PAX Prime Panel: Fantasia: Music Evolved

I’ve attended PAX East for the past few years, but this year I had the opportunity to attend the mother-con, PAX Prime.  Though there are dozens of panels to choose from, there was one caught my attention immediately: a panel about a collaboration between Harmonix and Disney’s Fantasia.  Though I obviously knew about the other big Disney game of the year, I hadn’t heard about this at all (I suppose my attention was diverted during E3).  But as a woman who loves Disney, loves Harmonix, loves Fantasia, and has a music degree, this sounded promising, to say the least.

I swung by the Fantasia: Music Evolved booth the first day, and took in a trailer while collecting the obligatory swag and chatting with other Disney fans (we’re everywhere).  Still, I couldn’t get much of a sense of the game from the trailer playing – or maybe it was just overstimulation and noise from the neighboring Exhibit Hall.  I’ve sat in on another Harmonix panel, though, and knew I’d be properly filled in come Sunday.

Gameplay

First, the nitty gritty: the game makes use of the Kinect for 360 and XBox One.  The main feature of the game is the rhythm music component:  think Amplitude meets Dance Central meets the old Konami Dance Freaks, but you feel and look like a conductor/wizard.   Fun, but the game is not just a collection of tracks, one after the other.  Instead, there’s an interactive exploration component, which is part atmosphere, part mini-games, and all musical.  As you explore various sections and mess around a bit, you’re creating your own unique soundtrack to the world you’re “creating.”  As you might imagine, the combination of beautiful music and visuals provides its own emotional responses – a far cry from those slightly-annoying band-in-the-van loading screens from Rock Band.

But back to the rhythm game part: around 30 tracks have been promised, ranging from classical pieces like Night on Bald Mountain and “Winter” from The Four Seasons to pop tracks like “Some Nights” from Fun to classic rock like “Bohemian Rhapsody.”  In the panel, we were actually treated to a “performance” of Bohemian Rhapsody.  Instead of simply unlocking tracks, as in previous music games, you can actually choose and switch back and forth between the original and remixed versions – for example, an orchestral arrangement.  There are free solo sections that you can literally manipulate with your own hands, and which become part of the song.  For a brief glimpse of both aspects of the game, here’s a sample of their “Haven” and the “Winter” gameplay.

I imagine you become much more emotionally invested in your performance than in the average music game, but even from the perspective of an observer, it’s pretty gorgeous.   First you have well-loved music that would produce emotion on its own, then it’s combined with glittering visuals, then you have the “conductor” putting their own touch on the whole thing… It’s fun, but it’s also beautiful.  You don’t have to be the one making the magic to enjoy it.

Harmagix

This would be an awesome game on its own, but we haven’t even discussed the “Disney touch” yet.  While Fantasia: Music Evolved is, without a doubt, a Harmonix game, it is also absolutely worthy of the Disney name (and I mean that in the best possible way).  This is not a game with Goofy or Stitch popping out from behind a tree, but it absolutely captures the spirit and magic of the Fantasia property and concept.

I did see small nods to the original film.   The conductor silhouette is probably the most obvious, and the obvious choice when you’re dealing with Kinect technology.  But there were other, smaller references as well – for example, one of the solo sections in the track we saw was reminiscent of the soundtrack line from Fantasia.

Still, the vast majority of the game feels both original and modern.  In the panel, the creators discussed the fact that they went back to Walt Disney’s musings on the original Fantasia project, and learned that it was intended to evolve over time, incorporate the progress music had made (not a big surprise, coming from Walt).  Thus, though the inclusion of pop music might seem jarring to some, it’s not really out of line – and let’s not forget, the original film included Rite of Spring, which basically caused a riot at its first performance and was less than 40 years old at the time of the film!

The panel audience also got to see concept art and demos from along the path of development.  While these were fascinating in and of themselves, I’m reminded of the special features we tend to see on Disney DVDs nowadays, and hope that perhaps the game will also feature even more behind-the-scenes (it’s not unheard of from Harmonix).

Ultimately, I’m thrilled with this collaboration and I can’t wait to play the finished product.  I still don’t have any plans to purchase an XBox One, but thankfully it’ll also be available for the 360.  This is what I want to see from Disney when it comes to video games – the same thought, work and soul that’s made the company what it is for decades.  It’s not just branding consistency – it really is a little bit of magic.

How about you?  Are you looking forward to the release of Fantasia: Music Evolved (which, incidentally, is planned for 2014)?  What songs or elements would you like to see included? 

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