Johnny Galvatron, a developer at Beethoven & Dinosaur, describes his former musical outfit The Galvatrons as a band that was “around for a good time, but not a long time.”
The more I asked him about his pre-games development rock and roll background, the more that he demurred and insisted that it was a largely negative time of his life. However, when I brought up specific gameplay elements of his ceaselessly entertaining prog-rock-inspired phantasmagoria, The Artful Escape, he lit up like a candelabra.
There’s a certain magic to his rhythm platformer The Artful Escape that elides its potential to fully sink into the grip of banal nostalgia, and it comes from the game’s outstanding visual panache, its wide array of characters, and its consistently optimistic, earwormy, and synthy guitar-driven soundtrack. It was part of a Kickstarter attempt in 2016 — only to be distributed by Annapurna Interaction, who, in its house-style, peppered out the voice cast with A-list Hollywood talents like Lena Headey, Jason Schwartzman, and Mark Strong. The main focus of the game is actor Michael Johnston’s perfectly-voiced protagonist, Francis Vendetti.
At its core, The Artful Escape is an easy-to-play, straightforward adventure game with a mythical story about creating your own identity and escaping the shackles of outside perception. It’s equal parts Tim Shaefer, Bill & Ted, and Kentucky Route Zero, with myriad conversation choices and an emotional-yet-upbeat nature.
You play as Francis, who is haunted by the ghost of his uncle, an iconic Bob Dylan-esque folk singer. He lives in the bespoke mountain conclave of Calypso, Colorado, where everyone expects him to belt out perfectly cloying renditions of his uncle’s famous tunes. With some inspiration from other, more seasoned, independent characters, and interference from a cosmic monstrosity (that ends up being the assistant to the most revered musician in the cosmos), Francis goes on a sci-fi, musical escapade through various planets and jams with the most musically passionate aliens that the universe has on offer.
I asked the Melbourne-based Aussie about his personal journey from his years as a musician to the long process of creating The Artful Escape, the art of failure, writing an unpublished, grandiose novel, and more.
Jonathan: Can you just talk about your background for a bit, for those that are not aware of your story?
Johnny: I studied 3D computer animation at uni. And then kind of a week after that, I got a record deal. After a couple of gigs with my band, I toured the world for five years. It sucked. And then I came home, wrote a novel, and I didn't show it to anyone. While I was writing this novel, I saw a path that I could get into game development.
I've always been a massive gaming fan, but everyone's a gaming fan. When I was on tour, I was writing video game reviews for different newspapers in Australia and stuff. And I’ve always been the kind of person who writes and draws a lot.
Jonathan: What was your novel about?
Johnny: It was about a bunch of supernatural musicians who lived in a labyrinth beneath Vienna. But no one will ever see it.
Jonathan: How long is this novel?
Johnny: It was like 280,000 words.
Jonathan: Can you talk about the game’s core coming-of-age theme of ignoring societal expectations and finding your own identity? Was that something very personal to you?
Johnny: I'm really into the kind of satellite aspects that surround people's core mediums. Not David Bowie's music, but the way he dressed and the rumors he spread himself and film clips he made, the parties he went to. I always loved that stuff. Even in my band, I probably spent definitely not enough time on the music, and way too much time designing film clips and outfits and stuff. Eventually you kind of populate that idea with characters — and I'm sure you’re the same where your brain’s fat on all the movies and literature that you've read — and, characters build themselves eventually. At least that's how I feel. Francis needing to step out from the shadow of his uncle and wanting to do something creative is a pretty universal theme of societal expectations. There's always gonna be someone who tells you you're wasting your time when you do creative stuff.
“There's always gonna be someone who tells you you're wasting your time when you do creative stuff.”
Jonathan: The character of Francis is a folk musician, and everyone is telling him to stop playing folk. Do you have a legitimate dislike of folk music?
Johnny: No, I love folk music. I think it's just that I'm looking for the opposite — you know, in that small town [Ed. note: the game takes place in a small Colorado town of Calypso] country folk kind of vibe, especially in the ‘70s, you coming out dressed in a catsuit — that that would be difficult to do. So I think that's why it comes into focus in Colorado. That’s also me wanting to make the game in a place where I had never been because I think of the game as my escape as well, from my rock and roll experience. It’s more what I imagined when I was 17: that it would be this magical door opening to this crazy world.
Jonathan: And it wasn’t.
Johnny: No, it’s just touring regional Australia. I toured Europe and all that stuff. Touring sounds like traveling. It's not. It’s like the inside of a plane, the inside of a pub, and we’re not playing for like, 10,000 people. It’s more like 300 people. I didn’t have the YouTube rock experience, that’s for sure.
Jonathan: You had the Wake in Fright experience.
Johnny: [Laughs] It’s staying in a room with 8 people that’s meant for 4. That’s the logistics of touring rock and roll in an industry that's doesn't really support that anymore and doesn't have a lot of cash behind it.
It's set in this window of ‘70s glam rock and roll. It’s like with science-fiction writing, where you want say something about today as well. That’s the common theme: “How creative can we be with how we show who we are to the world?” The music industry is what it is, and it's not this horrible vulture in my mind. It’s probably not going to go back to where it was. There can't be another Led Zeppelin; Led Zeppelin are cast in bronze. You know what I mean? Can you ever ascend to that again? Start making games. That’s the answer. That’s the frontier.
“How creative can we be with how we show who we are to the world?”
