E3 2011: Sesame Street: Once Upon a Monster preview – stop acting your age

Spend enough time writing about video games and you will inevitably have to play a game made for kids. This situation is usually uninteresting at best and embarrassing at worst. Most titles aimed at younger players are shameless cash-ins made less out of a need for quality children’s entertainment than for the sake of commercial licensing, with sloppy design that does little for anyone of any age. Once Upon A Monster is not like this. A Kinect-focused title with gorgeous looks, a captivating storybook feel, and a real heart, it may actually be the opposite of those games. Sure, it’s made for kids – but many adults (like your author) will be lining up for it as well.

It’s funny to be writing about a game that’s been play-tested by four-year-olds, but we really had a fun time with Once Upon A Monster. Essentially, Double Fine has been given free reign over the Sesame Street universe, crafting a storybook adventure filled with a number of original monsters and characters created for the game. The game is all about teaching kids valuable life lessons, whether it’s facing your fears, learning to make new friends or that it’s ok to just be yourself. Yes, it sounds cheesy, but it’s such heartfelt, earnest cheese that we gobbled it right up.

What makes Once Upon A Monster fun for adults is that Schafer and Double Fine have put their own spin on Sesame Street, adding bits of funny dialogue and scenarios that, if you can let go of your adulthood for a little while, offer a whimsical experience where age doesn’t really matter. Of course, it wouldn’t be Sesame Street without the iconic characters that make Sesame Street the show it is, so the demo had us playing co-op with Elmo and Cookie Monster, and one level guest-starred Oscar the Grouch and his pet worm, Slimy.

Flicking between pages in the storybook’s chapter with our hands, we were able to try out three different gameplay levels. One chapter focused on Cookie Monster and Elmo helping a big, gentle monster named Grrhoof, who wants to be friends with bunny-like creatures called Puffalopes. When we first encountered him, Grrhoof is standing underneath a large tree in the dark—Elmo and Cookie Monster decide the best thing to do is catch fireflies to light up the tree, so they can see what Grrhoof looks like.

When enough fireflies were caught using our hands, we could see that Grrhoof had used twigs and other things from the forest to make himself look like a puffalope. Once Upon A Monster is nothing if not heartwarming: when Elmo asks him if the disguise was because he wanted to be friends with the puffalopes, Grrhoof starts crying. We haven’t seen such an adorable scene in a game in a long time.

The highlight of the demo came in the next level, when Grrhoof had us mimicking his movements. Grrhoof had alternating between waving our arms in the air to making monkey-like gestures to sneaking in place with our hands bent down like praying mantis; despite looking ridiculous to any passerby, it was impossible to not get caught up in the game’s sense of childlike joy and silliness. We hope that the final game has a lot more moments like this one. In the last level, Cookie and Elmo helped Grrhoof toss biscuits to Puffalopes and petting them when they were close enough. Each chapter of the game focuses on helping a monster with his life lesson, so we can be sure that Cookie Monster and Elmo eventually show Grrhoof he is special just the way he is.

That was one story. Another we played involved a completely different guest monster named Shelby, whose beautiful garden had come under attack by weeds. The various events we were tasked with completing involved grabbing the garbage the weeds were throwing around (yep – you read that correctly) and depositing it in garbage cans, then replanting the garden, dancing to make it grow, donning a bee suit and flapping our arms to fly up to the top of a beanstalk-sized flower, and then tuning a daisy choir to sing a celebratory song.

Although the Kinect’s sensor picked up movements with a broad stroke—the idea for the game originally came from Schafer wanting to make something he could play with his four-year-old daughter, after all—Once Upon A Monster won us over with its charm and Double Fine’s writing, a lot of which Schafer wrote himself. Gameplay promises to be varied too, with activities from dance offs to obstacle course races and appearances from a variety of other Sesame Street characters. Kids’ game or not, we’re looking forward to playing more of this one when it hits this Fall – the kid in all of us is going to love it.

Jun 16, 2011

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