Sesame Street is something of an acquired taste for adults; those with children may be able to appreciate its finer points as they watch it with their children, whereas others could be driven up the wall by the high-pitched voices and tot-friendly demeanour. For kids, however, I’m not sure one exists who could resist the charm erupting from the colourful cast of characters, especially for the younger bracket of ages 4, 5 and 6. Despite being interested in the games their older sibling is playing, they are an age group that aren’t really catered for in the world of gaming, so it’s great to see Double Fine have recreated the characters’ diversities and qualities in this most interactive of interactive storybooks.
Sesame Street: Once Upon A Monster’s lack of violence is refreshing; finally the underrepresented youngsters are being given a positive playing experience, because most of the games they resort to playing have cartoon violence – even if it is only bopping stereotypical bad guys with a plastic hammer – which send out the wrong message. With the Cookie Monster and Elmo as your guides, as well as doubling up as your onscreen avatars, a feeling of safety and welcome is projected upon you.
Kinect opens up lots of opportunities, and in spite of approaching its first birthday it is still full of untapped potential. Sesame Street: Once Upon A Monster must be the first of its kind. It’s not an adventure game as you know it, and if you were to describe it in gaming terms you’d probably define it as being on-rails. It’s an interactive storybook, but with the help of Kinect it manages to be more interactive and more immersive than it could have ever been with a controller. You physically turn the page by lifting your arm and sweeping it across as you progress through the 6 chapters, meeting new monsters with problems for you to help them overcome along the way. You do meet old favourites like Grover, a character that injects plenty of all-ages humour into the story, and Oscar, a character designed to account for older siblings or parents watching or playing with the child. Other than that those two and the two you are playing with throughout, though, it’s a whole new set of characters invented for the purpose of the game. All have been well-designed so that you warm to them and see their cuddly side (except from possibly the last one you meet, Ramona, whose jagged teeth make her look a bit too sinister, even after you befriend her and learn she is a harmless, good-natured storyteller).
The monsters you encounter have problems ranging from confidence issues to losing band members, and each of their various dilemmas takes you on a miniature, multiple-page adventure consisting of different types of activity. Some of these activities are slower paced, such as ones where you have to dress people in outfits, whereas others require a higher level of physical exertion, like rhythm-action mini-games where you bang a drum, copying the moves of onscreen characters as you dance to music, flapping your arms to fly or leaning your whole body to decide your position onscreen as you dodge and collect all manner of obstacles and items. Given the unnatural movements brought about occasionally by Kinect, some of the activities that fall under the latter category can be excessively tiring, usually due to going on for ever slightly too long. One such example is when you are leading a march and you have to thrust your arm forward every few seconds for the duration otherwise your entourage will slow down and stop, although it is worth noting that most are absolutely fine and don’t suffer from similar errors in design. Another issue with movement, though not major, was that some poses and dance moves have you looking away or with your back to the screen, which, in turn, means you can’t see the next action you are supposed to be doing.
But more impressive than the abundance of different activities is the way in which, over the course of the game, Sesame Street: Once Upon A Monster manages to use Kinect in so many different ways. There are sections which you will be frantically moving around in front of the camera, just as there are more subtle, clever movements, like turning a page and then spreading your arms out to enter the story, or simply something basic like leaning in to blow out a set of candles. It also doesn’t forget about the in-built microphone in the sensor, adding to sections of movement with sections where you have to speak aloud or provide the audio for something. For instance, towards the end when doing Ramona’s chapter you act as the narrator, recording your voice over a set of images in stages. Then your recording is played back to you as one continuous story.
The whole nature of the game creates an intimate playing experience – even the menu screen which gives an overview of the book, complete with comments from the Cookie Monster and Elmo based on the page that is currently open. The Cookie Monster-Elmo dynamic lends itself to co-op play, making the game ideal for a parent to play through with a child, and an uncluttered heads-up display means the transition from cutscene to gameplay is so seamless you barely notice the transition. Just about the only thing that’s displayed is a star rating (you are given a rating out of 5 stars based on your performance, although sometimes it’s simply story-based and it’s impossible to complete the level without earning all 5) which springs up each time you earn a star, but then disappears again.
Sesame Street: Once Upon A Monster is a real breath of fresh air. It just wouldn’t be the same with a controller, as the unique idea to utilise Kinect to make the most interactive of interactive storybooks is a winner. It’s impossible to fail; worse performances are marked down on the scoring system, not given game over or anything discouraging, and regular compliments and reassurances of how well you are doing come from the funny, inviting pairing of Elmo and the Cookie Monster. A colourful, friendly visual-style contributes to make for a fantastic for kids – or to play with the kinds thanks to the option of co-op which allows you to be part of the enjoyable experience. It’s a beautiful game, not only visually but on the inside, and although it will no doubt prove too easy for older players, many will probably pick it up for a self-esteem boost – either from the constant compliments or from the Gamerscore hike owing to the way it readily dishes the achievement points.