A True Original
What makes a video game a video game? Controlling a character? Any input at all? Is it something we just know when we see it? These are questions I asked while making my way through The Artful Escape. An audio-visual tour de force, I’ll treasure my memories of it. I’m still not completely sure how much of a game it is, and I’m even less sure that being a game adds does it any favors. The more I think about it, though, the less I care.
Who Is Francis Vendetti?
Francis Vendetti is the nephew of the great Johnson Vendetti. Twenty-five years ago, Johnson released his masterpiece, the album Pines. A folk singer seemingly inspired by Dylan, Johnson passed a lot onto his nephew, including his look, musical talent, and a thirst for adventure. Despite never meeting him, their hometown of Calypso believes Francis is the next Johnson. He’s set to give his first big performance at a twenty-fifth anniversary festival celebrating Pines and the now-deceased artist who created it.
Everyone wants Francis to play his uncle’s music and be the same sort of artist. It’s easy to see why. Despite having a wonderful Wes Anderson-like vibe to it, Calypso has seen better days. While the game starts with it filled with the music and fans of Johnson, a closer look finds shops closing and a town struggling. Johnson put them on the map, they hope Francis will get them back there.
Journey Beyond Yourself
That becomes a problem because Francis doesn’t love that music. He can certainly play it well enough, but what does a teenager raised on comic books, science fiction, and psychedelic rock know about the struggles of a miner? There’s no room for him in that world. The poster for his first show doesn’t even have his photo on it. Francis reaches for the stars, and in a moment alone, rips into a killer guitar solo early in the game. Despite his love for that music, he tells himself this is just fooling around; it isn’t the hard work being a serious artist requires.
His impromptu display is overheard by light show maestro Violetta. Despite seeing his struggle, she also sees something interesting in him. After committing a minor crime together and inspiring Francis to do something he’s been too afraid to do, she tells him to meet her at Lightman’s in town. To his knowledge, though, there’s no such place in town, and a search proves futile.
Until that night, at least. That’s when an alien concert booker and Lightman himself appear and invite Francis to journey through the universe with them. It turns out Lightman’s appears in town under the right circumstances, and it can take you to all kinds of other worlds. Soon Francis joins them on their dimensional ship, the Cosmic Lung, as their opening act, and they set off for the stars.
How Does It Play?
We’re a long way into this review for me not to have said anything about how The Artful Escape plays, but that’s because it barely does. On some level, it’s a platformer, but there’s nothing to it, really. It perhaps has more in common with walking simulators like Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture and What Remains of Edith Finch. Various stages set you walking back and forth, but with a double jump and the ability to shred at any time to slow your descent, there’s never really any challenge. Even missing a jump isn’t really an issue. You’ll just appear a few steps back or have to climb back up. It’s a straightforward game that is much more about the experience than any mechanics. My biggest struggle was the slow pace Francis moves at. At times I found myself jumping forward repeatedly instead of walking solely because it’s faster.
The only thing breaking up these levels is the occasional musical challenge. You’ll meet some character wanting to challenge you and must follow them in a game of Simon, copying their inputs. These sequences bring a musical element to the game, but there’s still no challenge. Some of the inputs eventually get slightly complex, but missing one allows you to simply try again until you get it right. Hearing about the danger of some of these encounters and then finding something you can’t fail at is The Artful Escape’s biggest disconnect.
A Psychedelic Fever Dream
I mostly didn’t care, though. As you make your way through each level, you’ll find a few things to inspect, but that’s the only other thing breaking up the levels. At only four or five hours long, though, the visual and audio experience was more than enough to keep me glued to the screen. The soundtrack here is unbelievable, and not just the rock. Johnson Vendetti’s folk music that we hear is moving and beautifully composed. The problem is never his music; it’s that it isn’t Francis’.
Visually The Artful Escape feels like a fever dream. For all the variety missing from the gameplay, the visual experience is overwhelmingly varied. Worlds of light, of darkness, of stunning colors of every variety, even areas feeling right out of the real world, you never know what to expect when you transition to a new place. You do get to interact with that element of the game too. You can play your guitar as you move across each screen, and the world around you comes to life as you do. It feels like you’re putting your mark on every element of it.
Make Your Mark
That’s not the only thing you get to put your mark on, either. While the story is linear, Francis isn’t. Throughout The Artful Escape, you’re asked to help him create a new persona, the person he wants to be. Sometimes that’s as simple as giving a backstory for how he came to exist or even just answering a question with a bit more attitude. At other times you’ll get to create an all-new look or choose a home planet. These decisions don’t exist only for a moment, either. They keep coming back throughout the story, informing how Francis relates to others and becomes. If there’s any part of The Artful Escape that truly benefits from its chosen medium, it’s this one.
Your journey with Lightman across the galaxy tests Francis’ desire to find himself. What is missing from his life? What choices would he make if given the chance? How can he find his own joy without letting down those who count on him? It’s a deeply moving story that benefits greatly from an all-star voice cast. This is where the resources of a studio like Annapurna really can benefit a game. Big names like Lena Headey and Jason Schwartzman do an excellent job, but Carl Weathers as Lightman steals the show. His performance adds so much character and heart that you deeply feel for the aging Rock God.
One of my favorite elements of The Artful Escape is how the major characters mostly have their own desires and goals. This is Francis’ story, and they’re invested in it, but their only desire isn’t his desire. Characters like Lightman and Violetta have their own journeys to take, and what they need and what Francis needs aren’t always the same.
The Artful Escape is an unforgettable psychedelic journey. Its short length helps its simple mechanics stay fresh so you can focus on Francis’ journey and its stunning visuals. Perhaps fully embracing the medium could have made this something even more special, but it’s an experience all its own, and that’s okay. Much like the game tries to teach Francis, sometimes you can just have to be what you are.
Final Verdict: 4/5
Available on: Xbox Series X (Reviewed), Xbox Series S, Xbox One, PC; Publisher: Annapurna Interactive; Developer: Beethoven & Dinosaur; Players: 1; Released: September 9th, 2021; ESRB: E10+ for Everyone 10+; MSRP: $19.99
Full disclosure: This review is based on a retail copy of The Artful Escape.