A musical comedy that’s all about the comedy

Christopher Byrd

THE WASHINGTON POST – In the mid-1980s one of my favourite clothing items was a pink Iron Maiden sweatshirt that had a skinless alien on it, in some noirish setting. (I never liked the group, I simply liked the look of their merchandise.) As a child of the era, it was easy to enjoy the overlap between fantasy imagery and music.

I never thought it strange that Michael Jackson turned into a werewolf in Thriller, or that Ozzy Osbourne dressed up as different, bizarre characters on his album covers. I was reminded of the cheesy flights of fantasy that characterised some of the music of the 1980s while playing The Artful Escape, a game that pays humorous tribute to that era’s indulgence of flexible personas, stage-strutting guitar gods and kitschy imagery.

When we first meet Francis Vendetti (voiced by Michael Johnston), the teenager around whom events in the game turn, he is seated on a bench dutifully strumming a few folk licks on his guitar. It brings him no pleasure. He is the nephew of a local folk legend, and he wears heavily the mantle of expectations that have been placed on him. Francis styles himself a serious folk musician, but when he lets himself go, as he does when he walks to a nearby cliff overlooking his small Colorado hometown, he reveals himself to be a flashy guitar noodler.

The discrepancy between how he fancies himself and his talent’s natural bent is called out to him by Violetta (Caroline Kinley), a mysterious young woman who appears from out of nowhere, seated on the bench. After chatting with her Francis starts having epiphanies while walking through the town to his house. Before he heads upstairs to his room for the night, he tells his mother that he intends to fashion an elaborate persona for himself.

Later that night the lights in the town go dark and a spaceship descends stealthy from the sky. An alien named Zomm (terrifically voiced by Jason Schwartzman) greets Francis outside his home and tells him he is needed as a support act by the captain. Zomm gives Francis a guitar, and by pressing X players can send Francis blazing through notes on the instrument, causing the area behind him to light up.

A scene from ‘The Artful Escape’. PHOTO: THE WASHINGTON POST

At the town fountain Francis meets the man for whom he is supposed to open. Lightman (Carl Weathers) arrives by drifting down on a beam of light, jamming on a six-string axe. The musical legend leads Francis to a building that only sometimes appears on the map or in reality, and inside his Cosmic Emporium Francis steps through a door that leads to the tripped-out zone of the Cosmic Extraordinary. In no time he is jamming with aliens and sliding past landscapes that flower in lights, activity and colors as he plays.

The Artful Escape is a breezy game. It has light platforming sections and simple, Simon-says moments where players must follow a series of on-screen button prompts so Francis can rock out during the shows he has to stage to win over alien audiences.

I laughed several times watching Francis being put through the paces of galactic stardom in the form of a talk show, a publicity stunt and dealings with agents and an imposing tastemaker.

The voice cast makes the most of the game’s Adult Swim sensibility. Carl Weathers, in particular, shines as Lightman when he says things such as, “We’re going on a ride across the dilated pupils of the cosmos. Man! You’re going to see flotsam that will change you forever.”

Unfortunately, as a musical experience, I found The Artful Escape completely lacking. Even for ironic kicks, I can only happily listen to so much guitar doodling. Thankfully, the rest of the game makes it easy to tune out the soundtrack.