Games

The Artful Escape’s exuberant style and psychedelic soundtrack can’t mask its essential superficiality. By Jini Maxwell.

The Artful Escape

Stereotypes and homogenisation strip life from The Artful Escape.
Credit: Annapurna Interactive / Beethoven & Dinosaur

Did you know that young white men have deeply held creative aspirations that they yearn to fulfil? Are you familiar with their angst, their dreams, their underappreciated but valid claims to genius? If you have found this archetype desperately underrepresented in recent media, don’t worry: The Artful Escape is here to help.

The musical adventure is the debut from Melbourne-based studio Beethoven & Dinosaur, helmed by creative director Johnny Galvatron, singer of The Galvatrons. The Artful Escape depicts the artistic coming-of-age of Francis Vendetti (Michael Johnston), an aspiring musician modelled after the limp, sensitive boys of early 2000s indie cinema, who shrinks in the shadow of his famous late uncle, folk singer Johnson Vendetti.

Wallowing in a creative rut in the lead-up to his first show, he meets the mysterious Violetta (Caroline Kinley), who introduces him to psychedelic space musician Lightman (Carl Weathers). Through their resulting cosmic adventure, the younger Vendetti discovers the joy of self-expression through art. Vendetti tries on different names and backstories as he learns how to define himself outside his family history: like Bob Dylan going electric at Newport Folk Festival in ’65, Vendetti taps into a new sound. Unlike Dylan, the result is far from groundbreaking.

Structurally The Artful Escape is a classic narrative adventure in the style of Night in the Woods or Life is Strange. The game follows a linear story the player explores through highly simplified platforming mechanics: Vendetti navigates the technicolour environments on a linear trajectory, running in one of two directions and occasionally jumping. Player choice is limited, an unsurprising creative decision given that the game is fully voice-acted – a genuinely delightful surprise for an independent game. Johnston is joined by Weathers, Lena Headey and Jason Schwartzman, among others, who deliver lively banter at a rapid clip.

The game pairs this notable vocal talent with an eclectic, soaring soundtrack created by the creative director. In one cosmic encounter, a creature is voiced by the throaty notes of a saxophone. The effect is layers of sound that are cinematic and rich.

At its best, The Artful Escape feels like a participatory piece of cinema that the player enables by moving from space to space. It is impeccably stylish and its environments, sound and characters are carefully choreographed. The game’s art direction combines Adrian Tomine-inspired two dimensional character design with the bloom and brightness of a Wes Anderson film, offset by a streak of joyful absurdism. It’s a captivating mix: from the naturalistic city scenes in Vendetti’s hometown, Calypso, where the game’s attention to architecture makes every charming building veneer sing, to the technicolour chaos of outer space.

Character designs repeat frequently – I count three identical white men with brunet shag haircuts and yellow blazers in an early crowd scene in Calypso. The fact that almost every character in the game wears glasses homogenises the crowds – acting as a kind of dazzle camouflage – but the eeriness is doubled by the fact that only characters with plot relevance have individual designs. While this artistic direction is captivating as a series of stills, these repetitions place such a clear division between interactive characters and background extras that even crowded scenes start to feel lifeless.

As with many narrative adventure games, The Artful Escape offers minor gameplay flourishes that give character to its simple mechanics: you can hit a key to “shred” on your guitar, and instead of a typical RPG boss fight, there are special events where Vendetti encounters alien giants and plays music with them. The aliens project a pattern of notes and the player has to repeat the pattern back using the “musical key”, a set of five musical buttons.

Successfully completing the pattern isn’t dictated by rhythm, just order; consequently, the player’s musical contributions can jar cringingly against the persistent, soaring backtrack. In a game that places such a premium on sound, playing offbeat power chords during what was clearly intended to be a glorious crescendo made me feel genuinely bad.

Another example of the game’s failure to synthesise individually lovely elements into a satisfying interactive experience is Vendetti’s walking pattern, which recalls the fluid movements of Mae, the main character of Night in the Woods. On the surface, both The Artful Escape and Night in the Woods are coming-of-age stories whose protagonists long for freedom, which is embodied in the loose movements of their limbs. But Mae’s movement stands apart from the other characters: the way she bounces, rambles and explores embodies her restlessness and disconnection after suffering a mental breakdown at college that forced her to return home. The rest of the game’s cast walk along the roads left or right, never foraying onto the telephone lines and rooftops that Mae explores. But the limits of the town still enclose her; as well as expressing her characteristic defiance, her movement pattern also emphasises that she is genuinely trapped.

In contrast, Vendetti shares his loping gait with every other character in the game. No other part of his body language conveys personality – his eyes are hidden by the same opaque glasses as everyone else. The one time Vendetti’s movement conveys his character is when he plays guitar in mid-air, maybe leaping through one of the game’s beautiful environments, moments that feel ecstatic. Even so, not much is being conveyed except “I am a guy who loves to play guitar”, which every element of the game is already beating in to you.

Narratively The Artful Escape hits on an impressive range of stereotypes. Violetta is a purple-clad manic pixie dream girl who seems to pop into existence purely to encourage Vendetti’s experimental musical impulses – “you shred pretty well for a folk singer”, she tells him after encouraging him to climb a tree. Violetta’s presence is only ever a device to guide and aid Vendetti, a behaviour that is dissonant with her characterisation as a fun but aloof “cool girl”.

Lightman, who ushers our apparently preternaturally gifted protagonist onto the path of self-actualisation, comes perilously close to playing the role of the Magical Negro. His own backstory is treated as little more than a pretext for his frankly perplexing decision to choose some guy who has never played a show to mentor throughout time and space.

If this is starting to sound superficial, it’s because it is. The game’s individual elements are stylish and exuberant, but it loses itself in a mess of tropes and design decisions that a mesmerising psychedelic soundtrack and stunning art style can’t cloak. It lives up to its name: it is an artful escape – not just for Vendetti, but for all guys who love guitar – into a world that is bright and beautiful and doesn’t ultimately have much to say. For some that will be a joy and a balm – but I am not a guy who loves guitar. 

The Artful Escape is available on X-Box and Steam.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 18, 2021 as "Guitar hero".

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Jini Maxwell is The Saturday Paper’s games reviewer.