I suppose I should come clean: I’m not five.
I know I have the child like demeanour and attitude of a five-year-old, but I am actually a fully grown and “mature” 27-year-old. However for the following review I packed that 27-year-old off to some kind of grown up business type conference so the five-year-old could jump and dance and flail in front of the Kinect camera without anyone judging. Except for the three people who watched me when I first booted it up; they judged me like crazy!
Sesame Street: Once Upon a Monster comes from wonderful minds that previously brought you Brütal Legend, Stacking and Psychonauts. On the surface this may seem like an odd pairing, but if you have played any of those previous games you’ll know that Double Fine are more than capable of making a great world for their games to exist in. Even if some elements of the actual game don’t always follow that level of quality.
OUAM brings your favourite Sesame Street characters to life in what boils down to a series of Kinect mini-games, but these are placed in the larger setting of six different stories where Cookie Monster, Elmo and Grover are tasked with helping out other less fortunate monsters. Be it aiding Sheamus put on the long awaited sequel to the Emperor’s New Clothes or making sure Marco has the best party ever, each story covers an element of what the Sesame Workshop calls the “Whole Child Curriculum.” This means that each story doesn’t teach number, language or any of the more “practical” skills, but more of an emotional lesson and aims kids towards creating “Healthy Habits for Life” – greatly aided by the fact that it’s all tied to the use of Kinect. Whether it’s teaching the meaning of friendship, sharing or responsibility, Once Upon a Monster never pushes its values too forcefully onto the child, letting them be picked up naturally as the stories progress.
The actual games themselves are a basic bunch, with a mixture of dancing, jumping and occasional shouting allowing kids to mimic and control what appears on screen. The definitions Kinect uses to judge how successful a movement is seems to have been toned down, and considering the target audience this is a pretty sensible move. No matter how well made the games, Kinect can occasionally be a temperamental beast, so allowing more leeway for the little ones makes perfect sense and should allow much more freedom for enjoyment.
Unfortunately it also adds some limitations. You are never really given any freedom to perform freely, so no matter how entertained your children will be I can easily see a little frustration setting in if they want to be given more free rein in what happens on screen. The dancing sections are probably the biggest area where this could be utilised. Letting Elmo copy your moves, or Cookie Monster comment on how good your own special dancing is, and it could add a whole extra layer to the goings on. However, the variety of tasks on offer, and more importantly the context in which they take place, means that most children should be entertained for a good long while.
So it seems that once again, underneath all the trapping, Double Fine’s actual core game is an average one. However, they have also once again excelled at creating a truly magical world for children to enjoy, taking the beloved (and downright awesome) characters from Sesame Street and allowing children to interact directly with them. And that’s the key, this isn’t a game that’s there to be “played” per se. It’s a series of stories that are meant to be experienced, drawing the child in and teaching them without them even knowing it, and it’s this for which Double Fine deserve the greatest praise.