Fantasia and The Evolution of the Music Game

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Last month Harmonix, the developers of the Dance Central and Rock Band games, invited Paste to a special preview of an unannounced game scheduled for release later this year. Writer Joe Bernardi ventured into Manhattan after the long Memorial Day weekend to learn about Harmonix’s secret new game.

Harmonix’s new thing is a Fantasia videogame.

I showed up at the SoHo House (a “private members’ club for those in film, media and creative industries”) in the West Village on a rainy afternoon and, after some confusion about what I meant by “Harmonix Event,” the polite doorwoman sussed out that I was bound for the “Fantasia press demo.” I exited the elevator to find a two-foot by three-foot sign that read Fantasia: Music Evolved. As a paid member of gaming’s fourth estate, I managed to catch on to what I was about to see even before entering a large, tastefully lit room with free coffee, lots of books, and brand managers and publicists from both Harmonix and Disney. Also present were the game’s design lead, and a stern-looking, note-taking man sitting in the back of the room who was not introduced to me.

The pitch with Fantasia: Music Evolved is that current music and rhythm-driven games tend to be too lockstep, providing the player with a simulation of what playing guitar is actually like without the ecstasy of improvisation and creation that typically comes with it. Disney and Harmonix, having been working on the game for the last three years, share a hope that it will cross that chasm, allowing for a richer and more fulfilling creative experience that places the emphasis on exploration and shareable moments, rather than how accurately one can press buttons in rhythm to “Mississippi Queen.”

What we seem to have gotten is an arm-waving Dance Dance Revolution-like game with an exploration layer and the ability to change the arrangements of songs on the fly.

F:ME, an Xbox 360 and Xbox One exclusive, relies heavily on the Kinect; its performance-based play consists primarily of little arrows gradually appearing onscreen during a song, telling the player which direction to gesture in. As the song goes on, the player is scored based on their ability to gesture in the correct directions at the correct times. I’m not about to besmirch the appeal of dancing around like an idiot to Queen or Avicii (both of whom make appearances), but what we’ve got here reads less like “Music Evolved” and a lot like Dance Central with less complex moves and more abstract art.

The ostensibly creative (or evolved) parts of the game: Throughout the song, the player is given the chance to change part of the song’s arrangement to a different genre (chiptune, for example, or a Fantasia videogame’s approximation of metal). The player is also periodically able to create a drum fill or guitar line on the fly using hand gestures. The former idea is completely path-based and ultimately pretty restrictive, and what I saw of the latter seemed so open-ended and imprecise, arbitrarily converting the player’s figure-eight gestures into coherent musical phrases, that creating something particularly cool seemed to be mostly a matter of chance. Finally, each song has a bonus sequence in which high performance is rewarded with the ability to apply an effect (wah-wah and flange on the guitar, for example) to the song via hand gestures.

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A scene from Fantasia: Music Evolved

In order to gain access to the tunes, the player is tasked with manipulating an overworld-style level, which consists of tasks as freeform as waving one’s hands across an undersea coral reef to activate a collage of colors and sounds, and others as concrete as solving a color-matching puzzle in a robot-filled printing press. Finding success in these endeavors opens up both performable songs and little freeform sub-stages such as a group of pufferfish that make different musical notes when tapped or clams that make jazz drum sounds.

I was told a number of times during my preview of Fantasia: Music Evolved that motion controllers such as the Kinect are the future, and that handheld controllers were becoming outmoded and old-fashioned. It sounds good coming from Harmonix, the one studio who seems to have figured the Kinect out (see any of the Dance Central games.) The level of precision that handheld controllers bring to the table, however, permits a much wider range of inputs than the “swipe hands across the screen” or “move a hand left or up” controls in Fantasia. This ends up working against F:ME’s promise of “unleashing [players’] creativity”: If nothing else, creation tends to involve making use of a system that’s fine-tuned enough to allow high levels of precision (the Mario Paint music program, for example) or deep and varied enough to allow high levels of surprise and play (Dwarf Fortress? I’m not sure this has been modeled as a game yet). I’m sure some enterprising YouTube users will get good enough at poking specific jazz clams to craft a reasonable facsimile of “Under the Sea” or the Super Mario Bros. theme, but with the low level of tactile precision the Kinect currently provides, it seems like they’ll be doing it in spite of the Fantasia engine, rather than alongside it.

The cynical side of me is reminded that the Fantasia brand is a serious Disney cash cow that hasn’t been milked in awhile. (Upon its VHS release, it became the biggest selling tape of all time.) A lot of people have positive feelings towards Fantasia but have trouble remembering specifics about it past Mickey’s cool wizard’s hat and maybe the hippo ballet segment, so it would be relatively easy to create a videogame about basically anything, slap the word Fantasia on it, and have the money roll right in. Trying to capture Fantasia’s abstract, fractured, thoroughly uncommercial whimsy in an AAA video game—the most thoroughly commercial medium there is—is insanely difficult at best and a fool’s errand at worst. It should also be pointed out that nothing in the demo I saw was related to Fantasia the movie at all (although the plot of the game casts the player as Yen Sid the wizard’s newest apprentice), and that, while the soundtrack contains popular hits of today by artists such as Bruno Mars and Kimbra, no mention was made of the classical music that Fantasia the movie hangs its entire cool wizard’s hat on.

The optimistic side of me is reminded that Harmonix and Disney are right: Current rhythm and music games are too lockstep and frantic; they don’t come close to mirroring the self-expression and spontaneity of real-life dancing and performing. That most of Fantasia: Music Evolved’s play seems to include lockstep precision and hard-coded stage pathways is strange, but reasonable considering the game’s surely-enormous budget and need for commercial appeal. Regardless of whether it succeeds, that a game as undeniably high-profile as F:ME is even being touted as having these types of ideas behind its design is a step in the right direction.

Joe Bernardi is a writer and web developer living in Brooklyn. His words have appeared in Dusted Magazine, The Boston Phoenix, and Tiny Mix Tapes, among other places. He’s got a Twitter and a blog.