The Artful Escape is a wonderful celebration of identity creation and it makes my soul sing. Let me explain why…
I could never be a music journalist. I don’t get it. I mean, I like music, I like listening to it and I even played a couple of instruments when I was younger. I just don’t have the necessary skill or talent to process why I like a particular song and present that to other people. “It makes me want to jump about flinging my limbs around and I like that bit where the guitar goes ‘wheedlywheedlyweeoooooo’” isn’t going to get me into NME, y’know?
In spite of, or maybe because of, this inability, I really appreciate work in other forms that is about music and how it makes you feel. Kieron Gillen and Jamie Mckelvie’s superb comic Phonogram springing to mind as something that had me nodding along as things clicked into place for me. The Artful Escape, my personal 2021 Game of the Year, falls into the same category. Francis, the game’s young protagonist, is a musician living in the shadow of his late uncle, a folk legend of Dylan-esque proportions. Everyone around him sees him as the return of a man he never even met, leaving him crushed under the weight of enormous expectation, unable to find his own path.
This is the Francis we’re introduced to, playing his guitar and struggling with questions of identity on the eve of his debut performance, at a festival honouring his uncle, natch. After strumming some stereotypical folk melodies, the game instructs us “to shred a sci-fi guitar odyssey, press X” and we see our first glimpse of the other Francis, the one he’s been hiding from everyone, himself included. A short while later, he’s flung across the cosmos on a journey of self-discovery, nay, self-creation and we get to tag along for the ride.
From the start, Francis’ adventure resonated with me. While I don’t have any legendary musicians in my family, folk or otherwise, I do know a little about the crushing weight of expectations. I’m transgender. I’m a girl who everyone, myself included, thought was a boy for thirty years. So as Francis gradually carved out his own identity, I was right there with him, feeling every struggle, every triumph, every moment of self-doubt and of euphoria as if it were my own.
The game enables this magnificently. While the narrative is completely linear, simple dialogue choices give you room to reflect on the feelings Francis is wrestling with. Even better, you’re regularly presented with the opportunity to craft his new stage persona. Starting with a name constructed from a list of prefixes and a free text field (the latter masterfully rendered in game’s spoken dialogue as a brief guitar lick, neatly sidestepping the difficulty in including custom names in fully voiced games) and climaxing with the assembly of the prog/glam/punk/whatever outfit of your dreams, it’s here that the meat of the game is to be found. The perfunctory platforming and rudimentary rhythm sections do the job of keeping you engaged while you enjoy the soaring melodies and psychedelic visuals on offer, but the real “gameplay” here is an extended character creator and it’s wonderful.
The result is possibly the queerest game I’ve played, despite not featuring a lick of romance or a spot of sexuality. The process of not just figuring out who you really are, but actively creating the person you want to be and stamping that identity on the cosmos in defiance of everyone and everything telling you to quietly conform to expectations isn’t unique to the LGBTQIA+ community, but it is central to it.