Remaking Music With Fantasia: Music Evolved

Games Features
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It’s right there in the title. Music evolves, just like tastes evolve, and society evolves, and making and marketing games and movies evolves. Everything changes in time. When you hear that Harmonix, the studio behind the Rock Band and Dance Central games, is making a new game based on Disney’s Fantasia, you probably immediately think of classical music, and wonder what Harmonix will do with those hippos in tutus dancing around to Ponchielli, or the demons and ghosts that circle Bald Mountain while Mussorgsky thunders throughout the theater. So when you see Fantasia: Music Evolved in action and hear Bruno Mars, Elton John and New Order pumping out of the TV, you might be a little confused. Just remember: everything changes.

“Disney really wanted this to reflect the entirety of music history on some level,” Daniel Sussman, the game’s director, tells me at Harmonix’s headquarters in Cambridge, Massachusetts. We’re watching a Harmonix publicist play the game on a giant television in a dark room filled with videogame equipment and Harmonix history. There’s a phalanx of consoles and computers around the television, a Kinect camera in front and old plastic Rock Band instruments propped up in the corners. The publicist stands in front of the Kinect, sweeping and jabbing his arms to on-screen prompts while Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” plays. “We want big, iconic hit songs that reflect the magic and power of the original film,” Sussman adds.

Although there are elements of Rock Band’s timing and Dance Central’s choreography in Fantasia: Music Evolved, Harmonix is basically creating an entirely new genre with this game. It’s a music game where players remix songs on the fly while moving their arms as if they’re conducting an orchestra. Think Mickey Mouse as the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, using his hands to make the waves rise and the stars streak while standing on top of a mountain in Fantasia, only you’re in front of your TV gesticulating your way through a chiptune / big band mash-up of Dvo?ák’s Symphony No. 9.

Manipulating music is the heart of Fantasia: Music Evolved, and part of why Harmonix wanted to work on the project to begin with. “The fun part of working on this game is that, where with Rock Band you play songs over and over again, here each song has a pretty deep well of opportunity,” Sussman boasts. “There are tons of choices you can make that change the output, and a tremendous amount of replay value in each song.”

Each song appears in its original version along with two remixes rooted in different musical styles. At various points while playing the song you’re given the option to pick between these mixes. Sometimes you can switch between individual instruments from one mix to another, mashing up elements of all three mixes, resulting in, say, a “Bohemian Rhapsody” with Freddie Mercury’s original vocals, classical strings and heavy metal guitar.

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As Sussman describes how players can remix songs the publicist unlocks one of the game’s music manipulation tools. With his arms he slashes away at the edges of a floating geometric shape, gradually unlocking a device that lets him record a new guitar solo that’ll loop over the song. His on-screen cursor, called a “muse” within the game, shoots across a metallic oval that’s essentially a scale, with each section producing a different note. When the publicist finishes his solo the notes are seamlessly added to the song. He basically paints a new guitar solo over the original.

There are 33 songs in total on the Fantasia: Music Evolved disc. Sussman acknowledges that might sound light compared to the dozens of songs in each new Rock Band, but he cautions that the music in Fantasia isn’t comparable to any other music game. “It’s like we’re changing the definition of what a song is in the music game space,” he says. “Each song is actually a song plus multiple remixes plus all the manipulators. There are literally thousands of different permutations that a single song could take.”

Those options took time to produce. Harmonix was provided the original stems from the record labels, but had to record the new instrumentation for every mix, making sure they fit alongside the original songs. For “Bohemian Rhapsody”, Sussman says, “the audio director Eric Brosius recorded the heavy metal mix on his own and then we worked with Inon Zur to compose and perform the classical stems. We do a lot of the work ourselves and we’ll farm some of that out to professionals around the world.”

In the past some musicians have been particularly careful about how Rock Band and Guitar Hero could use their music or image. The level of editing and remixing done to the original songs in Fantasia goes far beyond any other music game, though. Sussman admits that Disney and Harmonix were requesting an unheard of amount of leeway with these songs. “Our offer letter was unprecedented in terms of getting license to do all this stuff, to remix the songs, to allow players to remix the songs,” he says. “There were artists who didn’t want to let people do that, and they’re not in the game.

