Monday, June 10, 2013

Kinect and Classical Music: A Match Made in Disney Heaven?


Rock Band maker Harmonix will bring interactivity to
Disney’s Fantasia franchise on Kinect. Image courtesy Disney Interactive
In creating his masterpiece Fantasia, Walt Disney hoped to use gorgeous visuals to enhance audiences’ appreciation of music. In creating games like Guitar Hero, game developer Harmonix hoped to use interactivity to accomplish much the same thing.

Is it any wonder that the two companies have gotten together to produce a Kinect game based onFantasia?

Harmonix and Disney have high hopes for Fantasia: Music Evolved, to be released on Xbox 360 and Xbox One in 2014.

“The inspiration is the moment of Mickey on the cliff, conducting the heavens and conducting the sea,” says the game’s creative director Matt Boch, referencing the classic “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” segment from the 1940 film. The game aims to put players into that oversized starry blue hat of Mickey Mouse’s, letting them conduct a virtual orchestra with their hands in front of the Xbox camera, changing the feel of the music to fit their whims.

Today, Wired can exclusively reveal that “Night on Bald Mountain,” the classical piece by Modest Mussorgsky that ends the original film with a dark, demonic climax, will be playable in the game. But Harmonix and Disney aren’t limiting themselves to the pieces of music found in the film, which was classical music from the likes of Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky. Players will be able to conduct orchestral performances of contemporary music like Bruno Mars’ “Locked Out of Heaven” and Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
“Having Harmonix be the developer was the tipping point in us being able to do it.”

Fantasia will work kind of like Harmonix’s Rock Band, asking players to hit certain beats of the music at the right times. Where it diverges from most music games, says Boch, is that players will be able to radically change the style of the music by using different gestures.

When playing “Bohemian Rhapsody,” Boch says, players will encounter a “series of choices that allow you to transform the song in a direction that’s closer to an 80′s, metal power-ballady thing, or push it in a direction that’s more symphonic. Or split between the original symphonic elements and metal elements.”

“Every time I’ve heard that song so far — and I’ve heard a lot of people play it — it’s been a little bit different,” says Eran Egozy, who co-founded Harmonix in 1995.

The last time I’d spoken to Egozy, it was prior to the launch of the first Rock Band in 2007. There I found out he was a classically trained musician who, in addition to acting as Harmonix’s chief technical officer, plays clarinet in orchestras and chamber music groups around Boston.

“We probably talked about this, maybe it was jokingly, but I’ve wanted somehow to do for classical music what we did for rock music in Rock Band,” he said. “There were all these different ideas, some funny ones like Klezmer Hero orChamber Music Band. And here we are, and it’s kind of happening. It’s sort of a dream come true.”

“If you look at, say, a game like Rock Band,” says Egozy, “I would call it 95 percent gameplay and very little user choice.” In Fantasia, he says, “there are many more places in the performance experience where they can choose, but that’s interspersed with actual gameplay where you’re being judged on whether you hit the note or not.” It’s really an issue of pacing, Egozy says — “that perfect balance of making the player feel like they have to perform well, but giving them enough brain space to be creative at the same time.”

Chris Nicholls, the game’s executive producer at Disney, says that while the idea of a Fantasia game began within Disney, Harmonix’s participation was crucial to making it a reality.

“I wanted very much to do it, but it’s quite ambitious,” he said. “We wanted to do a very different music game, something that no one had ever seen before. … I had no idea that Harmonix was going to be available. But having Harmonix be the developer was the tipping point in us being able to do it.”

Nicholls says Disney asked Harmonix to create the game years ago at a Game Developers Conference.

“As soon as we mentioned Fantasia, the room went quiet,” he said.

“When Disney came to us and said hey, what about doing a game around Fantasia, I immediately had this moment of awe and excitement that was a great spark,” said Egozy.

Nicholls, too, is a big fan of the original film. “I think it’s the most beautiful representation of Disney storytelling in existence,” he says. “It’s much more allusive than any other movie that we did.”

Creative director Boch, who says he is such a big Disney fan that he wears a Mickey Mouse necklace every day, hopes Fantasia: Music Evolved‘s creative features will make gamers into classical music fans.

“Exposing the complexities there, and taking something that people can often ignore, or think is elevator music, and expose to them all of the interesting nuances that are in there is I think a big part of what the game will be able to do for people,” he said.

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