E3 2014: Fantasia: Music Evolved Inspires Passionate Expression and Powerful Emotions

I have watched the films Fantasia and Fantasia 2000 so many times that I can’t hear the music they feature without imagining the visuals that accompany them. Respighi’s The Pines of Rome may have have been inspired by trees, but when I hear it, I imagine flying space whales. Dukas’ The Sorcerer’s Apprentice was based on a Goethe poem about a magical novice, but the apprentice I think about isn’t the one Goethe had in mind, but Mickey Mouse instead. As a music lover, and as a violinist and composer, I’m naturally drawn to Harmonix’s rhythm game Fantasia: Music Evolved, but I admit to having had doubts that the game could capture the spirit of the films, given the game’s use of popular music in addition to classical.

I was a fool to have worried. At E3 2014, Harmonix was kind enough to let me spend quite a long time waving my arms around in time to the game’s musical tracks in the local two-player mode, first with my colleague Zorine Te, and then with other Disney and Harmonix employees. The first track was not classical, however: it was Cee Lo Green’s “Forget You.” (This is a family game, of course, so the included tracks will be radio versions. To be honest, however, I sang along as I played using the more, er, mature lyrics of the original song.)

Fantasia is really easy to get the hang of. Movement prompts appear to the beat of the music, encouraging you to swipe your arm, or to punch forward, or to trace out a pattern with your hand. When two player collaborate, one player performs the prompts in yellow while the other performs the blue prompts, and both players must perform prompts marked with both colors. The prescribed movements fit beautifully with the content of the music; while you only need to use your arms to interact with the game (which, of course, requires use of the Kinect), I felt as though I was dancing and conducting at the same time. I was reminded of all those moments I conduct along with music while stuck in traffic, and the times I get so overwhelmed by musical beauty that I put my hands in the air and sway to the rhythm.

Fantasia isn’t just about physical expression, but also about musical collaboration. As the track progresses, you get to select different mixes by punching the screen and swiping your hand to choose your desired musical style. In certain places, you also get the opportunity to move your hand across virtual instruments; the game then records the results and inserts your personal musical creation into the track. Its a fluid and natural process that made me feel less of a game player than I was a creator. The game and I were coming to an understanding; it asked me to express myself within the limits it set, and then allowed me to adjust those limits. Even within my big body, I felt ethereal. Fantasia: Music Evolved was judging me through the quality of my collaboration, not through my ability to exactly mimic its commands. If you feel clumsy when you play Dance Central, Fantasia might still make you feel as graceful as a swan.

It was the classical tracks I was most interested in, however, and I got to play several of them. The easiest was Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, which nicely matched the music’s rhythms to the on-screen prompts. Choosing various musical mixes as I played, however, revealed musical surprises I wasn’t expecting; guitars, hi-hats, and and harpsichord riffs were making their way into Mozart’s string composition. It was recalling those old Hooked on Classics albums, except these mixes were actually good. And because the mixes were inserting unexpected riffs, I couldn’t rely on my intimate knowledge of the piece to coast to the finale. I had to stay on my toes.

Dvorak’s New World symphony proved more challenging. That work’s final movement has a number of tempo changes, and one of the most dramatic quiet sequences in the piece was accompanied by unusual guitar noodlings in the game. Again, I couldn’t rely on what I knew about the music; I had to keep my eyes glued to the screen. That was even more true in the Nutcracker medley, which changed up tunes from the Tchaikovsky ballet so often that I was never sure what melody would appear next. It was just the right amount of challenge. I had to stay focused and confident, but I could also enter a trance of sorts in which my body began to instinctively understand how to move my body in response to the game’s demands.

Fantasia isn’t just about physical expression, but also about musical collaboration.

I left the Fantasia: Music Evolved demo feeling joyous and alive. It felt as if I had just played a game made only for me, a game that merged my love of music with my love of visual entertainment. I studied violin and music composition in college, and here was Fantasia, allowing me to feel like a composer, a performer, and a game-player simultaneously. The only disappointment I had was the lack of long-form, unmixed classics. I don’t think Fantasia is going to allow me to recreate my favorite Fantasia film moments, spreading life across a decimated forest like in Fantasia 2000‘s Firebird entry, or twirling about like hippos in tutus as in the original movie. But perhaps that’s for the best. In Fantasia: Music Evolved, I can take ownership of the music I create. I can’t wait to see what the game and I come up with together.

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