james debate
james debate

Sunday 19 September 2021

Developed by Beethoven & Dinosaur
Published by Annapurna Interactive
Genre Musical Platformer
Platform Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, PC

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This one takes me back. Even though The Artful Escape is a brand new game, it feels like I have been talking about it forever. It has become a mainstay of my annual Hot List since its originally scheduled release in 2017. Now after a series of delays, it finally sees release.

The Artful Escape is the latest production from Annapurna, a studio that is quickly establishing itself as one of the finest producers of games in the industry. Players control Francis Vendetti, an aspiring folk musician from a small Colorado town who lives in the shadow of his world famous uncle Jonathan Vendetti, a sort of Bob Dylan-esque figure. Struggling for inspiration and motivation, Francis has a sudden epiphany and decides to completely reinvent himself and in doing so create the most elaborate stage persona in rock music history, David Bowie style. What follows is a dazzling and surreal cosmic adventure in which Francis travels the galaxy crafting a mythology and style for his new persona. Think "Ziggy Stardust the videogame" and you won't be far off. 

The game itself is essentially a platformer. Run from left to right and jump over gaps until you reach the end, with the added twist of being able to shred a guitar while doing so. It's not an especially challenging platformer. The levels are quite simplistic in terms of obstacles, with the most difficult task being the timing of double jumps during certain segments in order to get past moving obstacles and closing doors. There are no enemies or combat, and the closest thing you have to a boss battle is the occasional Simon Says style musical section. There's no fail state. If you miss a jump or play the wrong note on a musical section the game just lets you try again. 

Let's be clear, this is not in any way a challenging game. More of a 2D walking simulator. Instead, the emphasis is on the experience. Fortunately it is one hell of an experience. The Artful Escape is a sensory treat in every respect. The visuals are incredible, among the most beautiful games I can recall seeing. Colourful, imaginative settings bursting with life and small details, and some breathtaking artistic vision. 

The music is also very impressive, from the Jonathan Vendetti tracks that sound authentically like some long lost folk masterpiece, to the soaring glamrock of Francis' galactic adventures. While the player's guitar shredding does not affect gameplay in any way (aside from some achievements), it does add to the game's backing track through some impressive technical wizardry that ensures everything is on tempo and in tune.

The quality of the writing is also very strong. The Artful Escape is full of memorable characters with satisfying arcs, while the dialogue is witty and mostly a delight. In classic Annapurna style, the studio has called on a number of its Hollywood buddies, resulting in an impressive cast. Jason Schwartzman in particular steals all of his scenes, but he is ably supported by big name actors including Mark Strong, Carl Weathers, Lena Headey and Michael Johnston.

I was pleasantly surprised by how far the game goes to immerse players in the fantasy of creating this Ziggy Stardust style character. Players can choose a name and backstory for Francis' persona as well as their appearance through a highly customisable hair and costume system. The flexibility and complexity of this system was far more than I was expecting and allowed me to design a rock star persona that I truly felt was mine. If I have one criticism here, it's that the player doesn't really have much input into the music itself. Guitar shredding is (outside those Simon Says sections) just a single button that the game uses to automatically match to the backing track. That being said, I didn't feel like this was sufficient to break the immersion or fun.

I can see why some people might get bored with this game due to the lack of any real gaming challenge. But for anyone with a love of music, sci-fi or quirky adventures, The Artful Escape is a delightful journey. It exceeded my expectations. I was expecting a colorful musical adventure, but not the absorbing world and characters. Annapurna have shown once again that they know how to craft compelling stories in the medium of videogames, and The Artful Escape is another jewel to add to their collection.

Saturday 18 September 2021

Directed by Leos Carax
Written by Ron Mael, Russell Mael, Leos Carax
Produced by Charles Gillibert, Adam Driver, Vacharasinthu, Paul-Dominique Win
Starring Adam Driver, Marion Cotillard, Simon Helberg
Studio Amazon
Running time 140 minutes

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I am honestly not sure if I can give this film a meaningful score out of five. This is the sort of film where you could have two perfectly reasonable and insightful people of good taste, one who thinks the film is extraordinary, the other that the film is hot garbage, and they would both be right.

Annette is a musical film written (and with cameo performances) by Sparks, a 1970s rock band probably best known for their bizarre stage personae and this song. On paper, it's a strange duo to be in charge of a major motion picture, and in Leos Carax they have found a director who can craft an equally strange film.

Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard play a celebrity power couple, he an acerbic stand up comedian, she a renowned opera star. Tragedy strikes and shortly afterwards their child Annette, portrayed bizarrely by a marionette on strings, gains the supernatural ability to sing like her mother. All kinds of crazy shenanigans ensue. 

There is a lot going on that makes Annette such an unusual, surreal film, even aside from the aforementioned marionette. This is a film that features, among other things, ghosts, a musical sex scene, and constant fourth wall breaking. This is a supremely melodramatic, over the top, rock opera. It is a strange combination of knowingly camp, but produced with the artistic flair of a more serious film (not entirely unlike the ill-fitted pairing of Driver's trashy comedian to Cotillard's sophisticated singer). In many ways, this feels more like watching a theatrical production than a film. We are used to seeing the avant-garde and surreal on stage, but less so in a big budget film. Often the staging feels like something designed for Broadway with the way scenes unfold and how the actors address the audience. I suspect that many of the things here that strike a cinema audience as unusual probably would not look out of place on the West End.

Despite its sillier elements, the quality of production is very high. Visually, Annette is a treat with some very striking cinematography and memorable set pieces. The music is also generally very good, although the fourth wall breaking lyrics get quite irritating after a while, as does the heavy use of repetition. For the first one or two songs it can pass as quirky and mildly humorous, but when you're an hour into the musical and every song does the same schtick, it's a bit much.

Adam Driver's performance is exceptional in his intensity and brutality. Driver has a non-traditional physical appearance and carries himself with a unique physicality that makes him one of the more interesting actors in Hollywood right now. By contrast, Cotillard seems to be a bit under-utilised in this role but still manages to haunt each scene (in more ways than one) with her inimitable presence. 

Annette is a strange film, one that is very difficult to evaluate in any meaningful sense. It's an ambitious, sprawling mess at times, yet executed with undeniable artistry and panache. There are moments watching this film where I feel as though the producers are shooting for the awards season and others where it seems that they are instead trying to craft the next gonzo Rocky Horror Picture Show style cult classic. A film of excesses that is meant to be watched in groups at raucous late night screenings. The impression I am left with at the end is that of a muddled piece of work that probably doesn't fully succeed in hitting either of those targets, but genuinely doesn't seem to care.

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