The Artful Escape is finally out on Xbox consoles and PC and it has been a long time coming. It was originally a failed Kickstarter from 2016 that gained life when Annapurna Interactive swooped in to help Johnny Galvatron, the game’s director. Senior Gaming Editor Michael Leri interviewed “Galvatron” (which is, as you may have guess, not his real name) about the title’s long development, how starstruck he was working with Hollywood talent, his thoughts on whether a star-studded cast detracts from the game, and more.
Michael Leri: This was originally a Kickstarter game in 2016 where you said you would ship in 2017. That obviously did not happen. Can you talk about how the game took longer than expected?
Johnny Galvatron: There’s a bunch of things. We were first-time game developers making mistakes. I definitely did that. You aim to make Grand Theft Auto and you have to pull it out. There were silly things like recording a whole folk EP for a character that’s not in the game.
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The music is in the game, but we were being extravagant and trying to reach for that ‘70s and ‘80s amount of rock and roll excess in a video game. We also developed for a platform that we didn’t end up launching on. There was Covid. It was learning, initial beginner’s errors in judgment, and just going for that rock and roll excess.
The Kickstarter fell short of its goal. How did that setback make you feel, personally? And how did the game come out despite the missed goal after Annapurna Interactive saw it?
I initially just made a little trailer of what I could do in Unreal that I learned off YouTube. And I sent it to Unreal Engine because they were giving grants. I asked if that was kind of thing they would want. There was no in-between email. They just sent an email back going, “We’re going to give you $20,000 to develop that idea.” And I was like, “Thanks! Metal!”
That gave me enough to start the Kickstarter and during the Kickstarter, I had already been contacted by quite a few publishers. When it didn’t go through on Kickstarter, I was sad. I was like, “Did I misjudge this?” But looking back, I just didn’t make a community around the Kickstarter, which is what you need to do and is in the list of rookie errors I made.
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So I started talking to Annapurna and had some meetings and spoke about what I wanted the game to be. Nathan [Gary] rang me up and asked if I was going to be at PAX. I said we had a table and demo ready to go and that I would see him there. I didn’t have a demo. So I used my last rock and roll favors to get me one of the last booths at PAX.
We crunched for three months and had a really cool demo. We were up for like two nights beforehand and the guys from Annapurna rolled up at like 10 a.m. on the first day and they played it, took me out to lunch the next day, and victory! [laughs]
So it sounds like there wasn’t much time to be down about it after the failed Kickstarter?
I was definitely down about it. I thought I had misjudged the concept or missed the mark. I definitely was more down than I remember when I look back at that period because it’s glossed over because of how it all turned out. I think I was quite upset about it, but [it was good] the way things worked out. Looking back, I had already started on the next path. Maybe in retrospect, it seems glossier and more glimmering than what it was.
Early trailers for the game had no dialogue and then one of the more recent trailers revealed that it had a pretty amazing star-studded cast—
You were amazed? I couldn’t believe it! [laughs]
So how did casting such big stars go?
I did a big playthrough for Annapurna. It was one of the first big ones I had done and this was years into production. We had done something to the music and it had broken most of the music in the game and I didn’t know until I was playing. There’s a lot of music in the game, too.
I was dying inside. So I really leaned into acting out all of the voices of all the characters to try and fill the space because I was terrified. And then Annapurna rang me afterwards and said they really think the game should be voiced.
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We did a little test to see if it would work. And it was really cool. Deb Mars at Annapurna was like, “Who are you thinking for Lightman?” So I asked who I could have. And then she said, “If you could have anyone, who would you want?” I said, “I would want Carl Weathers. He is my number one.”
And then two weeks later, I got a call, “Carl’s in.” And then a few days after that, Carl is in the recording booth saying all your nonsense and adding “baby” and “youngblood” to the end of every line and making it way cooler.
So all of that was improvised?
I don’t know if I would have the courage to write that and then give it to Carl Weathers. Lightman said “kid” a lot. I was telling him about how Lightman was like Sly and the Family Stone, James Brown, and George Clinton. And he was like, “No, he wouldn’t say ‘kid.’ He’ say ‘youngblood.’” So I let him change it up how he wanted. He added all that flavor to it, which I am very thankful for. He made that way cooler.
That’s the process from my side of things. Working with Annapurna from thousands of miles away, it just seems like a magic factory over there that sends me magic every now and then.
Lena Headey rocks up and she does 15 different accents and is like, “What one do you want?” It’s a treat. She kept doing impressions of me because I say “Metal!” a lot so she’d be like, “Yeah, fuckin’ metal, mate!” It was wonderful.
I got to spend an hour with Jason Schwartzman beforehand and spoke about David Bowie and Bob Dylan. I know you’re supposed to be cool and not be excited when you’re meeting celebrities, but I love it so much! [laughs]
He brought all these props into the booth. He had different capes, hats, and umbrellas and he’d do the line and then flip the cape one way and do another take and flip it another way.
