E3 2011: K is for Kinect — Double Fine’s Once Upon a Monster

I hadn’t had an opportunity to make a fool of myself in public for a while, so it was a good thing I came across the Once Upon a Monster booth at E3 2011, where I was able to dance like a monkey as a bemused cameraman filmed me from afar. Double Fine’s licensed Sesame Street game has made big strides since the adorable video that announced it, and I was able to try out three different mini-games over the course of a 15-minute trial.

Put immediately at ease by the Double Fine staffer showcasing the game, I was introduced to the broad strokes of the demo’s plot: Elmo and Cookie Monster have encountered a large purple monster, whose terrifying visage you can see in the picture above. Said monster lived in a deep forest populated with small, cuddly creatures, whom he was eager to befriend. Unfortunately, his frightening aspect was causing his cute neighbors to flee.

This scenario represents Once Upon a Monster in a nutshell. Rather than following the path preferred by most other children’s games, which are heavy on the basic math and English, Double Fine is keen to teach tots important, digestible lessons about socialization. Helping the purple monster befriend his timid woodland companions is an intuitive way to learn about politeness and friendship. The San Francisco-based devs work closely with Sesame Workshop in New York to develop the game’s curriculum, and it has proved a fruitful partnership.

In my Kinect-powered guise as woodland monster yenta, the first challenge was to gather stylized fireflies, which, once collected, were used to light up the purple monster’s home tree and make it look more hospitable. Cupping both of my virtual Kinect hands around the insects, I had my first look at Once Upon a Monster’s vibrant art style, which makes good use painterly swathes of bright colors and fanciful designs. After enough fireflies had been collected, we were free to move on to the next mini-game.

Hilariously, it involved throwing biscuits. Enticed by the light of the fireflies, the cuddly creatures (which resembled squirrels with giant, anime eyes) began creeping out of their burrows, and could be coaxed closer by the judicious application of an underhand toss motion, landing biscuits in front of them as they scuttled forward. Once they reached the bottom of the screen, the camera switched to a Kinectimals-style close-up, and we gave each tiny beast a vigorous Kinect-style petting as they squirmed and batted their doe-like eyes.

With harmony restored to that part of the forest, it was time for a dance party. Explained as a game not unlike Red Light, Green Light, that was when things really got goofy. Players have to imitate the motions of the purple monster on-screen, stopping suddenly whenever it does. I waved my hands in the air. Like I just didn’t care. As previously mentioned, I danced like a monkey. Running through a number of different actions until I felt (embarassingly) a little out of breath, it was time for the demo to conclude.

Though I am not in Once Upon a Monster’s target demographic, its potential was clear. When playing alone, one muppet always models the behavior required to succeed, making it easy for even the youngest of players, but it was clear that collaboration between children, their siblings, and their parents is the name of the game. People who follow Tim Schafer on Twitter have read his tweets about playing games with his young daughter, and he is unlikely to be alone among the Double Fine staff. The studio’s penchant for humor and off-the-wall design ideas make them perfectly suited for the Sesame Street universe. I can’t say I’ll be queuing up to buy the game at midnight (and then powerleveling to the end), but anyone with a young child or sibling would do well to give it a try.

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