Imagine you're a 17-year-old aspiring folk musician in a small town. You strum your acoustic on a hill, staring out over your tiny town, trying to gather inspiration for your first concert. The pressure is immense. You want to do well. You want people to take you seriously. Now imagine your uncle is Bob Dylan. No pressure.
This is where we find our protagonist at the beginning of The Artful Escape -- a new musical adventure game from game studio Beethoven & Dinosaur and publisher Annapurna Interactive that was released Thursday for Xbox and PC for $20 or as part of Game Pass (it's until Sept. 16).
I'd been excited to play The Artful Escape since I first heard of it in 2019. The game has been in the works since about 2015, according to creator Johnny Galvatron. When Galvatron signs on for our video chat ahead of the game's launch, it's like the game's hero, Francis Vendetti, is looking back at me.
"The elevator pitch is like if David Bowie went off on a space journey and came back as Ziggy Stardust," Galvatron tells me, adjusting the massive black Elton John-style sunglasses on his face.
Galvatron doesn't just dress the part of a rockstar, he actually was a rockstar. Galvatron was the frontman for Australian rock band The Galvatrons in the late 2000s, opening for bands like Def Leppard and Cheap Trick. The Galvatrons did a few tours, but life on the road eventually lost its appeal. Galvatron says he came home and started writing video game reviews and taught himself Unreal Engine, still living with his head in the clouds.
"I think [the game] is like the opposite of my story," Galvatron says. "It's like my artful escape as well. It's what I envision when I play music and when I think of what the music industry would be like when I was 17. It's like magical doors that would unlock this crazy world."
I was looking forward to playing The Artful Escape, but I was totally unprepared for one of the coolest, weirdest, most visually gorgeous games I've ever played.
'We're going on a ride across the dilated pupils of the cosmos'
The Artful Escape transports players to 1972 and tells the story of teenage guitar prodigy Francis Vendetti in the small town of Calypso, Colorado. The nephew of a late folk legend, Francis tries to break through a creative block ahead of his first performance, but he repeatedly spaces out. During his daydreams, his music changes entirely, mirroring iconic electric guitar solos from Queen, Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin.
A mysterious woman named Violetta appears and offers Francis the chance to step out of his uncle's shadow and shake off the heap of expectations placed on his young shoulders. With that, Francis embarks on a wild journey of self-discovery through space and time as he creates his stage persona.
Eventually, Francis meets a character named Lightman -- and his alien companion, Hypnagogic Zomm. "We're going on a ride across the dilated pupils of the cosmos," Lightman tells the dumbstruck Francis before they take to the stars. Lightman asks Francis to be his support act for an upcoming concert. But before you can venture into the Cosmic Extraordinary, you have to show Lightman you can play.
As someone with fond memories of Guitar Hero, I was eager to see how The Artful Escape would translate playing guitar to gameplay. I wasn't disappointed. At the beginning of the game as Francis struggles to perfect his folk repertoire, prompts like "hold X to play guitar" or "to shred a sci-fi odyssey hold X" made Francis play the guitar. When it comes time to jam with Lightman, the gameplay mechanics change. When Lightman starts to play guitar, you must repeat the melody back to him by following the progression on a color wheel, similar to the electronic memory game Simon. Galvatron says the gameplay mechanic goes a step further though.
"It's kind of about harmonizing and you can finish the chord progression," Galvatron says. "That just feels like a drop waiting to happen and you have to hit it. That's what I feel like when I'm playing music."
The Artful Escape is an adventure game with musical and platformer elements. But players shouldn't fear the sometimes tedious horizontal gameplay of other platformer games. As Francis continues his journey, he treks across beautiful environments around the universe. As you progress, you can choose to make Francis play the guitar as he runs. Playing the guitar literally brings the environment to life: cities and forests light up, creatures awaken and move to the music.
The game doesn't have a point system, and as I played, I felt no fear of failure. Even while shredding for a cosmic creature -- the game's equivalent to a boss fight -- the worst that could happen was a sour note, and I got to try again. As I progressed, the music patterns became trickier to follow, but it only makes nailing the progression all the more satisfying.
"We wanted that guitar to be effortless," Galvatron says. "It's like playing Smells Like Teen Spirit, you know? It's not hard, you don't think about it, but it makes you feel badass."
Following your cosmic dreams
Just like music and films, there are many games that can make you change your outlook on the world and realize things about yourself, according to Galvatron. Developers are still trying to figure out the best way to tell stories in games, he says.
"I think games have more time than other mediums in their first act," Galvatron says. "I think you have a little bit more time than a film or novel to establish the world, and establish the stakes for your characters. It's a while well into The Artful Escape before you get your guitar. Because you need to be down with Francis before he picks it up."
The Artful Escape offers different dialogue options when you're talking to another character in the game, but it's not a branching narrative. Francis' responses range from shy and modest to confident to almost comically cocky. When I began playing The Artful Escape, running Francis around Calypso, most of my dialogue choices were meek and indecisive. Once Francis began consistently wailing on his guitar across the galaxy, bringing different worlds to life, finding support among a colorful, zany cast of characters, I noticed my in-game interactions became more confident.
Galvatron says the game is all about Francis and who he is as a person and a musician. The almost subconscious acknowledgement of Francis' growing confidence, in tandem with the relatable memories of teenage self-discovery, made The Artful Escape a fascinating, visually stunning, immersive game, as well as a thoroughly enjoyable experience.
The Artful Escape packages a message about following your dreams, stepping out of line and being your most authentic self. It was a message that I didn't hear when I was 17, but the beauty of the game is giving players a chance to discover their own Cosmic Extraordinary.