The Artful Escape, and how Melbourne games find global stages

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From its earliest days being worked on by a tiny team in Melbourne — all of them at the one desk — to finally releasing as a key title in Xbox’s subscription offering this week, The Artful Escape is a game that grabs people as soon as they see and hear it.

A sci-fi guitar odyssey with uniquely animated art and sweeping otherworldly vistas to run, jump and shred through, it’s part of an increasing number of Aussie-made games showing up on prominent stages as local funding sources solidify, and the industry’s big players widen their net to fuel subscription services and publishing slates.

The Artful Escape is an interdimensional journey to find a new stage persona.

Published by the interactive arm of American independent media company Annapurna, The Artful Escape is a smart and funny narrative adventure game that sounds like a ’70s psychedelic rock album with cosmic landscapes to match, and includes voice performances from some impressively prominent film actors.

Johnny Galvatron, the game’s creative director at Beethoven & Dinosaur and frontman of Geelong band The Galvatrons, said he was asked who he’d cast if he had access to anyone, and was blown away when he was told he could actually direct those specific actors.

“You have them for a few hours, they rock up and they say ‘what do you want, tell me how you want to do it’,” he said.

“And I’m like ‘oh, Mr Carl Weathers, could you please, um, say it this way?’ And he says ‘yeah Johnny, that’s cool, I like that’. They were all so lovely.”

Beethoven & Dinosaur creative director Johnny Galvatron.

Beethoven & Dinosaur creative director Johnny Galvatron.

Weathers, known for his roles in ’70s and ‘80s action flicks, is a huge amount of fun in the role of a flawed mentor leading two Earth kids — voiced by Michael Johnston and Caroline Kinley — on an intergalactic journey. Supporting actors also include Jason Schwartzman (who Galvatron said brought a cape and umbrella to the recording as props) and Game of Thrones’ Lena Headey.

The game’s also notable for its laid-back play, which is more about taking in the journey — and working through Francis’ attempts to escape the shadow of his famous folk singer uncle — than it is about any kind of challenge. Galvatron said the team wanted playing guitar in The Artful Escape to be like hand-to-hand combat in a Batman game; you’re already a master, you shouldn’t be trying too hard.

As such, shredding during levels is epic and effortless; you just hold down a button and Francis wails or noodles as appropriate to the sci-fi scenery and background score. It sounds natural and extemporaneous, and can cause shifts in the environment or give you extra lift in your jumps, but you can also use it just to express yourself as you run around.

“The story’s not really about Francis becoming a better guitarist, it’s more about the satellite aspects of an artist’s creative medium work,” he said.

“Not his music but the imagery he associates with it. The rumours, and the costumes he wears.”

As for how Beethoven & Dinosaur got in the door with Annapurna in the first place, Galvatron said the publisher reached out after seeing the game featured in a Kickstarter funding campaign, which lead to a meeting at the gaming convention PAX.

“They were like ‘the game looks really cool. Are you going to be at PAX?’ And I was like ‘yeah absolutely, we got a table, see you in three months’,” he said.

“But we didn’t have a table. We didn’t even have a demo. I called in every favour I could, got one of the last tables at PAX, made a demo, they played it, and the next day they took me out to lunch.”

Massive Monster, a team based in Melbourne and the UK whose upcoming game Cult of the Lamb was recently revealed to millions as part of the international Gamescom conference, had a similar story about being picked up by a major publisher.

Cult of the Lamb is a blend of genres, as well as a blend of 2D and 3D visual styles.

Cult of the Lamb is a blend of genres, as well as a blend of 2D and 3D visual styles.

In that case, the team was hoping to get noticed by Devolver Digital, a US-based publisher known for focusing on smaller-scale and offbeat games.

“We’re big fans of theirs and we had no idea if they’d just ignore us. To get hold of them we actually guessed their email address,” said design director Jay Armstrong.

“The email happened to go through, and they got back to us like ‘okay yeah, thanks thanks.’ And then a few days later they kind of went, ‘oh, actually, let’s have words about this game.’”

The dark and charming game, which will be published by Devolver early next year, sees players take the role of a possessed lamb who has to manage a cult of adorable woodland creatures while also developing a home base and fighting deadly creatures in the surrounding regions.

Creative director Julian Wilton said at one point the game was about building and managing your own hell, but that it was too uncomfortable to be torturing the creatures given how cute they are. Somehow, it’s more palatable in a cult setting because they take their punishments willingly.

“They’ll all kind of worship you, but they’re very needy and you have to look after them. They can even start being naughty, might dissent against you,” he said.

“So you might have to do a dark ritual, like a sacrificial ritual, to get rid of that guy. Or a ritual to get more powerful. Or a daily sermon to change their thoughts. A bit of brainwashing. They love it. They’re happy about, they’re in it for the cult.”

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Tim Biggs is the editor of The Age and Sydney Morning Herald technology sections.Connect via Twitter or email.

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