Jonathan: There’s also a big part of the game that’s about failure and missed opportunity. Can you talk about if failure is an important tool to have as an artist?
Johnny: Failure absolutely inspires you. It inspires me. I was extremely down after The Galvatrons. We were in one of those bands that had quite a big record deal, and had a lot of pressure on us, and we probably didn't deliver. When you do have failure like that, how are you going to deal with it and how are you going to bounce back? I bounced back and changed paths. And it is something that haunts you, and it is something that informs your art. For me, it's been a positive, it's pushed me in good directions that have worked out really well for me. But it does come with its scars, I guess. I think a lot of artists are hungry. I’m definitely a hungry artist. I like to work and hope I can make something significant. My hope is that The Artful Escape is that.
Jonathan: There’s always the danger with making a game based around an era like this and falling too much into nostalgia. In my mind, the game avoids that trap by having such a unique world and characters. Can you talk about if you were worried about being trapped in nostalgia?
Johnny: It doesn't play like hot lava or anything when things go well. Yeah, I think I think it could have definitely ventured into that. Especially if we'd licensed a lot of music. It could have done that. But obviously the soundtrack’s completely original start to finish.
Jonathan: In the game, you have the ability to just endlessly shred your guitar as you walk around and platform. This also has a restorative, Okami-like effect on the environment around you. Can you talk about how much work you had to do to come up with a variety of sounds and how this was accomplished?
Johnny: Yes, I would love to. It was a delight. It sounds like it would be finicky, and I guess it was a little bit. I love being in the studio. I love being in that — no windows, cocooned, smell of valves — that's my happy place. The way the guitar works — we actually got it right on first try, and I can't believe it, because on paper, it's silly that you could play the guitar at any time and that it would blend in with the background music. It’s not a track that was written over the song. It’s that Dark Side of the Rainbow thing — you know where you play Dark Side of the Moon over the third roar of the MGM lion from The Wizard of Oz and they match up. But [the background music and guitar] don’t really match up. It’s just your brain looking for pattern recognition. It’s in the same key and we’ve finessed everything in the way that the notes come in or out. Sometimes you’ll be hit with a counter-harmony or a crescendo in the background music and your brain will say, “Well, that was supposed to happen.” But not really. It sounded good inside your brain.
“Your brain will say, ‘Well, that was supposed to happen.’ But not really. It sounded good inside your brain.”
Jonathan: The game has a long history in the making. Can you talk about the process of making it and what’s changed over time?
Johnny: It started with seeing that Unreal Engine was free, so I decided to get on the YouTubes and learn it. I didn't want to learn how to 3D model again, so I decided to just draw things and put them in 3D space. And Josh, my musical collaborator, put some music in and then I sent it to Unreal because they were doing grants. They just sent me a follow up email that was like, “Here's $20,000.” There was no application. It was just like, “Here’s the cash.” And I was like “Sick!” That's how I started the Kickstarter. And then Annapurna jumped in.
The way the game’s changed is that I got funding to hire real illustrators and real animators. I got to finally pay Josh Abrahams after years of just working for each other for free. It's come such a long way in terms of look, and quality, and the animations, and just every time I play it, I'm super blown away by everything.
Jonathan: One of the things that surprised me about the game was its conversation options, and all the little choices you could make that informed the dialogue. Were those always planned to be in the game, and was there any talk about diverging story paths?
Johnny: One of my formative games as a developer is Kentucky Route Zero. It's not a branching dialogue, but the dialogue options kind of informed the story and who the character is. And that was what I wanted to go for. It was never going to have something that went to like a branching narrative. It just didn't have the manpower. It's also a linear narrative story. I think it's the best version of the story. Beyond that, I had fun writing all those crazy options, especially in the Talk Show scene. That branches off in so many ways. It's an insane blueprint in Unreal. Just like a cityscape of nodal programming,
Jonathan: Can you talk about the accessibility of the game, and how deliberate of a choice that was? There are rhythm elements, but they aren’t challenging.
Johnny: It’s not challenging at all. It was a deliberate decision. This is going to divide some people and I'm down with that. A lot of people would approach this as Francis becoming a better guitar player, and that's how it would be framed. But Francis is a prodigy. Giving Francis that epic power, I think, is a cool way of showing that Francis doesn't need any help with his music. He needs help with getting his head in the right place, and building this world around his music and understanding who he is.
I think the gameplay reflects the story really well. Music games usually don’t feel very musical to me, and they feel very difficult and very reactionary. Whereas music, you know, if you're playing live, you're not really thinking about the track, because you know it so well, especially if you're touring, and if you're playing it five nights a week, and you're sick of it. So I wanted to have that effortless guitar vibe of just being able to move through the world and light it up. And you were the master of that universe.
“I wanted to have that effortless guitar vibe of just being able to move through the world and light it up.”
Jonathan: The game has a ton of musical influences, but it also has a lot of references to sci-fi. What are your sci-fi influences?
Johnny: Definitely [Star Trek: The Next Generation]. I like my utopias. I like my extremely well-lit utopias. I think my sci-fi stuff is a lot of terrible B films. It's a lot of classic science fiction literature. But, you know, really the influences on this are the prog rock album covers — like running across a YES album cover.
Jonathan: What are your plans for the next game?
Johnny: Same team. We're going to make something else. I don't know what it is yet. More prototyping for the next game — that’s what I learned from working on The Artful Escape for six years. Probably something still quite musical.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.