The Artful Escape – The Best Game We All Ignored in 2021
I am pleased to report that, according to some math done on my fingers just now, that it is still definitely less than half of my lifetime ago that I was hunched over a yellowing computer, a self-stressed university student, punching away on my final film essay.
Credit where it’s due, the lecturer in charge of what film theory units I was able to take is one of the most passionate people I’ve ever met. She didn’t take the easy path, but she was keen to expand her student’s world, and making effort reaped rewards. The question that I was tackling was quite difficult to get my head around, but it also ultimately helped to clarify so much about how I (and, I strongly suspect, most other people) really enjoy and connect with film. The crux of this, how it has affected my thought process, has echoed so strongly over the years that I’ve come to look back at this period as a slow-motion epiphany stretched across weeks of reading and hours of typing.
The question I was trying to answer was framed around a quote pulled, with scalpel-like attention, from a larger paper that positioned that the appeal of cinema should be compared less to “a system of functionally interrelated norms and a corresponding set of imperial objects than to a scaffold, a matrix, or web that allows for a wide range of aesthetic effects and experiences.” Or, in simpler terms: there’s more to a great movie than simply ‘a good story’, and we’re being reductive every time we reduce the medium to this one aspect.
It was by thinking in relation to videogames that I was actually able to understand what this comment was getting at. Games were even worse much of the time when it came to limiting criticism: instead of story, we have that nebulous thing known as gameplay. While things are somewhat better now, this issue really stood out in the early-through-mid ‘00s. Suddenly, while I did have to accept that what the Mario games of my childhood were doing was perhaps mechanically more inventive than golden age Sonic ever managed, I had now found a way of understanding why Sega’s offering stuck me so hard, of accepting that there really wasn’t any shame in being smitten by the thrill of achieving those moments of blinding speed where the flow, the audible chime of collected rings, the pop of animals freed from mechanical shells; where everything seemed to click and feel just… right.
It’s easy to simplify all of this as mere spectacle. It’s more than that, though – it’s a musing on the greater power of wider aesthetics, and beyond. I doubled-down on the aesthetic angle a bit too strongly during the years that immediately followed, regrettably getting reductive in my own way. Eventually, my eyes opened again, recognised the merit of anything that a piece of media may be trying to do has its own worth. What really matters, I have come to realise, is communication.
It’s about having something to stay; about how well you say it.
The stuff that really gets this right, the stuff that sticks.
That thing could be as deep as an urgent political statement, or as straightforward as expressing a love of way-too-expensive supercars. Want to do something for the simple reason that it’d look or sound incredibly awesome? Go right-the-fucktrain ahead.
All of which brings me to what may* be the most criminally overlooked game from 2021: The Artful Escape.
Make no mistake. The Artful Escape is not a great name. At least, not for the type of experience that is on offer here. It’s a title that evokes images of cash-heists, of coordinated prison breaks, of 90% planning and 10% execution.
It absolutely does not evoke electric-guitars composed entirely of light wailing through space on a journey to the metal sun at the centre of the universe wherein they will play so loud, blaze so bright as to initiate a second big bang that will play out like a firework show along the platinum edges of galaxies not yet born.
It should, though.
One thing needs to be made very clear up front: The Artful Escape (still a dumb name) is mechanically as gentle as it gets. It’s a straightforward side-scrolling adventure that alternates between character interactions, forgiving platforming segments and play-it-at-your-own-pace rhythm challenges. Incredibly (and, impressively, importantly for its themes), your approach to musical output will always end up sounding good. Really, really good.
With this in mind, The Artful Escape let me have my cake and eat it, too; it’s like chocolate that somehow has the nutritional value of All Bran. It is a game that is simultaneously about doing absolutely bonkers, over-the-top ridiculous shit for the primary reason of ‘because it’s awesome’ while also nurturing deeply personal themes.
It begins amid some grand, towering trees, your player character dressed like a nature-loving English professor. Importantly, he is sitting with his guitar on his lap, on a cliff edge somewhere in Colorado. The game instructs you to hold a button to play a meaningful ballad about the toil of working the mines, then again to serenade the beauty of all those there trees that are keeping your company. A couple of sighs, a limp walk to the edge of the cliff and then the hold-button command suddenly becomes “to shred a sci-fi guitar odyssey”.
And just like that, we have learned most of what we really need to know about our lead character, Francis. The nephew of a folk legend who recorded a landmark album a couple of decades earlier – before he was even conceived –, Francis is living under the pressure of carrying this legacy. That he is seventeen goes some way in allowing things to be heavy-handed with how much he verbalises the pressure of feeling like he has to be a very serious, po-faced folk musician.
You possibly already know where this is going. Doesn’t matter – words alone will likely not suffice to prepare you for the ride. For one thing, Francis doesn’t have to be Francis anymore. He is The Amazing Whatever-The-Fuck-You-Want-Him-To-Be-Called.
