Image courtesy of Beethoven & Dinosaur

How The Artful Escape became one of the most beautiful indie games of the year

Jimmy Thang

Johnny Galvatron is the Creative Director at Beethoven & Dinosaur. Their first title, The Artful Escape, was recently released through Annapurna Interactive on Xbox and Steam. Johnny has toured the world in rock bands, and now he lurks in recording studios and dances when the occasion calls for it.
The Artful Escape doesn’t have your typical game development origin story. Being the first game from relatively new Australia-based studio Beethoven & Dinosaur, the title was conceived by Johnny "Galvatron," one of the founding members and lead guitarist for the band The Galvatrons. As a result, the game features a musical motif that elegantly intertwines a stellar soundtrack with its gameplay.

The Artful Escape represents a coming-of-age journey that takes players on a multidimensional adventure. It features a psychedelic 2.5D art style, and Forbes called it “the most beautiful indie game Of 2021.” This is all the more impressive when you consider the core development team consisted of fewer than 10 developers. Despite coming from a relatively small studio, the game managed to garner nominations for Best Art Direction, Best Music, and Best Debut Indie from The Game Awards.

To see how Beethoven & Dinosaur pulled off these impressive feats, we caught up with Galvatron. The creative director shares his inspiration behind the game, speaks to how he transitioned from rock musician to indie dev, elaborates on what it means to receive an Unreal Dev Grant and more.

Given that The Artful Escape is Beethoven & Dinosaur's first game, what can you tell us about the studio?
Johnny Galvatron, creative director at Beethoven & Dinosaur:
Well, at first, I just planned to make a little iPad app like Sword & Sworcery, but it kinda spiraled out of control. I began dabbling with Unreal Engine and made a little demo video that showcased the early concepts of The Artful Escape. I sent this off to Epic and just generally inquired as to whether this was the sort of thing they were looking to fund in their grant system. They immediately sent me funds and that’s how I got started in the video game scene. The more I delved into game development, the grander our ideas became, and we ended up pitching a Kickstarter and getting a publishing deal from that publicity. Annapurna Interactive flew down to Melbourne to play our demo at PAX and offered us a deal the next day.   

Can you talk about the inspiration behind The Artful Escape?

Galvatron: I’d signed a record deal when I was around 20 and toured the world for a few years and generally hated it. The life of a mid-tier rock & roll band cruising around the regional towns of Australia was not what I had in mind. I expected some wild, alien, Valhalla of excess. So I quit the band scene and made a game about the rock & roll scene [envisioned by] my 17-year old brain. I’m also a massive glam rock fan, and a fan of the satellite aspects of artists' creative mediums, like image, fashion, narrative, and more. Those were big influences on the game.
Image courtesy of Beethoven & Dinosaur
Can you talk about what the transition was like going from touring rock musician to video game developer?

Galvatron: The two scenes are pretty similar, except you get to stay home all the time when you’re a dev, and there’s no touring. This was the biggest appeal for me. I love cocooning. Also, there’s actual money in the video game scene. The parties have budgets. People get paid regularly and on time. Rock & roll is also famously defined as “23 hours of waiting around.” When it comes to indie development, the opposite is true. 

The Artful Escape features beautiful, out-of-this-world 2.5D visuals. Can you talk about how the team executed on the vibrant look of the game?

It’s a mix of (relatively) 2D set pieces and characters in a 3D world; think of something like a theatre set. Using Unreal’s Material Editor, we can make 2D objects shimmer in the wind, reflect, sparkle, and even catch the light. This, along with the subtle sculpture of most of our 2D actors, makes these 2D objects blend into the 3D world with a flatter, more storybook type of aesthetic. Our wonderful illustrations were crafted by Arden Beckwith, whose internet presence is rare and arguably non-existent. A true find.
The world in The Artful Escape goes from a grounded town in Colorado to psychedelic escapades across a surreal galaxy. Can you talk about how you designed the game's world?

Galvatron: It’s inspired by a lot of prog rock album cover art like Yes, Rush, and Hawkwind. Big, decadent rock & roll stages of the ‘80s. And then weird alien twists on a variety of places you visit in your rock & roll trials: backstage, radio shows, recording studios, and agent’s offices. 

The studio has praised Unreal Engine's post-processing effects. Did the team have any favorites?

Galvatron: Bloom!

