Three years ago, at GDC in San Francisco, members of music game maker Harmonix sat in a meeting room with a team from the Walt Disney Company.
Meetings like this happen all the time. They only rarely lead to actual games. This meeting, however, would not only lead to a game, but to something its creators believe could be much more.
When the developers from Harmonix entered the room, they thought they were being asked to make a version of one of their popular music games, but featuring Disney characters. Rock Band Hannah Montana, perhaps. Duck Central. Cars Hero. What they were there for, however, was none of that. And when they found out what it was it blew their minds.
"When we actually mentioned to Harmonix what the game was, it was almost like the room went silent," says Disney's Christopher Nicholls.
Nicholls had been looking for the right partner to work with for years. As a musician and composer himself, he was familiar with Harmonix's work and respected the company.
"They’re incredibly talented music game developers," Nicholls says. "Everyone in the studio lives and breathes music, and they’ve been doing this for a long time.
"You look at the Beatles games: they’ve done a fantastic job of jumping in and learning about IPs and being very sincere in their approach. There’s no shortcuts to the approach."
That dedication was exactly what Nicholls and Disney wanted for its next project; nothing less than a re-imagining of the three quarter century old classic film Fantasia, in video game form.
"We've talked about it for a while," says Nicholls. "We've explored it. But it wasn't until I was able to secure a meeting with Harmonix ... that we really thought there was potential for doing something with it.
"One of the things we wanted to do was put you in control of the music, and that's not an easy feat. It's a very difficult feat."
Disney didn't just want a licensed game based on old ideas. It wanted Harmonix to use all of its power and artistry to try and tap into the spirit of what Walt Disney had set out to do — 73 years ago — with music and animation.
"One of the interesting deliverables from Disney was that they did not want this to be a piece of merchandise to support the film," says Project Director Daniel Sussman. "They didn't want it to be a derivative product. They wanted it to explore the nature of what Fantasia was in its conception.
"They opened up their archives to us."
"The really profound piece of research for me personally was getting into Walt Disney's head."
Harmonix tore into the Disney archives, exploring hundreds of pages of notes taken from meetings with Walt Disney during the conception of the original film.
"Fantasia was this sort of personal project for [Walt Disney]," says Sussman. "He had face-to-face meetings with all of his animators, with his music direction team, with his technical direction team, and all of those notes exist. We read through all of them, and it was this wonderful window into why he was making this film and what he was trying to provoke with a mass-market movie-going audience in 1939 and 1940."
Disney's vision, in his own words, was to create an "adventure in color, sound and motion." For the game, Disney and Harmonix wanted to present a similar adventure, but empowering audiences to explore music even further with interactivity.
"The really profound piece of research for me personally was getting into Walt Disney's head," says Sussman, "this creative genius, and thinking about ... what he was trying to do with the film and how we might answer the question: 'What if Fantasia had continued to develop along the lines it was originally conceived? Where would Fantasia be with contemporary music, with contemporary technology?
"That was really fascinating, to try to think that process through."
Pulse shapes appear periodically throughout each song section.
Completing pulse shapes earns extra magic and unlocks special music sections.
Walt's big idea
In 1940, The Walt Disney company had released Snow White and Pinocchio and proven itself as an animated feature film powerhouse. For the company's next project, Walt Disney wanted to go big.
When Fantasia was released in theaters, it was released in full color — still a big deal for its time. Twelve select auditoriums in the United States were outfitted with "Fantasound" to give viewers a "surround sound" experience from dozens of strategically placed speakers — a first for movies. The film itself was designed, not as one contiguous experience, but instead as a series of shorts showcasing different pieces of music. Through the years, those short were swapped in and out to keep the film current and able to connect with different audiences.
"It wasn't about a moment in time," says Sussman. "It was designed to be this thing that would continue to evolve. ... Walt saw an opportunity to use music to connect people to animation — to present animation as an art form, but also to use animation as a vehicle to put people inside music.
"His vision was not about the cultural aspect of music or animation, but about a vehicle for human emotion. Really deep, fundamental stuff that was really interesting to us."
In 2010, Harmonix and Disney saw an opening in the grand ambitions of Fantasia, the film, to make Fantasia, the game, an experience that could revel in the joy of music in a similar manner. After a year spent prototyping different ways to capture that magic, Harmonix felt it finally had something worth showing to Disney.
"When we looked back at other games that we'd made, there was such a clear player fantasy in them," says Creative Director Matt Boch. "You're playing Rock Band and you see this band on screen. You're playing Dance Central and you're literally dancing. In all those cases there were these clear roles the player was taking.
"Once we'd put the player in the place where they're going to be musically creative ... we wanted to use the rich visual world of Sorcerer's Apprentice as a way to give the player some grounding and give through-lines through the experience."
"We really cast the player as the next Sorcerer's apprentice," Boch says.
"That moment of blissful power where you're lost in the world of your imagination: Could that form the player identity?"
In Fantasia, the game, players will be given quests by Yen Sid, the famous magician from the original film who, in spite of being a sort of loose analogue for Walt Disney himself, has only appeared in less than 10 minutes of film.
Yen Sid will be the player's guide through the many worlds of Fantasia, and through interacting with and making music, the player will alter those worlds — and the music itself.