The Artful Escape, while by no means a long game, is nonetheless appropriately paced and knows how to bide its time. A lengthy, unrushed opening chapter freely lets players meander as they explore his (too picturesque to be believably) dying hometown, learn more about the importance of folk music to it and how this adds to the pressure that Francis is under. It also grants some clear glimpses at the seams that reveal his inner sci-fi geek.
And then it just kind of… becomes… absolutely, unapologetically, balls-out incredible. The plot reason for how things get so wild? Some aging Hendrix-like wants him to fill the role of a support act on an intergalactic music tour. The actual reason? Probably because it’d be really, really cool.
Pyjama-clad, Francis inspects a late-night commotion outside his house and quickly meets an alien that employs a stage light (from where? Who cares!) to change his bed-clothes into an LED array and bestow him with an electric guitar. Hold button to shred and run around town, the power of this music willing rows of lightbulbs into existence, perfectly arranged, strings of light filling the windows of sleeping houses, a Trans Siberian Orchestra performance on two legs.
It only gets better from here. Francis discovers himself and accepts that maybe the sound of this intergalactic rock opera comes more easily to him because not all aspects of music have to be a struggle; that finding and expressing yourself is a huge part of it. His shiny new guitar goes everywhere on this journey through colourful, surreal, intergalactic locations. Plants burst to life, creatures bop and lights buzz with unending energy.
In some ways, The Artful Escape appears very simple – this is a side-scrolling game, after all. But while the team has clearly spent some meaningful resources on aesthetics, it’s not trying to be a graphics engine’s poster child. It knows exactly what it wants to look (and sound) like, and it pulls it off to damn near perfection. It’s timeless in a way that is looking forward, if not quite looking back – a Switch port exists, but this is a game best experienced on a PS5 or Series X, not strictly for the crisp 4K presentation (although this is nice) but primarily because you’ll struggle to find an equally as delirious over-indulgence of the HDR spectrum.
Sliding down a ledge in a sci-fi fantasy landscape, wailing an electric guitar glowing white-hot like plasma because the music it plays causes flowers to glow with life and fireworks to burst in the background is an aesthetic energy that will continue to dazzle the eyes a good decade from now, very likely two. Did I mention that it’s fucking awesome? Because it’s fucking awesome. People will play this on the PlayStation 7 or whatever and still call their housemates over to the TV because holy shit you have to experience this thing that’s happening just now!
The Artful Escape won’t accept being anything less than fucking awesome. Play fast or play slow, tap notes or draw them out: the results will always rock, and the play-along note challenges offer no-fail screen. Just keep jamming until you jam just right, jam the way that you feel works, then sit back and indulge in the spectacle of lights.
The important twist, though, is that the two sides – folk and psychedelic hard rock – could easily be flipped. Developer Beethoven & Dinosaur went for an intergalactic space opera, presumably, because that’s what appealed. But no shade is thrown at folk music, and this is important. The folk music that exists in the soundtrack is actually pleasant to listen to, the early aesthetic absolutely something I could chill out with. In fact, the opening hour of the game still drips with atmosphere; this whole game is a masterpiece of feel and mood. There is an alternative possibility somewhere out there where the mechanics are tweaked to something more relaxed, and the sides of the story flipped to be about the child of a rock god wanting to just squeeze what he or she can from a sole acoustic guitar.
It’s also possible that I would love that alternative reality, could let my troubles mellow as I play it over a lazy Sunday afternoon and a couple of cups of freshly-brewed coffee. It could absolutely happen, still, if someone makes that game. The Artful Escape isn’t that game, of course. Rather, its answer to stress is to channel it, to let it burst forth in fluorescent rainbows and cosmic guitar riffs. There are no edges here. As mentioned, it is incredibly gentle from a mechanics perspective. It’s pressing forward without impedance – a perfect Sonic run minus all those damn spikes, a shower of aesthetic delights following in your wake as you slide down another slope bringing an entire goddamn world to life with your electric guitar.
It’s ultimately a quest to become an intergalactic rock god, in a shockingly literal sense. But it’s also ultimately a quest about finding and reinventing yourself on your own terms. It knows how to pace its delights, and it absolutely makes good on character exploration when a little respite is required. As a kid who grew up in the Blue Mountains with no interest in cricket or rugby, or much anything else that was locally popular, this strikes home pretty hard in places.
My own response was to start living in different countries not too long after I was done handing in that essay and finishing up my final year of university. It was rewarding in its own way, but it might have been a whole lot more awesome had that Qantas plane been replaced by a glass narwhal, my carry-on luggage by a neon guitar that powered my travels through the sound energy of its heavenly, metallic screams.
* Let’s face it, so much amazing stuff gets released every year that it’s highly probable that there is something even more criminally overlooked. I really, really like The Artful Escape, though.