Platform: Xbox One | Xbox 360
Publisher: Disney Interactive
Going into the press session at Gamescom, I had limited knowledge of Disney Fantasia other than the fact it was being made (oops) but it was hard to ignore the talent behind the development – Harmonix. The team responsible for bringing Guitar Hero, Rock Band, and Dance Central to life have more than proved their ability to create a unique and, more to the point, fun music-based experience for years now, and so to learn that they were approached by Disney to bring one of their most famous music-focused films to the world of gaming was no surprise.
We were invited to join John Drake, director of communications at Harmonix, for a press presentation of the game in action to learn more about what the game will be about, how it ties into the Fantasia brand, and how the developers plan to take motion-scanning to the next level with their latest project. We also had to chance to ask Drake a few questions after the presentation was done, but with this preview being as giant as it is, we’ll be posting his responses later today. So, let’s begin with a bit of a history lesson…
Drake began the presentation by letting us know how the project started, when Disney Interactive approached the music game genre pioneers to bring the world of Fantasia to life, “Disney came to us two and a half, three years ago,” Drake began, “and they wanted to make Fantasia The Music Game and they wanted us to do it, and we were like ‘That’s awesome.’ And then we spent like a year trying to figure out what the hell we were going to do because it’s a really weird movie.” The 73-year-old film is definitely a hard one to pigeon-hole in terms of what it is exactly, but Harmonix were given a helping hand by Disney to overcome this problem – by being granted access to Walt Disney’s personal archives for the film. “Walt Disney had a lot of money after Snow White, which he made all its money in the theatres, so he hired this army of secretaries to follow him around and write everything that he said down,” Drake said.” So, for Fantasia we have all these notes about story, and art style, and music, and technology, so that was a huge inspiration when trying to figure out what we would be making that [fit with] Walt’s vision.”
“[Walt] said that Fantasia was meant to be ‘an adventure in colour, sound, and motion,’ and he wanted people to be brought inside the music so they would feel a more intimate connection with songs that they liked.” With it being a time when most average people didn’t have a record player, it meant that listening to their favourite music wasn’t as easy as it is today, so as Drake pointed out that it made music more personal to listeners. To that end, Walt’s original idea behind Fantasia was much more grand than it eventually turned out – it would be a concert tour where the 8 songs used in Fantasia would be swapped out every year, thus making it a constantly changing film. “[It was to be] launched in 12 theatres in America, and every theatre had a custom projector, a custom arrangement of seats, and they built a stereo system for it that was called Fantasound, and it was a hundred loud speakers that basically mimicked what would become surround sound and stereo like twenty or thirty years before it actually existed, which is all really cool, but like a lot of technology developed before its time it was extremely expensive and really hard to scale so it could only be in those twelve theatres. It was too expensive to keep rolling out, so Walt’s vision of a concert film that swapped new [music] in never came to be.”
It certainly was an idea ahead of its time – over the last few years we’ve seen special screenings of films at places like the Royal Albert Hall where the soundtrack is played by an orchestra. “So the film released and it became very successful on VHS and DVD, but our question going in was ‘what if Walt had achieved his vision, and was always adding in new music, from classical music to Jazz, to rock and roll, to funk and hip-hop?’” Drake continued. “If he had kept rolling through and had gone from old film to digital, to IMAX, to home theatres, and to interactive entertainment, with all that music changing, what would it look like today? So we tried that leap forward and carry on the legacy there.”
The story of the game itself is that you’re the new Sorcerer’s apprentice, so Yen Sid the master sorcerer (whose name is Disney spelt backwards. The more you know!) calls you in, wanting you to be the new sorcerer’s apprentice. “You’re not Mickey Mouse, although you may run into him along the way, but you are the new sorcerer’s apprentice,” Drake explained. “You’re in the workshop with the brooms and the mops, you’re messing around inside that space from the film, and then Yen Sid says to train for your position you’re going to go out into these worlds that he called the Realms of Fantasia, and they’re like imaginary spaces created out of music.”
During the reveal at E3 earlier this year, Harmonix showed off two of these Realms of Fantasia – Underwated World and Corral Reef – but for the Gamescom presentation we were about to see a new area for the first time called the Hollows, which is a wintery forest. “The idea here is that you go into these worlds and they’re very dark and quiet, and your job is to bring the world to life with magic, and collect that magic and play songs, and that’s how you transform the world, and then you go back to the workshop and get your next assignment.” Drake explained that the game will feature contemporary music as well as classical pieces, but you’ll also be able to remix everything you hear… but we’ll get into that later on.
At was at this point we got to see how the game in action, with Drake summoning an assistant to help him demo the game as he continued to explain what was going on. In terms of navigation, players will side-step to move the camera around a panoramic view of the world (or a tableau, if you will,) “It’s trying to solve the problem of traversal in motion games where you can’t really run in place to go through a world but you can explore a bigger space than what’s just in front of you,” Drake said.
