Preview events offer only brief glimpses at very big games. Who knows how any given game will pan out in its final form? The most we can say is This Could Be Good.
Walking past the Google building and the Apple Store in the Meatpacking District on a warm Tuesday morning last week, I considered our collective dependence on each company’s signature tech marvel. Like the rest of the touchscreen-addicted zombies shambling up and down 14th Street, I’m hopelessly reliant on access to all of the information, instantly, and at all times.
Without both Google and Apple’s labors, in fact, I probably wouldn’t have been able to find my way to Soho House, an exclusive club nearby. I’m not often invited to these kinds of places, but it was at Soho House that Harmonix, the maker of Rock Band and Dance Central, was showing off its forthcoming project. My fingers were crossed for Lemmy Kilmister’s Super Guitar Kill Storm. What I got was the opposite.
Harmonix, I was soon to discover, had allied itself with Disney to produce a Microsoft-exclusive, Fantasia-based game to be played with Xbox’s Kinect motion-sensor camera. Yes, Fantasia, Walt Disney’s hugely experimental curiosity from the 1940s. It’s the same Fantasia that, for its initial theatrical run, developed the hugely expensive Fantasound—a pioneering and expensive theater-specific sound system meant to simulate a true symphony experience for moviegoers. When it was released, the animated film had all the trappings of a true high-grade boondoggle. Who was going to pay hard American currency to sit through two plus hours of Mickey Mouse set to orchestral arrangements? Still, against the odds, Fantasia gradually came to be profitable and accepted as a classic, if an unconventional one. For its part, the Kinect is still more boondoggle than classic, but with Xbox One doubling down on the technology, the worm may turn.
The upcoming game, officially called Fantasia: Music Evolved, focuses on “The Sorceror’s Apprentice”—Fantasia’s signature animated short, which features Mickey Mouse trying to shortcut his chores by harnessing powers he cannot control. The analogy between Mickey’s reliance on magic and our own dependence on “smart” technologies is self-evident, but less so when it comes to a piece of somewhat less intelligent, dust-attracting hardware like the Kinect.
It’s fair to say there is a degree of skepticism when it comes to Disney and video games. It recently shuttered the much-beloved LucasArts studio after purchasing the rights to Star Wars. And, on the surface at least, mothballing lightsabers (at least temporarily, as the licensed rights were bestowed upon Electronic Arts) and focusing on a Kinect-based Fantasia music game is hardly a sure bet. Then again, LucasArts’ last project was Kinect Star Wars, a game so bad that Disney-assisted suicide might have been a mercy.
Fantasia: Music Evolved is far from complete (it’s slated for release some time in 2014), but I saw two relatively finished levels. The first is a realm called “The Shoals,” an aquatic symphony space filled with coral and other marine life. After only a couple of minutes watching a Harmonix team member run through the basics, it became apparent that the game was far better suited to motion controls than most I’ve seen. Where the Kinect controls in, say, Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor rendered that game all but unplayable, Harmonix’s Fantasia was by all appearances well-suited to Microsoft’s all-seeing eye.
Songs are embedded into the 3D environment, to be unlocked as you explore your surroundings. Once discovered, you “play” these songs by moving your hands around in concert, not unlike a would-be sorcerer. It’s clear that this isn’t just Rock Band with a Disney skin—there is no “right” way to play each song, and the game expects players to improvise. You and your friends might all play Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” but chances are that no version will sound exactly the same. At various points throughout the song, the player can choose one of three general paths—classical, rock ’n’ roll, or heavy metal—and the audio output will conform accordingly.
Rather than rote emulation, the emphasis here is more on creation and discovery. This is a novel, potentially revolutionary approach to music games, but it’s difficult to see Fantasia: Music Evolved having the kind of longevity enjoyed by Harmonix’s other projects. Fantasia, while revered within Disney and a shining example of how big risks can pay off handsomely, doesn’t really have a ready-made gaming audience. It’s far from a given that anyone under the age of 30 has even been exposed to the film, and most Xbox owners born before 1980 have at best a casual familiarity with Fantasia.
That’s not to say that you need to know the movie to enjoy the game, but I’m curious to see just who is going to be playing this one, outside of energetic 5-year-olds, hardcore Disney fans, and maybe Derrick Sanskrit, Gameological’s resident tunesmith. Rock Band is a game that any college kid might buy and bring back to their dorm to play with friends. You can’t say the same thing about Fantasia: Music Evolved. Still, both Disney and Harmonix have a solid track record in their respective fields, and Walt’s animated classical music gambit has found an audience before. In any case, if the magic does prove to be exhausted, Harmonix can always fall back on my Lemmy Kilmister idea. Consider that a gift.