How many games can you honestly call art? The closest I found was a few years ago when I experienced the game Journey for the first time. It was at a games exhibition at ACMI in Melbourne, Australia. I picked up the controller and found myself in a game unlike anything I’ve ever played before, and unlike anything I expected to play again. That was until I played the demo of The Artful Escape of Francis Vendetti.
Except The Artful Escape isn’t just art, it’s an extraordinary experience.
The game is about our title character- Francis Vendetti. On the eve of his first performance Francis battles with the legacy of a dead folk singer and the cosmic wanderings of his own imagination. Francis’s uncle, Johnson Vendetti, is a cultural megalith. His best album, Pines, hovers in the realm of untouchables. But while his uncle’s music rests in the green (very real) acreage of Calypso, Colorado, Francis’s music is born behind closed eyes, in a tempest of starlight and fantasy.
With his hometown expecting to see Johnson reborn on stage, Francis realizes he must rid himself of the name and persona of Francis Vendetti. Violetta, a laser artist returning home from California, suggests he become someone else entirely.
While the demo I played didn’t feature the full story (obviously) it captivated me like nothing I’ve played before. I found myself stopping to admire the artwork, caught up in the soundtrack, feeling as though I was in some kind of stasis where there wasn’t a convention hall filled with thrumming crowds – it was just me and the game going on an adventure together.
I spoke to the developer at the booth, wracking my brain as to why he looked so familiar and had a name that was right on the tip of my tongue… turns out it was Johnny Galvatron from the band The Galvatrons. A musican developing a game? It didn’t sound completely alien, but I was seriously intrigued.
When he agreed to be interviewed for Geek Girl Authority I was absolutely thrilled. Little did I know that we would talk about art in game development in a seriously profound way.
Congratulations on The Artful Escape of Francis Vendetti! You must be so proud of how well it was received at PAX Australia. Can you tell us a little about your history as a game developer and your other creative pursuits?
Thank you! I guess from very early on I liked to draw and illustrate and make my own comics. I think a lot of young artists start out with a pencil in hand. I found music in high school, joined a band, grew my hair. A walking stereotype of teenage angst who, in reality, had very little angst. I studied 3D animation at uni and the week I graduated the band I was in at the time scored a record deal with Warner Brothers. Things happened very quickly and I was off on tour before I knew it. I wouldn’t come home for nearly 5 years. After the band broke up, as bands do, I hid myself away and rediscovered writing, art and game development. The Artful Escape is my first major release so I’ve relatively new to the scene. PAX was certainly a crazy 3 days.
Did The Artful Escape draw on any games that you’ve played before? I’d love to know what some of your favourite games are.
A big influence was Kentucky Route Zero. An essential game imo. A game that explores brilliant non-objective based gameplay and has perfect pitch and atmosphere. Journey was also a big influence, on my creative outlook as well as The Artful Escape itself. A game that was truly groundbreaking.
What really struck me about The Artful Escape is how beautifully realised the game is. What were your inspirations for the game and how did the idea come about to create it? It definitely feels rooted in your passion for music!
The main idea for the plot of the game was this: What if David Bowie had embarked on a crazy space adventure to create Ziggy Stardust. From this came the main theme of the game, and a theme that I’ve explored in different mediums of my art: the world artists build around their core mediums. The world of stage persona’s, shrewd marketing stunts, the expanding realm of additional media, and the infinite creative possibilities of how you present yourself to the world. So while music resides in many of the core mechanics of the game, it’s everything outside the music that drives the narrative and the message.
The team behind the game is seriously impressive, how did you all come together to work on this project?
I knew Josh Abrahams (Totally Addicted to Base) from the Galvatrons days. We worked on my bands original demos which got us our record deal… many years ago now. I’m usually not one for collaboration, but I’ll always make an exception for Josh. The most talented and skilled musician/producer I’ve ever worked with. His record speaks for itself really. I met our programmers Justin and Sean through a family friend. They were literally the first people I spoke to about making the game and they have risen to every challenge, pulled all-nighters and put their sanity on the line. They’re exceptional.
The game is so beautiful to look at – I genuinely got distracted while playing and had to stop to take a moment to look at the surroundings. What has been the most challenging part about creating the visual style of the game?
The most challenging part has been successfully incorporating 3d and 2d elements into something seamless and striking (It’s a combo of lighting and atmospheric effects). As well as creating a character that was 2D but was malleable and blendable as a 3D rig. That took a very long time to get right.
The story has so many themes and elements to it, from searching for meaning in your identity and the creation of art, to looking outside the norm of what you think you’re seeing where there are endless possibilities (at least that’s what I felt, correct me if I’m wrong!) How much has the story of The Artful Escape drawn from your own creative journey?
There certainly are many different themes throughout the game, some you’ve seen in our demo, other will be unveiled later on. My creative journey, while it may sound exciting being in a band that tours around, was not altogether an enjoyable one. I found it hard touring, i found dealing with online abuse hard (though I’m sure I’ll get a lot more of it), and I don’t think I was in an environment conducive to creativity. So I don’t know if my journey is reflected in Francis’s. It might be a return to the fantasy I envisioned before I entered the industry. One of gilded light and unlocked doors….
How different is creative expression for you through game development compared to music? You’re obviously not touring around in the same way that you were with the band, does it feel more fulfilling in some ways making a game like The Artful Escape where you can take more time to complete it?
In comparing music to game development I would say this: Game development is exactly like song composition – except if every time you picked up the guitar it flipped inside out, flew through a wall, and turned into a horse. But seriously, Here’s difference: You need to know so much. A staggering amount. You need to know about game design, player input, music, literary pacing, cinematography, colour palettes, the difference of refractive indices between glass and diamond etc. For an indie developer looking to make something immersive with a small team you need to have your fingers in many different pies. But as far as creative expression goes, you have more weapons. That’s always a good thing. Art that has pacing such as music, film or video games, have a series of troughs and crescendos. With music, you have the story and the composition itself to hit those crescendos. In film you have story, music and image. In gaming you have story, image, music and gameplay. When you hit that mark flush, when everything peaks in a moment, that’s the magic of video games.
We spoke at PAX about the support you’ve received to develop the game. What’s been your proudest moment so far in this creative process?’
Just seeing people finally play the game. Seeing their reactions, seeing them smile when they should, and ponder over the music and landscapes, like you did!
There’s still more to be done before the game is ready for release, can you give us an idea of when you’re hoping it will be ready for the general public?
We’re in the process of signing the game to a publisher right now, you may see the game sometime in 2018. Sorry the wait is so long!
Being relatively new to game development, what advice would you give to someone looking to explore it as a creative medium?
It’s great for people who have a broad interest in many different mediums. And it is truly an art form for people who enjoy online tutorials. You can learn everything off YouTube. Seriously. The university of YouTube, while terrible for vaccine conspiracies, is brilliant for game development. I would also add that Unreal Engine 4 has been one of the driving factors of me falling back into game development. It’s nodal based coding system, called “Blueprints,” means artists can have far more freedom in creation before needing to hand off to professional programmers. I think indie game development is more accessible than ever.
The Artful Escape of Francis Vendetti was developed in Melbourne, Australia.