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Harmonix makes players musical magicians in Fantasia: Music Evolved

Harmonix — the studio best known for its work on the Rock Band and Dance Central series — is working on a motion-controlled, rhythmic music game for Xbox One and Kinect for Xbox 360 that is a modern interpretation of Walt Disney's Fantasia.

Fantasia: Music Evolved was recently shown at a pre-E3 event where Disney Interactive's executive producer, Chris Nicholls, explained that the game is about putting "the power and magic of music in the player's hands ... so rather than sit quietly in a dark theater and admire the creativity of others, now we allow you to step into Mickey's shoes and learn to wield the power of music."

Players take on the role of the sorcerer's apprentice, who has been tasked to perform and transform songs in order to bring life to worlds created by the sorcerer Yen Sid. In one of the levels Polygon played, we were taken under the sea into a quiet and abandoned ocean environment devoid of music. It was our job to unlock musical interactions by using gestures and, in doing so, bring life and music back to the environment.

Within each environment is a number of songs, which range from Queen's 'Bohemian Rhapsody' to Bruno Mars' 'Locked out of Heaven'. At launch, the game will feature tracks from more than 25 musicians, each featuring two unique remixes in addition to the original recording. The other three songs that have been announced include Avicii's 'Levels', Fun's 'Some Nights' and Kimbra's 'Settle Down'.

"When Walt Disney first made Fantasia, there were no music videos, there was no notion of syncing sound and images together."

Where games like Rock Band and Dance Central require players to try to match what they see on screen as closely as possible in order to maximize their score, Fantasia gives players more creative control — there is no right or wrong way, only the player's way. When we entered the portals for these songs, we had to perform gestures to the rhythm of the music by tracing arrows with our body, but we were also able to use a kaleidoscope to decide if we wanted to add a rock, orchestral or brass influence to the song, and use music manipulators to bend, stretch and distort parts of the music.

Speaking to Polygon, Fantasia: Music Evolved creative director Matt Boch said the team at Harmonix asked itself how it could bring Walt Disney's vision of Fantasia into a contemporary setting. With the studio's wealth of experience from Rock Band and Dance Central, it decided to help people build a relationship with music through physical movement.

"Through our experience with Dance Central, we thought it was really awesome to have people moving along with the music, and that rhythmic connection was really strong," Boch said. "So we decided it has to be about the player's body, it has to be a game where they're actually moving around space and exploring music through their body."

Boch said the game is an avenue for people to express themselves through music and movement. When arrows appear on the screen to tell players which direction to swipe, the Kinect can pick up subtle hand flicks and the biggest arm movements. It's up to the player how much energy and enthusiasm they want to bring to the game and, judging by how the player moves, the art and animation on screen will change accordingly.

"In building a gesture system we wanted to give a lot of freedom to people, so it's not this 'copy what you see on screen' thing, which is what we did with Dance Central. Here, you're moving rhythmically, and we wanted to give players the sense of freedom of expression.

"With your body, you can choose which hand you're going to use and how big your gestures are going to be."

According to Boch, the Harmonix team has competitions within the office to see who can come up with the craziest way to do well in the song and, often, people will design their own dance routines or hold their arms in front of them and spin full circle to perform a simple swiping left or right gesture.

But aside from the game being a physical form of self-expression, Boch believes Fantasia is an opportunity for players to step into the role of the creator by mixing and manipulating well-known songs into something unique, something that is their own and something that is just as valid as traditionally composed music. Boch said that everyone at Harmonix is a musician to some extent, so the studio wanted to build a set of tools that can let players experience something close to what they experience as music makers.

"With your body, you can choose which hand you're going to use and how big your gestures are going to be."

"My personal musical practice is multiple," he said. "So I have an indie pop band and we have a thing we do every couple of years where we'll do a cover. Our most recent cover was a mash-up of an Imogen Heap song, a Jason Derulo song and a Hot Chip song; we rewrote all the parts, I sang all the different vocal parts and stitched them together to create this strange, amalgamated cover.

"These are the things I love to do, and I think it's a really contemporary notion of what music is. I adore it."

Once a player completes a song, parts of the music will be brought out from the portal into the world. In the case of the underwater level, a school of fish swam through the level singing parts of 'Bohemian Rhapsody'. When we moved the cursor over a group of crabs, they started singing the melody from the song that we'd manipulated earlier. When a song is successfully completed, the level takes on a life filled with vibrance, sound and music.

"When Walt Disney first made Fantasia, there were no music videos, there was no notion of syncing sound and images together," Boch said. "They've done a couple of symphonies and had the notion of animation plus music as a really cool thing, but Fantasia was the first large music video years before that notion happened.

"We need to take that same level of innovation, that same creative spirit and bring it to what we're doing. I think we have. I think it shows."