How do you learn to live with the shadow of something bigger than yourself?
The answer — in The Artful Escape and life — is not at all. The spectre of expectation is a common challenge: meeting the expectations of overbearing parents, upholding the demands of investors, matching the unrealistic dreams of fans, or just living up the image your loved ones hold.
We all deal with that burden; many live with it for the rest of their lives. That’s the central theme for The Artful Escape, the first game from Australian studio Beethoven & Dinosaur. It stars Francis Vendetti, the teenage main character who was once part of the title, at least when the game was doing the rounds at PAX five years ago.
Back then, the game was billed as the story of a teenage rocker on their way to their first gig, after making a short interdimensional trip through space and time. The Artful Escape is fundamentally still that, but the opening hook is more about Francis living in the shadow of his superstar uncle, a once-in-a-generation folk artist. His work is so fundamental not just to the small town Francis lives in, but also Francis’s family. They hold onto the folk image so tightly that Francis, and his penchant for glam rock, feels trapped.
Francis’s talent for shredding is, as every human and non-human being reminds him to varying degrees, his saviour. How that’s brought about is typically done by holding the X button, a move that often resonates and revitalizes the background scenery. There are slightly more complicated segments throughout where the visual spectacle is withheld behind a Simon Says-style mini-game, either to open certain doors or appease the whims of creatures like the Glamourgonn. But Artful Escape trades mechanical design for holographic stages, monsters that speak through jazz, and pure sensory overload.
The puzzles are never meant to trouble Francis, or you. That’s part of the message too, as Francis admits regret to Lightman — the soloist partially responsible for his hand-drawn cosmic journey — for passing through the cosmos so easily.
“I feel like I’m not trying hard enough,” Francis wallows.
Lightman, and The Artful Escape as a visual and aural spectacle, laughs at the idea. Much like Francis’s true preference for self-expression, The Artful Escape is unconcerned with mechanics, competitor matrixes or what things are or should be. It’s fundamentally a five-hour, mushroom-friendly metaphor about authenticity — but it’s also the culmination of a teenage dream scribbled down in a student maths book decades ago.
The Artful Escape has plenty of proclamations about great art, context, and authenticity, although they’re not especially profound. But the earnestness of it all, which never veers into corny or cringe, helps Beethoven & Dinosaur stick the landing. The messages are digestible partly because they’re not too complex, but also because The Artful Escape knows when to highlight its glam rock environment and when to delve into the life Francis so desperately wants to escape.
The writing is subtle, never preachy. And while some of the characters enjoy a linguistic flourish better enjoyed under the influence or amidst a university lecture hall, everything is easily relatable. The Artful Escape was never advertised as a useful coming-of-age adventure for tweens, but in an era where teenagers and young adults are suffering increased depression, isolation, anxiety, alienation, and cyberbullying from the need to constantly project an image, brand, and self-worth, Beethoven & Dinosaur’s postcard experience fits the times.
It helps that the sheer volume of music in the game — produced by Johnny Galvatron and the same mind behind Addicted To Bass, Josh Abrahams — adds to the escapism. It’s also partially why it’s taken so long, because much music was recorded for the game. But The Artful Escape misses a trick here in that you’re not given more freedom to shred to your desires. The light Simon Says puzzle sequences let you hit the notes with any frequency you like, but they’re all finished within 60 seconds, not long enough to enjoy the proceedings.
It’s also hard to appreciate some of the game’s soundtrack because of the platforming at times. Some segments require double-jump-and-shredding, keeping Francis mid-air for a little longer. Shredding brings some of the levels to life, animating the plants, creatures, and humans in the background to create a wonderful spectacle. Unfortunately, it always takes priority over the ambient music, even if those ambient songs are much better suited to the sheer detail in handcrafted levels.
But these are minor complaints on what is, on the whole, a wonderful spectacle. It’s a permanent graphical and aural delight, even when its fidelity is hampered by the boxiness of services like Steam Link. The voiceover performances from Michael Johnston, Caroline Kinley and Carl Weathers, backed by Lena Headey, Mark Strong and Jason Schwartzman, are just as energetic as the environments. It’s the kind of theorised dreamscape of glam rock that, really, could only be brought to life through video games.
The Artful Escape began as a fantasy of what a teenage Johnny Galvatron thought the rockstar life could look like. Instead, it serves as a psychedelic reminder. Francis needs some help from flying turtles and transdimensional brainstems, but eventually he gains freedom from his Bob Dylan-esque uncle through his own intergalactic persona. And while we can’t all just step into the cosmos to escape our troubles, one way or another, we all need to be ourselves someday, free of shadow.