E3 2011: Once Upon a Monster interview – part one

We chat to Nathan Martz of Double Fine Productions about the challenges and rewards of making a game filled with Sesame Street characters – and ideologies

Holding its own on the E3 2011 show floor was Once Upon A Monster, the latest highly stylised comedy romp from Tim Schafer and Double Fine Productions. But this family-friendly title is not the sort of thing that usually gets hardened games writers queuing up for a turn. It’s based around Sesame Street for a start.

Coming out on Xbox 360 later this year, Once Upon a Monster is set in a lively storybook world where six sad monsters need help with different emotional scenarios. Featuring full support for Kinect, the player must dance, gesture, run and jump through a range of challenges, each involving members of the Sesame Street cast.

But what led Double Fine to make such a kid-friendly game? What attracted the arch surrealists behind Costume Quest and Stacking to Jim Henson’s loveable creatures? A little while ago we had a long chat with producer Nathan Martz, discussing everything from the genesis of the title, to the challenges of writing games that teach without patronising or boring players. It’s a fascinating insight into the working processes at Double Fine, and the demands of bringing Sesame Street to interactive life… Why did you set out to create a Sesame Street game?Most of the core design work was actually done before we partnered with the Sesame Workshop. The original idea is almost four years old, but Jim Henson was a huge influence. He was an amazingly creative, expressive guy – The Muppets, Sesame Street, Star Wars – he left a mark on our childhoods. And for me as a craftsmen, I loved his ability to create memorable characters who were at once new and very familiar. That and Where The Wild Things Are, a little bit of Calvin and Hobbes … all this is mixed in there, along with Scott Campbell’s own personal art style. He’s a master at creating upbeat, fun characters.

So what was the genesis of the game, if it didn’t start out as a Sesame Street title?The original name of the game was Happy Song. We were just talking about how great it would be to make an uplifting game. I was dating this girl at the time and she asked, ‘don’t you have a happy song, a song that, when it comes on in the car radio, you just feel great?’ At first I was, like, nah I don’t have a happy song, but I do of course. Everyone has a happy song. So I thought about a game where some cute monsters help you make your own happy song. It was sort of like a Fisher Price version of the music program Acid. We wanted it to be like LittleBigPlanet – accessible creativity.What happened to that?We went back to Brutal Legend, and we had two years left on the game. After that, Kinect was announced and Tim and I were already excited about taking Happy Song and moving it forward. We just thought, whoah, Kinect – this is a brand new interface, it’s family friendly, we’re family friendly. And we thought, we’ve GOT to do more than music. It should also be about dance and decoration, and if it’s a family game, it’s got to deal with a whole range of activities not just raw physical stuff. And that’s where the storybook idea came in – as we introduced a wider range of activities we needed a story to unify them, and a world to set that story in. The last piece was Sesame Street. We’d often been asked how big an influence Jim Henson was on us, and if we had the Sesame Street license what would you do with it – then we found it was actually an option. We’ve never done a licensed game before and we may never do one again, but for us, this is an IP that we’re honoured to work with. We’re so flattered.

So you then worked very closely with Sesame Workshop, who own the puppets now. How restrictive have they been?Usually, a game like this would be very traditional, it would take place on Sesame Street with numbers and letters. But because we actually brought a whole original storybook concept, we started an IP partnership. We have total creative control, as long as we match their curriculum goals, their sensibilities, and as long as whatever lines we write for their characters are appropriate. It’s a partnership with their writers as well. We’ll send emails back and forth to make sure the educational curriculum, the jokes, and the gameplay all match.

And do you also take in ideas from other teams within Double Fine? It’s a hugely collaborative environment – and honestly, a lot of that comes through our hiring practices. When we interview programmers, we don’t ask, ‘do you know C++? Can you write assembly?’ We talk about game design. We ask, ‘why are you in the industry? What gets you excited?’ So we have a culture, a community of developers who are passionate about the same things, who have compatible sensibilities – and that makes it easier to share ideas. If you look at a game like Costume Quest – it’s a very different aesthetic, they’re different worlds, but the same DNA flows through. That’s one of the great advantages of being one studio working on multiple games – we get a lot of ideas out there, we sit just feet from the other teams, there is constant cross-pollination.