The Artful Escape's soundtrack is equally as amazing as its visuals. Can you talk about your approach to composing and arranging it for the game?

I worked with my lifelong musical collaborator on this game, Josh Abrahams. It was wonderful to finally put him on the payroll after scabbing time in his recording studio for years. He’s also insane and insanely talented. And he loves Devo as much as I do, so it just works, ya know? It was a challenge to compose for because the player can draw out a holographic guitar at any point and start wailing. This means not only do you have to make sure it can always blend with the background music, but also anything triggering in sound design. So, in any given world, we must compose every sound, every melody, every explosion, and monster roar to be in the same key and blend seamlessly with each other. It’s a challenge but I’m amazed by how well it works.
Image courtesy of Beethoven & Dinosaur
Considering players can whip out their guitar and shred at almost any time, can you elaborate more on how you got the dynamic guitar solos to sound well in conjunction with the background music?

With great difficulty. We recorded hours of shredding from our wild stallion of a guitarist, Eden Altman. The trickiest thing wasn’t getting the shredding to blend with the soundtrack; it was getting the guitar seamlessly in and out without sounding unnatural. You can’t just fade out a guitar—it sounds weird. So we ended up firing a little tweaked harmonic every time the player stops shredding. Works a treat too because if you trigger the guitar again quickly, you can create a little harmony between the ending of your last phrase with the beginning of your next. It’s also your brain trying to make sense of a melody playing over another piece of music; you’re looking for pattern recognition, kinda’ like Dark Side of the Rainbow.

As a new small indie studio, can you share what it was like working with esteemed vocal talents like Lena Headey, Jason Schwartzman, Mark Strong, and Carl Weathers?

It was actually completely and utterly joyful. Every actor I worked with was so eager and accommodating to do their best for the game. Everyone was super professional, kind, and it is truly an experience I’ll remember forever. Just like hanging out with Jason Schwartzman and talking about Bowie and Bob Dylan was fucking cool.
Image courtesy of Beethoven & Dinosaur
The studio has said for The Artful Escape's gameplay, it wanted to emphasize performance over precision. This ultimately provided the game simple, yet satisfying platforming. Can you talk about your approach to creating the game's design loop?

Galvatron: There are a lot of music games I love, but to me, they usually feel more like a skill-based game than playing music. Smells like Teen Spirit isn’t difficult, but when you play it with an amp behind you and someone on the drums behind you, it feels like moving mountains. I wanted to try and convey this feeling of extreme dynamics, of feeling mastery of your instrument, of knowing what you’re playing instead of waiting for it to fly at you. The gameplay is a many-cogged machine, and when we get it right, narrative, gameplay, music, lighting, and sound design all line up to give you that moment of power over the universe.

The Artful Escape has been praised for its pacing and flow. Can you talk about how you nailed that aspect of the game's design?

Galvatron: I think we have a musical approach to the pacing of the game, even the design of the levels themselves. A kind of verse, chorus, verse, chorus, and guitar solo. I think that’s one of the reasons it works so well. Also, because we played it 100,000 times, and we cut out the boring bits.
Why was Unreal Engine a good fit for the game?

Galvatron: Because I had no idea what I was doing, and it looks so damn good out of the box. It’s also leagues ahead of its competitors in accessibility for traditional artists and musicians to come in and work effectively in the engine, and we brought many artists from other fields.

You've previously mentioned that you started learning Unreal via YouTube tutorials. Can you share what it was like getting started with the engine?

Galvatron: Well, first off, it’s so quick to get a scene up and running and to prototype visual and auditory concepts, even for people who know very little about coding. It was a huge learning process but making games is still a real joy and adventure for me, so I love learning new tools and new features as they come along.
Image courtesy of Beethoven & Dinosaur
Can you talk about what it meant to receive an Unreal Dev Grant?

Galvatron: It meant everything! I was so broke. The tears in my jeans were so bad they wouldn’t let me into some pubs. It started my whole career, truly and honestly. Epic has been a great supporter of ours and are always there to help us out. I owe them a great deal.

Thanks for your time. Where can people learn more about The Artful Escape?

Galvatron: We're on Steam, Xbox Game Pass, and the Windows Store. I'm sure there are some trailers floating around the internet somewhere. There are also some photos of me rocking about in the 2010s with an emo fringe, but don't look at them.

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