shadow of his famous uncle Johnson Vendetti. Johnson is a Bob Dylan type figure in this fictional world and his fame and legacy bears a massive weight on our protagonist who feels that weight throughout his small home town, particularly when speaking with it’s population.
Francis also frequents cosmic worlds, reminiscent of the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine that also evoke Ziggy Stardust like flair and a psychedelic Pink Floyd inspiration. In this universe, we’re taken to various planets where Francis communicates with its inhabitants through the language of music.
I personally have been keeping a close eye on the game ever since that first trailer in 2017 absolutely blew me away with its promise of an experience unlike anything else.
But a part of understanding the journey of The Artful Escape to this point, it helps to also understand the journey of it’s creator, Johnny Galvatron.
Johnny has two loves, rock and video games. Like myself, his first foray into home console gaming was with the Sega Master System and both passions stayed with him right through until adulthood where he was afforded the luxury of chasing both without one impeding the other. Johnny pursued Gaming in his tertiary education where he studied 3D Animation and Game Development and upon completing his course, his band the Galvatrons (yes, the origin of the name is the Transformers) also struck a big record deal with Warner Music where the group would go on tour for 4 years.
But unlike many rock stars, the touring life wasn’t for Johnny and he yearned to be home again. In his time touring (a very successful tour I might add) Johnny learned that the reality of the rock star life didn’t quite match what he envisioned when he was younger.
He then went back to game development and it was those original expectations of what the rock ‘n’ roll life was that inspired much of what The Artful Escape would become. While the origins of the game rest with Johnny as a lone developer, over time he has built up his studio Beethoven & Dinosaur in order to really make the game something befitting his original vision.
We were fortunate enough to be invited to a preview of The Artful Escape where Johnny took us through a gameplay demonstration of the game as it stands today, very close to release.
While previous footage alluded to narrative elements within the game, the most recent walkthrough delved a lot deeper into this aspect of the game and showed us that it’s more of a focus than previously thought. Anyone who has played Oxenfree will notice similarities visually in the interactions between Francis and the population of Calypso. But to elaborate more on that, Annapurna – as you may or may not be aware, is a media organisation that specialises in not only video game publishing, but also live theatre, tv and film production. This has allowed Johnny the opportunity to tap into some incredible voice talent for the game. Something that we had not been made aware of previously.
The project has been able to benefit from the injection of some incredible talent that lend their voices to characters within the world of the Artful Escape. These names include Jason Schwartzman, Lena Headey, Mark Strong and the indelible Carl Weathers. Johnny didn’t hesitate to describe a fantastic working relationship with the actors where he leaned on their acting experience and allowed them to suggest dialogue changes that helped enhance the interactions between characters and lend further authenticity to what is ultimately a fictional world.
As an example, where Johnson Vendetti was the musical legend of Earth, Lightman – played by Carl Weathers, is the musical legend of one of the cosmic worlds. Along Francis’ journey to find his true self, he’ll come across all sorts of fantastical and colourful cosmic beings. Whose interactions are effectively musical mini games, or “jam sessions”. Narratively, this all combines to help Francis on his journey to become the musician he was meant to be.
But there is also a new addition that helps you shape Francis’ identity a little more literally. Which is the character editor. As part of the story, you will hit a point in the game where you enter a shopping mall of sorts where you can edit different parts of Francis as you see fit with new variations and accessories. The customisation goes surprisingly deep given the type of game this is, but knowing the history of looks, outfits and fashions that have come from the world of rock, it actually makes a lot of sense. Fans of fashion and rock (or both) will immediately recognise some signature looks. Obviously they all forgo “official” naming, but it won’t be difficult to notice Kurt Cobain’s hair style or one of Elton John’s famous feathery numbers. It’s all fun stuff and really helps you take some ownership of Francis’ story in a more direct way.
A Musical Experience
I feel it would be remiss of me if I didn’t speak more to the kind of game people should expect from The Artful Escape. As I mentioned earlier in the preview, The Artful Escape is a game that you experience more so than play in the more traditional sense. I’m trying to choose my words carefully here, but I say this all in the best possible way. As much of the public footage shows, at it’s core the game is a platformer. But there is no combat, there’s no high score to achieve and the fail states (failed platform jump for example) simply spawn you back to where you took the jump, much like most modern games. This is far closer to a point and click adventure game with platforming and musical elements than a straight up platformer.
Which appears to be the perfect fit for the message the game is trying to send. Francis wants to carve out his own identity as a musician and it’s within the cosmic gameplay segments of the game where you get to really to fulfil that destiny.
Rock (and Music) aficionados who love video games will have a real appreciation for how the game is structured melodically and how that blends into the gameplay. Each world is in a different key and there was painstaking effort in ensuring that the guitar shredding would fit in any scenario that player finds themselves in. The method used was explained to us using an incredible example that was completely unknown to me, which is the phenomenon known as the Dark Side of the Rainbow, where (broadly) the 1973 Pink Floyd album Dark Side of the Moon and the 1939 movie the Wizard of Oz appear to correspond on many occasions when paired with each other.
But there was an intention to avoid some of the complexity and virtuosity that comes with normal music or rhythm games but also in some of the musical choices themselves. The gameplay systems are simple enough to pick up and play, but designed in a way when combined with the audio and visuals to still create an impact and make the player feel like they were part of something grand.
Overall I left the preview as excited about the game as I was when I went in. The game has been in development for a long time but as the very first trailer once proclaimed “Coming when it’s damn ready” and luckily for us, it’s coming September 9th on Xbox One, Xbox Series consoles, Xbox Game Pass and Steam. We can’t wait.