"It took us a really long time just to figure out the simple questions," says Sussman. "Who are you? What do you do? What is the game and how do we provide all the things that games support really well, in terms of incentives to continue to be interactive?
"This isn't a passive experience. You can't just sit on the couch and watch this thing unfold. We want you in the middle of it. We want you to be interacting with the music, with the world, with the color, with the characters."
Players will be sent to various worlds within Fantasia by the Sorcerer Yen Sid. It will be up to the player to unlock that world's musical potential using gestures and even, possibly, some dance moves to activate musical elements. And the more you play, the more you can change the world through music and even change the music itself through your "magical" gestures.
"We looked at the Sorcerer's Apprentice as this wonderful parable that's told through the Fantasia story — Mickey and the mountaintop — and how we might put you in that space," says Sussman. "The core fantasy of Mickey is that he's using magic to conduct the heavens, to conduct the world around him. That moment of blissful power, where you're lost in the world of your imagination, could that form the player identity?
"That cements our narrative presentation and ... spoke to who we want you to be in the world of Fantasia."
Yen Sid - The lost Disney character
For a character who has only appeared in a few minutes of feature film, Yen Sid has a lot of history. He's the Sorcerer in Fantasia, to whom Mickey was apprenticed. He is also a narrative analogue of Walt Disney himself, granting his creation the power to change worlds.
For Fantasia the game, Harmonix wanted to flesh out Yen Sid a little, and give him something to do.
"Yen Sid is this very interesting case study, in terms of a character who does not have a lot of history," says Daniel Sussman. "He's only ever been in one feature film. He's been in games before, but as it relates to his official character and the character voice and who he is in the Disney canon, there's a lot of room for interpretation."
Within the Disney company, Yen Sid represent's Walt Disney's vision. His hat — the hat Mickey puts on before wreaking havoc in the film — sits atop Disney's animation building as a larger-than-life reminder of the source of the Disney magic.
Harmonix has been working closely with Disney on the Fantasia game, but most especially on characterizing Yen Sid.
"We've had these phenomenal meetings ... with animators from the feature department; guys who worked on Fantasia 2000, who were interns in the '50s and '60s, who really learned from the original masters," says Sussman.
In Fantasia, players will return again and again to the Sorcerer's workshop, where they will interact with Yen Sid, and learn about his backstory. Yen Sid will be the unifying narrative thread for the game, providing the story-based connective tissue between the various worlds the player will explore — and change — with music.
This narrative element, long a strong suit for Disney franchises in general, was a new challenge for Harmonix.
"The narrative component of our games has run the course from nonexistent to tongue in cheek," says Sussman. "I think this game, so far, has stretched us in terms of thinking about and supporting a player fantasy that is not as literal as it has been in other games that we've developed.
"Over the course of the game, a conflict emerges. It's a real story with a nice arc to it. That is all designed to, again, just to reinforce the fact that we've thrown you into this fantastic place where you can wield great control, great power over the environment. We didn't want to break that up."
Sharing the love of music
Fantasia attempts to get to the heart of the joy of creating music, more so than any of Harmonix's previous titles. While in Rock Band you could pick up an instrument and become a part of a band, or in Dance Central you could join in the dance end experience the music physically, Fantasia takes a more esoteric approach.
The team's ambition is to create nothing less than an instrument through which to communicate how music is made and then grant players the ability to mix and match songs with which they may already be familiar and, hopefully, discover their own hidden musical potential.
"It sounds trite, but music does change how you feel about the world. It changes how you define the world."
Heady stuff, and risky. With no instrument to hold and no dancers on the screen to emulate, players will have a bigger hump to get over in order to lose themselves in the fantasy of becoming the Sorcerer's musical apprentice.
In practice, the gameplay is fun and instantly engaging. Players will use simple gestures to control their "muse," an on-screen pointer, and interact with various musical elements in the worlds they visit.
In a demo level shown to us by Harmonix in Los Angeles this week, we saw musical clams and pieces of coral that spawned fish that, when engaged in various ways, combined to create snippets of music that then persisted in the world to create a continuous (and pleasant) cacophony of sound.
Special "tears" in the world also give way to levels tied to specific pieces of music. We watched a player orchestrate Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody," using gestures to follow cues on the screen while earning points by manipulating prisms and shapes on the screen. A cloud of sparkles followed every gesture, and the intensity of gestures created more of this "energy" which amounted to more points.
The player was periodically allowed to switch various elements of the song, making it more "classical" or more "metal," for example, and at other points tied to especially significant parts of the song, the player could unlock the ability to dive deeper into the experience and manipulate the sound of the song itself.
On the whole, it's incredibly fun to play, but somewhat obtuse to observe. It does appear, however, to have a great deal of potential to engage with people in a very unique and visceral way — if they can understand it.
For Harmonix and Disney, potential for sharing their love of music (and the Fantasia license) with a new generation of fans outweighs the risks.
"It sounds trite," says Nicholls, "but music does change how you feel about the world. It changes how you define the world. It becomes a voice.
"I think the important thing for us is to unlock music as a vehicle for self-expression, not just a passive experience. That, for us, was probably the most important part of the project."
Editing: Matt Leone
Image Credits: Harmonix, The Walt Disney Company
Design/ Layout: Warren Schultheis, Russ Pitts
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