Mark Strong was this Shakespearean gentleman. Mark was the hardest to separate from who he is on screen because he’s terrifying. But he was so lovely.
Michael Johnston, who plays Francis, is so good. I can’t imagine anyone else nailing the way he did. He was such a great kid to work with.
They were all like, “What do you want here? What do you want me to give you?” I didn’t know it was going to be like that. I thought it was going to be that you get what you are given and you have to be happy. But it wasn’t. They were making sure everything was how I wanted it to be and it was a wonderful experience.
I found a whole new level of interest and respect for acting. My first ever voice session was with Carl Weathers and I was absolutely terrified. I had Ashley [Lambert] help me with the directing and she would show me how to do it. About halfway through, I was getting the right idea and gave Carl some notes and he’d go, “Yeah, Johnny, that’s a good idea.” [laughs]
There has been criticism that casting big stars can be distracting in games. What your thoughts are on that?
That’s a really good point and we did speak about it as well about adding the celebrities to the game. But then you hear Carl, and it has to be Carl. I don’t think we shoehorned anyone into a role.
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People probably won’t even know it is Schwartzman. He’s doing his only British accent ever, I think. It’s just such a wacky kind of world and you can throw these different voices in. Like Lena Headey plays a giant, asymmetrical floating space head. We’re not really pushing about that fact in game that it’s Lena Headey. It’s not her model. It’s a case-by-case basis.
The story in the game generally deals with uncertainty and having to live in someone else’s shadow. This seems like one of those games that was a pretty big, creatively driven passion project. Are those themes something you struggle with in your life? And if not, what about Francis’ journey speaks to you as a person?
If you try and be a musician or a creative of any discipline, I just think of this quote from Bowie where it is a little bit insane to try and communicate yourself through abstract mediums. I don’t think that’s the exact quote, but you feel me.
Anyone who takes that creative path is going to have people tell them that they are wasting their time. There’s that little bit in all people who write, direct, or make games.
In the game, I am more like Lightman, the more over-the-hill, cynical guy searching for that torch again. I relate to him a lot more.
You build on these characters and they start to write themselves after a while and living in the shadow of something and breaking out of something is pretty universal. A lot of people would relate to Francis. I guess he’s just me at 17 as well trying to figure out who I was. I kind of wanted to dress up as a glam rockstar but I live in Geelong and people will throw stuff at you [if you look like that]. Everyone can draw a little bit out of it and there’s definitely a little of my story in there, but I am definitely the old cynical man in the story.
You said you wanted to find that torch like Lightman. Was game development that torch?
I just wanted to be back on the edge. Looking back on that whole time period of music, it was a lot of musicians trying to live out a fantasy of bands that had been around 20 or 30 years before.
But I love fantasy. That was my vibe where we would make stage personas where I would fly on boxes in space. I don’t think that band was ever trying to contribute something to the world of music. It was this weird fantasy that sent me around the world and it got out of hand.
I guess the same thing happened to The Artful Escape. I just wanted to make an iPad app and now, here we are talking about Jason Schwartzman. Things just tend to spiral out of control whenever I am working on them. [laughs]
I really liked Sword and Sorcery. I wanted to make a really cool game like that on the iPad. And yeah, it got out of hand. [laughs]
This was your first game. It took six years. What are some of the lessons you’re going to take from this and was the process as creatively fulfilling as you hoped it would be?
I will answer part two first. Yes, immensely. What a privilege it is to be given money to hire all of these artists to make this weird rock opera idea that you had. Just wonderful artists. I spent so much time in the studio making so much music with my musical partner Josh Abrahams. And then the next day I am drawing and the next day I am writing and working with actors. What a joy.
I remember when I was in high school where I had little stations where I would play music, play games, and then do some writing. This is like that but a job and extremely fulfilling. I can’t wait to do it all again.
As for lessons, plan more and make sure you know what you’re doing. Don’t try and build the game and try to figure it out as you go along. Do a lot more prototyping and more blocking out. I am sure a lot of first-time indie developers say that after the first but I guess you have to learn it yourself.
Given what you’ve learned, are you going bigger with your next game or are you keeping it smaller in scope?
Here’s what’s going to happen: I am going to start with this small little concept and it will go out of control at some point. That’s what always happens. [laughs]
And since this has all taken so long, you’re probably catching up on some games yourself.
I play a lot of stuff now because we are amping up to start the next one. I just want to get fat on games. If you like writing and you don’t read for a while, you pick up a book and you’re like, “Oh shit!”
I played Resident Evil Village. That had some really fun level design. I also played Twelve Minutes. What a blinder. Another hit from Annapurna.
So are you just going to toe the company line here? [laughs]
Yes! [laughs] I played Psychonauts 2. I thought that was delightful and filled with so many fun gameplay ideas. And I really enjoyed that it had its own visual style, which is not something that happens all the time. I played Golf With Your Friends and Descenders, which is a little roguelike bike game and I thought it was really good. I also played Fantasia: Music Evolved on the Kinect. It was right down my alley.