The Artful Escape (2021)
Developer: Beethoven & Dinosaur
I try not to put too much weight on what games get deemed "best" by The Game Awards. However, I do enjoy taking a look through the nominations for games that I could be interested in. I was impressed to see The Artful Escape was nominated not only for Best Debut Indie, but also Best Score and Music and Best Art Direction. I finally got around to picking up Game Pass so I could play a lot of these hit 2021 games. The Artful Escape is a psychedelic platformer about a teenage musician on a cosmic journey to find his stage persona. The Artful Escape is hard to summarize because of its at times off-the-rails story, but without a doubt it was an incredibly cathartic, genuinely fun musical experience unlike anything else I've played.
You play as Francis Vendetti, a teenage boy in the small town of Calypso. Francis isn't just a any boy, though - his uncle was the late Johnson Vendetti, a folk music superstar and essentially the Bob Dylan of this world. Francis is a musical prodigy, yet he lives under the shadow of his uncle - everyone in Calypso expects him to be the next Johnson Vendetti. Although Francis can skillfully play his uncle's folk songs, what he really likes is to daydream about space and play what can best be described as progressive rock. It's the day before Francis' first show and the posters for the event have a giant picture of Johnson and tiny picture of Francis. Francis' manager even threatens him that he better not plan on playing anything that strays from "what people came to see". In the middle of the night, Francis is awoken by a strange alien outside his home and is introduced to Lightman, a legendary rock musician. They take Francis away into The Cosmic Extraordinary and he embarks on a bizarre journey to figure out his stage persona and his true musical sound. Despite knowing that his passion isn't folk music, Francis has a hard time letting go. He fears the world will reject him if he's not a "serious musician" instead of what he really wants to be.
I should preface this by saying that I actually do believe The Artful Escape should have won "Best Art Direction". Okay, to be fair, I haven't played Deathloop so I can't compare the two. The art direction in this game really is that good, though. In the town of Calypso, the world looks somewhat like a living pop-up book, each layer individually painted. It's absolutely beautiful and gives depth to the world despite a 2D environment. The art style goes from autumn and warm to neon and psychedelic as Francis travels into space, with bizarre colorful mountains and giant glowing aliens. It's hard not to stop and admire the gorgeous starry backgrounds, which is why I took so many screenshots. The music is an interesting range through the game, as it starts with Johnson Vendetti's folk music and quickly evolves into progressive rock and at times even classical. It's interesting how throughout the entire journey, Francis and the other characters call his music a lot of things - shredding, spaceman music, wailing - all accurate, but no one ever actually uses the word "rock". After watching me play for a few minutes, my partner called The Artful Escape a " progressive rock album in game form", and since he knows a lot more about music genres than I do, I'll go with that. The customization in this game was also one of my favorite things. Sure, you start as Francis, but then you get to create your completely unique stage persona, down to the backstory, outfit, makeup, and even name. It's different than creating your character in any other game, because you feel this freedom to be as extra as possible - you're not just designing your character, you're designing an intergalactic rockstar.
I didn't really know what to expect going in to The Artful Escape. I was a little worried that it was going have a trippy art style, good music, but not much gameplay. However, I was actually really satisfied with how it handled the musical gameplay. Sure, the platforming itself is really simple and pretty slow. It's not about the platforming itself, though, it's that you get to jam on your guitar while platforming. You can use it to float in the air, smash your guitar into the ground, or even play as your slide through the ground on your knees. For me, the platforming never felt boring because I could do anything I wanted with it. Simply put, it just made you feel like a badass. There was so many moments where this game just put a huge smile on my face as I thought "hell yeah, this is so sick". Much of the gameplay was jamming along with different characters and creatures. It's not exactly a rhythm game, as you could play at your own rhythm as long as you played the same notes. This game did something that I found super helpful as far as playing music - instead of constantly giving you button prompts of "A, B, X, Y", it actually gave you visual button-looking indicators of where to press on your controller. I like this much better, as I often tend to mess up button prompts on Xbox controller (look, I'm a Nintendo kid, my brain thinks A is always on the right). Not only did this make it easier for me to follow a long chain of fast notes, but it actually looked way more integrated into the game. It's actually quite funny to me that aliens literally had faces that looked like the button controls, but I think this was just silly enough to work.
It was also a surprise to learn that The Artful Escape was fully voice-acted, and it was definitely to its benefit. I tend to be a little hard on voice acting in games, but it felt just right in this game. You first get to know Francis as a shy, worried teenage boy, but as he begins to grow into his persona his voice grows louder, confident, and upbeat. The other characters are also given so much personality through their actions and their voice. Violetta, introduced early in the game, was one of my favorite characters for being a genuine caring person despite the obvious angst and rebellious attitude she exhibits. She's also a great addition for reminding us that an incredibly show or concert isn't just about the music, it's about the visuals too.
I am delightfully surprised about how much I ended up enjoying The Artful Escape. So much so that I felt a little sad finishing it - I kind of wanted to jam just one more time. I've played other video games based around music, but I can't think of another instance where the gameplay worked so well with it to successfully make me, the player, feel like I'm the musician. On its own, The Artful Escape is not an incredibly deep story - however, it plays so much with the idea of "transforming" into your true self and leaving behind the version of you that others expect that I think one could justifiably read it as a queer, specifically trans, story. However, even if you take The Artful Escape for what it says on the surface, all the weird details of the story aren't as important as being blissfully free to reinvent yourself and play really fun, badass music across different planets.
"An artist's job is not to give people what they want, Francis. It's to give people something they could never have imagined."
The Artful Escape is available on PC, Xbox Series X/S, and Xbox One
Played on: PC
Playtime: 7.5 hrs