We speak to the lead designer behind the new, Sesame Street-themed release Once Upon a Monster about how videogames can actually be good for your child.
Double Fine may be little known to the mainstream, but “the world’s most talented and bearded video game development team” enjoys a Joss Whedon-esque cult following among gamers for their ever-creative efforts, ranging from surreal and cerebral summer camp platformer Psychonauts and heavy metal RPG Brutal Legend to the adventure puzzle game Stacking set in a world populated by Russian matryoshka dolls.
The San Francisco studio is rightly famed for its originality, and yet their entry into the crowded 2011 holiday gaming season, Once Upon a Monster, is not only their first licensed game—it’s a Sesame Street game for little kids.
Conceived as a motion-sensing minigame compilation using Xbox’s controller-free Kinect peripheral—and inspired by the antics of Jim Henson’s Muppets—the game born as Happy Song soon found itself aligned with Sesame Workshop. Elmo and Cookie Monster would now be tasked with solving the problems of Double Fine’s original storybook creatures.
The Grid spoke with lead designer Nathan Martz about Once Upon a Monster, why you should let your kids play it and how it will teach them empathy.
Do you have kids?
At this point my games are my kids. But we have a lot of parents here at Double Fine. Like a lot of the industry, we’re growing up—most folks here are in their 30s or 40s and many people have families or are just starting them. One of the things we tried to do was get the parents to work on it, so that people could bring that intuitive expertise about parenting, kids’ attention spans and developmental skills.
I have a two year-old who has been playing with the iPad since he was one, but there are a lot of parents who are anti- anything with a screen. How do you explain to them that a videogame can be a positive thing for a young child?
Every parent should be thoughtful about the time they’re putting their kids in front of anything, be it an iPad or an Xbox or a TV. Or even books—you can spend too much time in that world, too. But one of the overarching goals of this project was to make something that parents would feel good about bringing home. This wouldn’t be the six-year-old asking for Grand Theft Auto, but a game designed to be really family friendly.
Obviously, Sesame Street has a real tradition of educational excellence. We used their Whole Child curriculum, which is about social and emotional development, physical fitness and an appreciation of the natural world. So there are proper Sesame Street-certified educational themes in there.
So what is missing from other kid-targeted games?
I don’t want to mock my fellow developers. We had a vision and were able to bring a level of talent and skill to a publisher that took a risk to make something really special. Of course, we want make sure we have a sustainable business and can keep the lights on and pay our salaries, but the reason we make games is not to cash in. Nothing we do at Double Fine is about an easy buck. We make stuff because these are worlds and ideas and characters that we care about. We hope that people can tell there is a level of creative integrity in this product.
The game is trying to teach kids empathy. As a parent, this seems like the most important thing you could teach a child. How did that become the core driver of this game?
One of the things that bums me out about videogames right now is that very few have any sense of empathy—the good guys are good and the bad guys are bad and deserve to die. You’re very rarely challenged to see the world through someone else’s eyes, to think about the fact that all of us are different and have our own sense of the world. Empathy is something I think about a lot, it’s something our medium lacks and it’s an important lesson for children that other people have minds and emotions and desires that are not the same as yours and you should learn to appreciate that. The thread through this entire game is that you see someone having a problem, understand who they are, what they want, and then help them get there.