Seventeen-year-old guitar prodigy Francis Vendetti lives with his mother in a small Colorado town that is still in thrall to its most famous export: Francis’s late uncle, a platinum-selling folk singer. Francis feels inevitable pressure to continue the family trade, and, in preparation for his highly anticipated first public performance in town, writes a suite of Dylan-esque tracks about toil and loss. Except the act is an affectation: Francis is, at heart and by temperament, a prog-rock wailer who dreams of playing high-gain, euphoric guitar solos over the swell of a supportive orchestra. When he’s visited by a sympathetic alien being who observes: “You wear folk like a cheap suit”, Francis swaps his skinny Levi’s for an LED-encrusted catsuit and sets off across the Milky Way to shred for an audience of intergalactic concertgoers.
This is true space opera territory – Ziggy-era Bowie meets The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – and far from typical video game subject matter. But then The Artful Escape is not the product of a typical video game-maker, having been conceived and refined by Johnny Galvatron, frontman of Aussie rock band the Galvatrons. You guide Francis, who runs like a stop-motion Super Mario puppet, across Martian landscapes – snowy vistas filled with glowing mushrooms, Narnia street lamps, pinwheeling star systems. As you bound around and explore, you are free to break into a soaring solo or pinched harmonic at any moment with the tap of an X button. Every now and then you duet with another character, following on-screen prompts, but there’s no pressure to time your button presses against some computational conductor; you can play according to rhythm and taste. No matter what you choose, it’s bound to sound good, as the game quantises and harmonises everything.
The Artful Escape is, Galvatron has said, a 17-year-old’s conception of what it is to play in a rock band: musical transcendence meets universal adoration beneath the hot lights. But behind the shimmer, this is a touching tale of how to break free of the creative expectations of others. There is little traditional challenge here, but as a left-field power fantasy, few video games are so immediately stylish or so gratifying.