Your journey in The Artful Escape begins when the hatch pops off your starship on a twinkling snow-capped planet somewhere beyond the fifth dimension. The camera is framed through a two-dimensional panorama—Mario Bros. style—and the only way is forward. It’s a platformer, I guess, but with a heavy Psilocin load coursing through its veins. Player-character Francis Vendetti is a John Lennon-like voyager looking for truth, love or something close through the sweet release of music, and as he leaps over the first gap, he whips out his celestial axe and starts shredding in sublime harmony with the airy synthesizer backbeat filling the void. Yes, this is a video game where the double-jump is tied to a wicked guitar solo. A few minutes later Vendetti arrives at a cliff. He shreds some more, and the game prompts me to “jettison your guitar.” It floats out of my hands and explodes in a celestial mist, leaving behind a crystal bridge. A giant worm carrying a city on its back pierces the diorama in the distance.
For a few years, you could catch Johnny Galvatron holding down fort as the frontman in the kooky Australian electro-rock quartet the Galvatrons. They achieved respectable mid-level success—a record deal with Warner Bros., an appearance in the down-under edition of Rolling Stone—and within a few months of their auspicious debut EP When We Were Kids, Johnny realized how much he disliked being a rock star.
“I hated touring. When I got back I was like ‘I never want to leave the house again,’” he says. “[Touring] seems so fantastical from the outside, but the reality is you’re smashed inside of a van all day. I realized I hated it a month in, and I was like, ‘I’ll give it five years.’”
The Galvatrons faded into an indefinite hiatus after the release of their first album Laser Graffiti in 2009. Johnny (who declines to disclose his real last name) studied game design in college, and decided to return to his aspirational roots. I met him at E3, the biggest press convention on the video game calendar year, fielding dozens of interviews under the banner of Annapurna, the auspicious arthouse publisher most famous for producing films like Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, and David O. Russell’s American Hustle. They picked up The Artful Escape as part of their rapid expansion into the games industry, and the project made its cosmopolitan debut as a featured title in the middle of Microsoft’s glitzy press conference. It might seem strange that a remote indie game is sharing real estate with nine-figure titans like Forza Motorsport and Anthem, but good ideas come in all shapes and sizes.
The 15 minutes I spent with The Artful Escape on the show floor were incredible. It’s an unabashed celebration of the transformative power of rock ’n’ roll, as filtered through the radiant, metaversal eccentricities cultivated by titans like Prince and David Bowie. More clearly, it seems like a game that would absolutely not be made by someone who rapidly fell out of love with life on the road. “It’s almost like an anti-biography,” says Johnny. “I thought the music industry was going to be this world of unlocked doors and fantasy. I wanted to maintain that naivete.”
The Artful Escape’s narrative is simple. On the night before Francis Vendetti’s first performance, he travels through a rock ’n’ roll dream world to unlock his inner superstar. Along the way, you consult your muses. A technicolor phantom asks Francis who he is when he’s writing music in the back corners of his mind. “The captain of my soul,” “a master of all destiny,” “an emperor of dying stars.” It’s tongue-in-cheek, but those questions are close to Johnny’s ideals. The things he loves about rock ’n’ roll are on the periphery. The stage personas, the dry ice, the Stonehenges, and the way those silly things can influence your art. “All that satellite creativity around the medium can be just as creative, and just as artful, as the medium itself,” he says. “Look at David Bowie, and the world he created, or Andy Warhol and the scene he built around his factories. Or if people would view Daft Punk differently if they were just two dudes instead of robots searching for humanity. That stuff has always been super interesting to me.”
Johnny used to tell journalists that his band was from the future. He never struggled with self-actualization—a man named Johnny Galvatron always knew exactly who he wanted to be onstage—so perhaps we should digest The Artful Escape as sage reassurance. We all have personas, we are all rockstars in our heads, sometimes it’s best to trust those feelings. He tells me he designed the game to make you feel like a badass. A world where virtuosity sparks from your fingers like second nature. The trials you face on your journey are all solved with simple Simon Says mini-games that correspond with chords on your guitar. Lights blaze against the sky when you hit the high notes. You never stumble, because Prince never stumbled. Auteurship is not supposed to feel hard.
“Music games never feel like playing music to me,” says Johnny. “I’ve never played a guitar waiting for the notes [like in Guitar Hero.] I wanted the gameplay to be simple and powerful. Like playing power chords. It’s easy, but it makes you feel like a badass.”
The Artful Escape won’t officially release until 2018. Indie games like these usually take a long time. This is a small team piling their resources to make something that speaks to their personal experiences—in this case, a lifelong love affair with the performing arts. We need more optimism like that, because it’s hard to find much to be hopeful about in the music industry right now. This is a rickety business built on tour shares and merch sales, with massive tech companies bankrolling major releases in a shell game of competing streaming services that leave everyone else out in the cold. It’s all real, it’s all sad, and that makes the joyousness of The Artful Escape startling. The bullshit is defeated when you jump in the air and shred. Johnny Galvatron saw the man behind the curtain, and he still believes in rock ’n’ roll.