By using the “Muse”, which is the 3-dimensional cursor for the game, we saw how players can reach into the world and interact with the landscape, such as breaking icicles off of branches, which in term creates noise to accompany the scene. Drake explained that the idea was for the player to transform the scene from being a 2D-esque image with dark shadows into a bright and lavish 3D world. Interacting with the scene generates magic, which is saved up to eventually be spent on bringing a song of the player’s choice into the world. Drake explained that this particular world is about 4 or so hours into the game, and that a tutorial would gradually introduced all of these mechanics to the player in a natural way “so if you’re an 11 year old, you’ll understand the game”.
With the magic metre charged, we got to see the song sections of Fantasia in action, with “Winter” from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons being the track chosen. It was here that the game took a more familiar turn, with a focus on the player matching movements indicated on screen to score points, but instead of a full body outline or avatar on screen to inform the player what to do, players must match their arm movements to mimic the lines of light on the screen. Drake described the gameplay as “a combination of dancing, or spellcasting like a sorcerer, or conducting,” but it won’t just be a simple case of Simon-Says. Players will also be able to choose between doing certain actions, altering the potential path of the song to go new subtle (and not so subtle) direction.
Additionally, players also able to add percussion sounds along the way (using something called gems), and by putting all these things together players will create their own unique versions of the tracks called remixes, which can be uploaded online for other players to listen to. Drake compared this to Rock Band, where everybody is playing the same thing over and over, whereas Fantasia’s ability for remixes allows for “more of a personal expression.” Of course, it isn’t just the manipulation of audio that Harmonix are focusing on, as we were shown how the player’s movements will also affect the particles on screen, “to show that your movement is driving what is going on on-screen.” Drake then pointed out that, in terms of difficulty, it would like DDR –easy to learn in terms of the basics, but mastering it would require plenty of practice. Drake also mentioned that 2-player local multiplayer will also be available for competitive battles to score the most points (although he did warn us that such multiplayer can be a little brutal with all the arms flailing about.)
With the song completed, a transformation key appeared back in the game world which, when activated using the muse, transforms the world in in unique ways. In this particular instance, the scene changed to daytime and introduced new characters into the world, along with new ways to interact with the world. An invisible bobcat was now lurking about, and after some investigation by the player by interacting with the scene, a giant yeti was discovered who promptly ran away to hide in amongst the trees. This of course meant that the next task was finding him, with the soundtrack changing to accompany the mood. Drake explained that the game itself with focus on fun, and that there wouldn’t be any fiendish puzzles to get in the way, but by continuing to interact with the scene players are able to add audio layers to the background music - be it a light melody or percussion - all the while bringing the world to life and generating magic to begin the next song.
We were then shown an example of a mini-game within the world, as we came across a second yeti who wants to learn to sing. To do this, the player has to move their hands across some birds in the right order, after which the yeti would mimic in a rather adorable manner. Once this had been done a few times, more birds appeared and Drake pointed out that this is where the player can go nuts and create their own melody. The Yeti, now happy he can sing, will then wonder around humming to himself and adding the soundtrack, and this was just one example of how players will awake the world in-front of them that we were shown. We had gone from a dark area with a single note melody to a colourful and lively forest with a vibrant soundtrack, and even though Drake was keen to point out it was all still a little rough around the edges, it certainly looked impressive to watch, and most importantly, it felt very Disney in style without referring to established characters like Aladdin or Simba (“Disney Infinity is handling that just fine!” Drake quipped.)
With this part of the demo done, we were shown how players will have the ability to remix songs they have previous completed to create unique takes on the existing music. One such example we were told was a Jazz version of song by Pink, but for the practical demonstration a “Locked Out Of Heaven” by Bruno Mars was played. Now where as previously with the Vivaldi track only a few subtle options were available to change the feel of the track, we now had four colour-coded options with which to mess about with Mars’ song. Going the blue route would activate the original track, green providing a ska version, and pink being an electro / dance remix – all of which can be switched between on the fly, and all of which can be manipulated by the player.
We were also given a quick demonstration of the beat chopper, allowing the player to create their own beat for the track, and of the vocal manipulator, which allows players to alter vocals by moving their hands as if they were sculpting in the air. While I was only an observer for this, I felt the transitions worked really well and the potential remixes that could be uploaded by players could end up being extremely creative (or crazy, depending on your tastes.)
Also, Drake did mention that the Dubstep remix of Vivaldi’s Winter was, and I quote, “pretty baller.”
Overall, I came away from the presentation suitably impressed by how Fantasia is shaping up at the moment. Bringing Walt's vision it into the 21st century won't be an easy task, but if anyone is up to challenge, it's the folks at Harmonix.
Stay tuned for our interview with John Drake, where we take a deeper look into the development of Disney Fantasia, and the evolution of the music game genre at Harmonix.