Harmonix, Disney team up for Fantasia rhythm game, Harmonix musicians go buckwild on famous tracks
The loading screen for Fantasia: Music Evolved is a pedestal under the stars. You see your profile when you step in front of the Kinect, and you can wave your arms as if you’re conducting space itself. It’s a beautiful, interactive throwback to the original film version of Fantasia, and it’s just the beginning.
“We really want the world to respond to the player. That’s the most novel thing about this experience,” Daniel Sussman, Harmonix’s project director, told me after I played the game. You’ll get a chance to investigate different environments, find interactive musical toys, and play with the world itself. The more you find, the more the environment comes to life. The cursor itself operates in 3D space, so you can reach into the world, or pull back, and cause different things to happen.
Harmonix plays with the Kinect the way Pete Townshend plays the guitar. They’re one of the few developers who seem able to wring working, entertaining experiences out of the hardware. I reach into the screen and find what seems like a rudimentary sequencer; I can wave my hands and hit different animals and add different elements from a song, and then play it back. Everything in the game is welcoming, and it invites you to explore and play. It feels like a toy as much as a game, and that's a great thing.
Then I try to actually play a song, and things get crazy.
You're in control
The core game play consists of big-name songs playing, and you wave your hands along to prompts on the screen. It’s not a dance game, you move your hands and arms in time with the music, and hit certain prompts. It feels like you’re conducting the music, not playing it, but the feeling of creating music that made Rock Band so exciting is on full display here.
The amazing part is that you don’t just react to the music, you can change certain aspects of each song. At certain points in each performance you’re given the choice of different instruments to bring in or push to the front. Do you want to hear Bohemian Rhapsody with a strong horn section? How about with a stronger bass line? You can play with the songs and adjust certain things during each round, and the results are fun, and they often sound great. You’re not just playing, you’re remixing.
“The curse of being on the audio team at Harmonix is that you’re playing with other people’s content, and sort of listening to the stems and breaking them out and putting them in the game, but sound design for Harmonix games has not really been as exciting as you would think, until now,” Sussman said. “This is a great opportunity for us to flex our muscles creatively.”
Harmonix was stuck using the source material during the Rock Band days, and designing the game around each song. This time, they have the rights to drop in new aspects of the song, or re-write certain parts of each composition. This allowed them to flex their collective musical chops; anyone could make the case for their inclusion on a song, explain what they wanted to do, and they take the music home to write what would ultimately become a new part of the game’s version of these famous songs. They were able to flex their musical muscles in the game's music.
These are the tracks we know are going to be in the game so far:
- AVICII – “Levels”
- Bruno Mars – “Locked Out Of Heaven”
- Fun. – “Some Nights”
- Kimbra – “Settle Down”
- Queen – “Bohemian Rhapsody”
It’s an additive process, and Harmonix was able to break a song down, add new things, take the songs in new directions, and do interesting things with these famous tracks. They also reached out to the greater community for content.
“We’re working with a bunch of remix artists, out in the remix space, to supply material,” Sussman explained. “We also have a lot of talented people at our studio who do a lot of that work. Everything you’re hearing here is stuff that we made.” Imagine having someone at Harmonix give you a call, and tell you that you get to write a new portion of one of your favorite songs. This was a dream come true for many of the musicians who worked on the game.
This is also evidence that many artists are getting used to their fans interacting with their music in new ways. “What we found when we started doing our outreach is that artists have a pretty profound connection to the Fantasia brand… I think a lot of people we’re talking to are psyched to be a part of this,” Sussman said. “They want players to get in there and mess with the music.” Getting the rights not only to the music, but then getting the ability to add new music to each song isn’t easy, but Harmonix has the strength of Disney’s Fantasia brand, not to mention the much-loved Rock Band legacy to help them make their case.
Sadly, none of the assets sent our way, nor the included trailer in this post, really shows off how the game looks or feels. It’s easy to get lost inside, moving you arms with the music, changing the way the songs sound. The environments are filled with fun toys, small interactions, and all sorts of Disney-themed surprises. The fun comes from exploring, seeing what you can do, and playing through the songs.
This is the rare Kinect game that’s actually fun to play, and the 3D cursor movement works in the way you’d expect. I only had minimal problems with the game registering my movements, and this was inside a busy room, with much movement and noise.
The true fun comes from adjusting, changing, and remixing some of these songs, and every so often you’ll bump into a combination of instruments that takes a song in a new, interesting direction. This is the real work Harmonix put into the game, and you can tell they had fun taking these tracks home and adding their own touches to each track.
“It’s a pretty awesome reminder of the talent level of our studio,” Sussman told me, smiling. “We’re surrounded by fucking geniuses, and it’s awesome.”