Double Fine’s Sesame Street: Once Upon A Monster Finally Gives Kids a Real Game «

I honestly have no idea how I got through the first few video games I played during my childhood. I’m not just talking about the NES stuff from the mid-’80s, but games like the Smurfs for the Atari 2600. Assuming my memory is correct, there’s a random fence that, if you didn’t jump over in precisely the right way, meant instant game over. And somehow, I had put up with that damn instant death fence — again and again. I’m not sure whether I did so because I was a very perseverant child, or if I simply had nothing better to do than try-and-try-and-try again. Back then, video games for kids were simple, crude, and a bit on the cruel and unrelenting side.
Nowadays, kids games have dialed down the cruelty to the point where failure is not only not an option, but it’s not really even acknowledged. But even though they’ve become easier, they have not progressed much in terms of being less janky. It sort of makes sense for some Flash game on a NickJR or Disney XD website to look like it was made in some high schooler’s programming class, but when you see uninspired characters, repeated assets, and horrible glitches in a retail game meant for a home console, it’s downright disheartening. So it’s nice to see that while Sesame Street: Once Upon A Monster still adopts the lack-of-failure motif, it’s within a game that looks like people cared about its craft.

Click the image above to check out all Sesame Street: Once Upon A Monster screens.

It also helps that the same people who applied actual care and craft, rather than the feeling of an obligatory contract job, come from a creative studio like Double Fine Productions. Even though the gameplay behind their titles inspire varying levels of praise or criticism, most everyone agrees that the content remains quite creative. Whether the content focuses on dreams, the world of heavy metal, a crazy night at Halloween, or so forth, it ends up feeling pretty damn distinct. It’s nice to see that Double Fine can maintain that same creativity even within the confines of a children’s title like Sesame Street.

The basic premise is that Elmo and Cookie Monster run into each other, and Cookie Monster decides to read Elmo’s new storybook — titled appropriately, Once Upon A Monster — aloud. Each of the book’s six chapters has the pair (with occasional guest spots from Oscar the Grouch and Grover) meeting a new Double Fine-created monster (Marco, Shelby, Seamus, Grrhoof, Tallulah, and Ramona), and helping that monster through some sort of issue — e.g. Marco wants to throw a cool birthday party; Grrhoof wants to befriend some adorable Puffalopes; and so forth. Each monster’s chapter has a small array of minigames: stuff like flapping your arms to fly, leaning to guide a monster/toboggan through/down a forest/hill, or dancing along with your new monster friends. The lessons that these monsters and activities impart are more on the social side — they deal with making friends or dealing with stage fright or learning to accept yourself — rather than a traditional academic “this is brought to you by the letter R and the number 4” curriculum that you might expect.

Since it’s a kid’s game, it can also be extraordinarily forgiving. There’s nothing punitive in the game — positive reinforcement serves as the main progression mechanic. Perform an action or minigame particularly well, and you get stars (which go towards unlocking behind-the-scenes videos and concept art). Don’t do so well, the game will adjust itself to feel extra forgiving (to the point that vague gestures will register as proper inputs); and even if you still find yourself struggling, the game never stops or penalizes you — it simply encourages you to keep trying and progresses onward. Getting stuck is pretty much impossible.

A typical reader of this website could easily finish the “book” in a few hours. The simplistic gestures plus the lack of difficulty contribute to its short length. Once Upon A Monster is designed to be played either by kids or with kids (it supports 2-player drop in/out co-op); in full disclosure of my workload, I actually had my five-year-old daughter play the majority of the book — only jumping in for a few co-op sessions, to help her get past one particular challenge (more on that in a bit), and finish out the last chapter by myself since I was playing past her bedtime. Her playtime took more like five or so hours, and based on how often she asks to play again, I’m going to safely say that this has a decent amount of replayability among the toddler set despite its short length and repetitive gameplay.

More Sesame Street: Once Upon a Monster VideosThe first main flaw I notice while playing with my daughter is how, just like Kinectimals, the “throwing-stuff” minigame is probably the finickiest. Even though catching and throwing is done better here than in Kinectimals, and with its ultra-forgiving nature, my daughter gets frustrated with missed catches/tosses that she asks me not to help her, but to replace her altogether for that sequence. That, and it seems a bit odd for all the dancing activities to be focused on mimicking the monsters’ dance. By contrast, at one point, the game has you narrate a story (by recording whatever you say and then playing it back with some sort of post-processing applied to it), and this creative activity clearly engages my child the most. So it’s a bit surprising how there isn’t a similar “show off your own dance!” moment; especially since titles like Dance Central and Kinect Adventures have their own little “do whatever you want” freestyle sequences.

If you don’t have children and are seeking a game to justify the Kinect, well, the very same messages about positive social interaction and the like could grow cloying or grating; and the co-op/child-friendly activities won’t be engaging on their own. Maybe you’ll be amused by narrating something bizarre or off-color for the “tell a story” sequence, but overall, the game doesn’t lend itself to party gaming like, say, Rock Band or Dance Central.

Even though it’s not the deepest game around, the very fact that Double Fine has made an edutainment title that works and is respectable rather than terrible is commendable. Once Upon A Monster won’t fulfill the role of the traditional killer app for the Kinect; it instead fulfills the oft-neglected role of “great title to introduce children to games without making them ragequit.” I’d rather remember playing this as a kid than my current memories of Smurf for the 2600.


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