Haven't played a Sesame Street game before? Neither have most of us. Yet, when it's by Tim Schafer's Double Fine, it's certainly worth at least a few glances and certainly a few play sessions. Although it was only announced a few weeks ago, Sesame Street: Once Upon A Monster was in fact playable at the recent Microsoft Showcase in San Francisco.
While known more for its TV show, Sesame Street also made a presence in kids’ bedrooms in the storybook format, which is impressively integrated into the game's Kinect interface. To open a chapter, you literally have to stretch your arms forward and then to opposite sides as if you're opening a giant book. If only one of the chapters was based on the post-modern, The Monster at the End of This Book: Starring Lovable, Furry Old Grover.
Paired with another journalist, our mission was to find missing birthday party guests throughout an electricity-lit forest. My partner played the large birthday monster while I played Elmo, riding on the monster's back. The level we played through was made up of a basic hallway design, littered with various platforming challenges. Player one had to jump over logs while I had to make Elmo duck under low-hanging branches, as well as stick my arms up to grab items. Moving left and right is made easier by having both players tilt in the same direction, which was necessary to avoid large rocks and other obstacles. Expect amusing situations if you and your partner are leaning in opposite angles.
As this was a multi-stage chapter, the Double Fine rep wanted to make sure we also got a taste of the game's other modes, so we were taken to the end of this first story where all our monster buddies were rounded up. Easily the biggest challenge of the demo was when we had to help the birthday monster blow out the candles on his cake. While I was out of breath from the platforming, some of the attendees around me were more than happy to help out.
And since this was a monster party of the PBS kind, I should have anticipated that Grover would finish off the night by getting us to disco dance, much to my reluctance. The move responsiveness was so forgiving; you couldn't even rename this mode Dance Central Kids (Toddlers maybe?). Whatever the case, it was a relief to complete, having shown off my shallow Saturday Night Fever repertoire to the amused Microsoft Showcase event onlookers.
This family adventure has the right idea in having an easy drop-in/drop-out feature. It was amusing to hear the Double Fine producer paint a vivid picture of dad having to leave the game to attend to a burning stovetop in the kitchen and then coming back to play after the fire's been put out.
Maybe it was the brevity of our session or that we only played two sections, but it is still too early to spot any sort of Double Fine "top-spin" with the gameplay or presentation, not that we're entitled to head-turning game designs from that studio with every release. What we did notice is that Once Upon A Monster does have the right idea in going beyond the standard letters-and-numbers focus that were central in past Sesame Street games. Instead, Double Fine's vision works with the social learning lessons that the TV show is also known for. This game might very well be a Kinect Adventures with an educational angle, which is not a bad thing. If such a partnership with Sesame Street does enable the Double Fine to greenlight other projects, who are we to complain?