Harmonix Tells Us How to Make Magic with Disney Fantasia: Music Evolved

Famed for music and rhythm game franchises like “Rock Band” and “Dance Central,” Boston-based developer Harmonix is temporarily trading in its plastic guitars and dance shoes for a fresh take on the melody-making genre. Powered by Xbox One’s Kinect 2.0 technology—and players’ own imaginations—“Disney Fantasia: Music Evolved” combines elements of Walt Disney’s 1940 animated film classic with contemporary tunes. While the concept is as magical as a fistful of pixie dust, its inspired marriage of art and ambition is also a bit difficult to cram into any existing game category. With that in mind, we sat down with the title’s lead designer Jonathan Mintz to learn exactly what players can expect when they don the robes of the sorcerer’s apprentice.

Xbox Wire: For those unfamiliar with “Disney Fantasia: Music Evolved,” would you mind telling us what it’s all about?

Jonathan Mintz:
Disney came to Harmonix and said: “We want to rebuild the vision of Walt Disney’s ‘Fantasia.’ Not to adapt the film, but to re-imagine it for a 21st-century interactive experience.” So we turned that into a game where you take on the role of a new sorcerer’s apprentice. You travel to these realms that are made of music, and you learn how to perform incredible music in a way that is kind of inspired by Mickey Mouse performing on the cliff from the original film. Then, eventually, you learn to remix the songs and transform them.

Xbox Wire: Sounds like quite the magical trip! How exactly does this concept translate into gameplay?

There are two main modes of play. One is the song performance, where players are shown a series of cues that indicate the basic motions of gameplay. But then as you get better and unlock more of the game, we start introducing elements like switch cues, which allow you to actually change the song and remix it piece-by-piece. So, you can swap out the drum sound… you can switch from a drum kit to electronic drums. You can also switch from vocals to a violin section, and combine multiple remixes of each song to create your own custom mix. And then, you can add your own solo moments through these elements that we call “composition spells” which let you record your own solo in real-time, and add that to the mix.

We also have the exploration of the realms. We call this “Discovery,” because the goal is that players are basically stepping left and right, or leaning left and right in front of their Kinect. This kind of turns their TV into this magic window that allows them to gaze into these realms and explore them. And then by holding up one hand, you control what we call the “Muse,” which is this 3D cursor that allows you touch elements of the world to activate them. You can wave at elements to give them a little bit more energy, and you can zoom in and out of parts of the world to explore hidden secrets and hotspots throughout these spaces and try to discover the music within all of them.

Xbox Wire: So it sounds like the realms are more about discovery, creativity, and doing your own thing, while the performance elements are more goal-oriented?

Yeah. With the performance, you begin your adventure by becoming an apprentice under master sorcerer Yen Sid, and he teaches you the basics. There are some core elements – like sweep cues, where you sort of sweep your hands in time with the music, and push cues, where you push forward, and so forth. Once you learn those basics, you meet the former apprentice, Scout, who teaches you about the remix magic she’s been working on. You are able to discover how to actually remix songs, and then the progression becomes about going off into the realms and unlocking all these different remixes.

By performing well at the basic cues, you’re able to unlock a remix, so that you will have this moment where you’ll switch into a brand-new remix for the first time and hear what it sounds like, then that basically opens up your palette to blend between two or three remixes in real-time. And then, by creating those remixes, the magic flows back into the realms, transforms them further, and sort of drives your progression through the story.

Xbox Wire: What sorts of music can players plan on manipulating? Is it all contemporary tracks?

It’s a mixture of classical, classic rock, pop… we even have some R&B songs in there. The idea that Disney came to us with was to go back and look at the notes; we got to go through the Disney archives and see the meeting notes where Walt Disney was planning this stuff. His original ambition was for it to be this concert feature, where they would swap out segments and add in new music over time. So, circa 1940 when the film came out, all the music in the film was fairly contemporary. Rite of Spring was more contemporary to “Fantasia” then, like Bohemian Rhapsody is to our game now.

So we sort of got the goal set forth by Disney; to imagine that this had actually worked out as Walt envisioned it. What would “Fantasia” sound like now? And our take is that it would have embraced a range of music over the decades. It would be at a point now where it’s not only the original performances in music – but the remixes and control over music is something that we felt is consistent with allowing music to connect people with that original vision.

Xbox Wire: Given the game’s title, do you think some Disney fans will expect more of an adaptation of the original film? Are there any elements in the game fans of the film will recognize?

We have those elements reflected in the game. Mickey makes an appearance, and the story is based around Yen Sid – so it has those familiar entry points for Disney fans. You are going to play some classical music up front. We have songs like Night on Bald Mountain and Nutcracker Suite that were in the original film, but then we also let you do, like, a dubstep version of Night on Bald Mountain. So the hope is that we can capture people from both sides. Fans of the original will be surprised, but if they want to perform the song in the traditional format, they can totally do that. And then if people are like, “Ah, classical music, I’m not into it… but I want to add some sweet drops into that,” then we let them do that, too.

Xbox Wire: It seems like you guys are also doing some very creative things aesthetically. Could you talk about what your approach was, with regard to the look of the game?

Obviously, the original film explored a lot of different thematic and visual styles, and we sort of looked at the intention behind that – which is really to listen to the music, and figure out how to visually capture that. As we started figuring out how we were going to construct these realms, we thought about how to make each of them into a little bit of a suite, where we capture the sound and feeling of certain songs. One of my favorites is The Hollow; it’s this mystic, dark forest that’s presented in kind of this woodcut art style, and it’s meant to be our take on the old-world folklore that the Night on Bald Mountain segment explored in the original film. But then we also bring in the White Stripes’ Seven Nation Army, which to me is really fun, because then we have these characters from folklore… we have this Baba Yaga chicken leg hut that stomps along to the White Stripes’ beat, and it creates this interesting juxtaposition between this dark edge that you hear in both Night on Bald Mountain and in the White Stripes’ song.

Another one of my favorite realms is the Capsule, which is this space station with this lonely astronaut space chimp. Over the course of the experience, you’ll bring in new music, light up the capsule, and cheer him up a little bit. That is the home of Elton John’s Rocket Man and Peter Gabriel’s In Your Eyes. So, just to explore this stuff thematically within the context of a video game is pretty rare.

Xbox Wire: Is “Disney Fantasia: Music Evolved” doing anything specific to take advantage of the Xbox One hardware?

There are obviously some general advantages – like, everything is going to look a lot better [than it does on Xbox 360], and there is higher fidelity on the Kinect 2.0. The biggest thing, though, is probably the sharing element: We take advantage of the Xbox One’s game DVR feature. On both platforms, we let you save your performance… but on Xbox One, we then let you stream it through the game DVR system, and then that’s how we get it out to YouTube. To me, that is one of the features I’m most excited about. People who watch a lot of music on YouTube now have a way to get their own music out there as well. I think that’s really cool.

Xbox Wire: You had us at “Dubstep version of Night on Bald Mountain.” Can’t wait to check out the final game on Xbox One and Xbox 360 this fall!