“What was really interesting was how many folks thought that idea was really cool,” he continues, drawing a line between Fantasia and other apps and projects designed to bring listeners closer to the music they love. “There’s a whole class of artist that is thinking proactively about this. You see more interactive apps that accompany albums on day one. You see a lot of artists take a very progressive perspective on the idea that their music is a commodity for people to experience in whatever way they want. I was impressed with the fact that Beck released an album in sheet music form. That idea that music is something to be performed…it’s a funny thing—we have all these songs and they’re all different every time you play them. It’s not about putting your headphones on and listening to this curated thing. It’s about interacting with it, creating it through your own agency. It’s an interesting component of music as an art-form.”

The publicist, done with “Bohemian Rhapsody”, drifts through one of the interactive environments that make up the game’s hub world. He pulls up a soothing undersea tableau, all blue water and Hawaiian guitar, and shows off another way in which the game lets the player play with music. He descends to a bed of clams, and as his muse icon flits over each bivalve it triggers a different sample of a drum kit. He waves his hand over the clams, “playing” jazz drums like he’s Buddy Rich. He records a short drum fill, and like the solo in “Bohemian Rhapsody” that sample is added to the level’s background music.

Sussman says Harmonix has worked “hand in hand” with Disney on Fantasia: Music Evolved, but the original concept for the game came from Disney. “They approached us almost out of the blue,” Sussman says. “They wanted to set up a meeting and we had no idea what to expect. When they mentioned Fantasia we were struck. It’s such an interesting project. It has so much gravity, in a way.”

Sussman explains that this close collaboration has seen Harmonix make the game with Disney’s executive producer, Chris Nichols, making sure it maintains the spirit of both Disney and Fantasia. “We’ve done basically all of the creative development with [Nichols] as sort of our conscience,” Sussman says. “How far can we go, how closely do we need to tie to the film, all that kind of stuff. But this is very much a Disney product.

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“When we first got into this all of our questions were like, okay, what are the rules?” Sussman continues. “What can we or can’t we do, do you have guidelines around Fantasia as a brand? And the thing with Disney is, they don’t. They’re like, ‘yeah, you can basically do anything you want, until you cross a line, and then we’ll tell you when you cross that line.’ And so everything was us basically pushing boundaries. How crazy can this get? How un-gamey can it be? How abstract can it be? At what point do the corporate brand people complain? And I think through that process we have developed a very keen intuition around what Fantasia is, and why it was built.

“We’ve done a lot of research, spent a lot of time in the archives. That period of Disney development is incredibly well-documented. There are story notes from the film, all of these very interesting conversations that Walt had with his animation team around how abstract the film could be and what types of stories would work for those segments. There was this epiphany where we realized we were having the same conversation in 2012 around what this game should be, what kind of stories to tell, how abstract it could be, that Walt was having in the late ‘30s with his animation team.”

Although the game rarely references the film directly, the entire project is deeply indebted to the work Disney’s animators did 75 years ago. “The film covers a lot of ground,” Sussman points out. “There are moments of slapstick comedy and moments of tremendous gravity. There’s a tremendous amount of range, visually, musically and thematically, and we knew early on that we wanted to reflect that as well. And so a lot of our game runs the gamut from playful and whimsical to introspective or serious.”

“We’re trying to thread the needle here,” Sussman concludes. “It’s a motion game but not necessarily a dance game. You could argue that inherently it is a dance game, you move to music, you’re dancing—and yet we don’t want to box it that way. That carries its own stigma. We don’t want people to think it’s a stuffy game about classical music. We’re trying to bring a modern sensibility to the world of music gaming.”

The publicist asks me if I want to play. I take off my jacket as he cedes the floor, raise my right arm and scroll through the list of songs, eager to see how Fantasia has changed, and how Fantasia: Music Evolved will let me change music.

Garrett Martin is Paste’s games editor.