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Wednesday, February 1, 2023

'The Artful Escape' Is Psychedelic Perfection

Some games are like Skinner boxes, parceling out rewards for pulling the right levers. Others are like slot machines, ding-dinging serotonin receptors with random victory. Some are like playground dodgeball or an after-school fight club behind the McDonald’s dumpster. Never have I played a game like the intro to a Parliament record: Partying on the mothership / I am the mothership connection / Gettin' down in 3-D / Light year groovin'.

Funk isn’t a perfect comparison for The Artful Escape, a game specifically about rock ‘n’ roll and a young prodigy’s journey to guitar stardom. But The Artful Escape is also a game about free association, so let’s indulge in some. The Artful Escape is like riding an elephant-sized moth toward the setting sun. It’s like sliding down an endless tree branch in a magical forest. It’s like tuning into another dimension. You actually do all of these things in the game, but they’re also all metaphors, man.

In the vein of David Bowie and his cosmic alter ego Ziggy Stardust, The Artful Escape follows the inception of protagonist Francis Vendetti’s psychedelic stage persona. Francis is a small-town sci-fi geek whose uncle was a folk music legend. On the evening before his first show, a celebration of his uncle’s greatest hits, Francis encounters a series of intergalactic beings who force him to confront his own mundanity, but also his own prodigiousness. To the public, he’s the ghost of a folk legend, but privately Francis rocks. As one manic-pixie laser-light artist tells him, “You dress like a drifter but you sound like a space opera.” With pressure mounting from his small-town neighbors to take up his uncle’s mantle, Francis escapes his childhood bedroom into the night, where a brain-in-a-vat alien meets him outside his home to escort him to the cosmic extraordinary, a dreamlike acid trip to the “gray matter between the lobes of the universe.”

“To shred a sci-fi guitar odyssey, hold X,” the game instructs. Francis must shed his former self and generate a new storyline for his life—that of his dimension-hopping, space opera stage persona. Between skating down ice mountains and bouncing off musical bubbles, Francis jams with various intergalactic celebrities, like the terrifying beast known as the Glamourgonn, sometimes to save his life.

The Artful Escape goes down easy. It’s four to five pure, joyous hours of light platforming across vivid, kaleidoscopic landscapes full of alienesque beasts and greenery. Every second of the game is entertaining. In lieu of dry monologue, one side character’s backstory unfurls through an interactive digital museum across a path he once traveled; and instead of basic platforming, Francis can manifest light pillars and swarms of fireflies just by holding X and playing guitar. (And that guitar always resonates with each zone’s dreamy background music.) When Francis performs a show, a music-making mechanic appears—more Simon Says than Guitar Hero—that prompts the player to hit buttons or triggers, at any pace or rhythm, in line with a prompt. The goal is to be expressive, not correct.

It would be trite to say The Artful Escape is a game about finding yourself. It’s a game full of surprisingly deep messages about what it means to be authentic (sometimes, blending truth and aspirational truths), to make impactful art (create things people don’t even know they want yet), and to prove others’ expectations of us wrong (excellence cannot be prescribed). Despite the dripping earnestness, The Artful Escape’s cheesiness is limited to its guitar licks. Its understated but potent writing sticks the landing.

The Artful Escape follows its own rule about impactful art; it reminds me less of other games and more of dreams I’ve had. Probably, that’s because its core is plucked from a specific person’s fantasy: that of Johnny Galvatron, former head of rock group The Galvatrons and now the creative director at Beethoven & Dinosaur (the name is a Transformers reference). “I started writing this concept of a game that was my fantasy version of what I thought the music industry and being a rockstar was going to be when I was seventeen,” Galvatron told Shack. He later told NME that being a musician wasn’t as glamorous as he’d imagined: “It’s not a life of grandeur and luxury, it’s a life of 10 people sleeping in the same hotel room in regional Australia and people asking you to play old Australian rock songs and throwing bottles at you.” What he loved about the band was its concept—the visuals, the packaging, the lore. With The Artful Escape, Galvatron summons the magic of space glam rock without dwelling on the particulars of musicianship.

The story isn’t about Francis becoming a better guitarist; it’s about him gaining the freedom to self-actualize by totally abstracting his entire existence. Unfettered from particulars, Francis unlocks himself and his fantasies. As one galactic being tells him, “We’re going on a ride across the dilated pupils of the cosmos.”

The Artful Escape is available September 9 for $20 on PC and Xbox.

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