And how did you get to grips with the Sesame Street characters themselves?We visited the Henson Creature Shop in New York where they’ve built very Muppet since 1969. I’ve seen one of two Cookie Monsters, the original Mr. Snuffleupagus. We spoke to their art director about the fur, the armatures, about the differences between Cookie’s arms and Elmo’s arms… We have a dynamic procedural fur system for every character in the game – there’s even a below the fur Muppet tissue simulator that controls how the joints wobble around, so it feels … Muppety.

You mentioned that you’ve got to reflect the ‘curriculum goals’ of Sesame Street. How do you do that without this becoming a piece of ‘edutainment’? A lot of people when they think about Sesame Street, they think of numeracy and literacy, the bread and butter of the series. But actually it has a bunch of other areas to its curriculum. The biggest one for us is the Whole Child concept – it’s about social and emotional development, educating kids, not just as brains, but as people, focusing on what healthy relationships look like, how you identify and express emotions, how you communicate and empathise with other people. The other part of Whole Child is called ‘healthy habits for life’, which is all about physical lifestyles – getting outside, exercising, good nutrition, proper diet… That’s where Once Upon A Monster interfaces with their education department. All of our chapters are really about helping monsters to solve problems which have an emotional component to them – and as you’re helping them, of course, it’s all Kinect, so you’re expressing those emotions by being active and physical.So partly the game is about relationships?If you want to put the game in a nutshell, it’s about empathy. A huge part of what a kid learns when they’re growing up is social and emotional development. As adults, we take it for granted that other people have emotions that are different from ours, and we can identify what they are, but those are skills that children have to learn. Children don’t even understand that other people have minds of their own until the age of three. As an adult, it couldn’t be more obvious that emotions are things I can help people with, but this is a huge part of a child’s development – especially the idea of empathy, of recognising the motions of others. This is really woven into our storytelling. We try to do it in a way that we’re not hitting you over the head with it – we don’t say ‘here are five monsters, what emotions are they expressing?’ But rather, as you play every story, you can’t help but learn those lessons.

Although this is sort of a children’s title, were you able to employ traditional game design techniques? Did it feel the same as making, say, Brutal Legend?One of the ways we differ from a traditional game is that we’re not so built around skill based-progression. Usually, the meat and potatoes of the experience is – you fail until you are good enough to succeed. Some games level that a little with dynamic difficulty, but basically, the entire structure is, ‘here’s a skill, practice it and we’ll only let you progress once you’ve demonstrated a certain level of mastery’.

For us, that’s actually pretty problematic for a couple of reasons. One, kids develop at different ages and at different rates – and we’re looking at pretty young children. In fact, we’ve focused tested with kids younger than four. We don’t want to make an experience in which you’re punished because you can’t jump above a certain height or your gross motor skills aren’t developed enough – that would be a pretty harsh thing to do and it would run counter to the spirit of our game. Also, we’re about co-play, we’re about kids and parents playing together, so if the parent is doing well, but the child is struggling, we don’t want parents to feel frustrated at their kids, or that the kid is holding them back. Our whole game is designed around the idea that as long as you’re trying to play, as long as you’re participating in the activity, we’re going to try to make sure you can get through the entire thing.

But we do have a sort of rewards layer on top of that. If you go through again and do an activity in record time, or get the most collectibles, or dance really well, we’ll give you bonuses and those will unlock content outside of the main game. That gives, more accomplished players, or older kids, or parents, a reason to come back and replay pages. But for us, skill is a way to reward the player rather than a way to gate the player. Kinect as an experience is either incredibly magical or incredibly frustrating – that’s more about how you design your activities than what’s intrinsic to the technology. When Kinect works, it feels like its just reading your mind. If it reads you jumping or waving, even though all it’s doing is watching your movements, people have such a tight mental connection with their bodies, it feels like mind reading. That is people’s expectation of the device.

There’s a lot of dialogue and story-telling in the game. How did you work with the Sesame Workshop on this? Were there elements you had to avoid, and things you couldn’t do?Well, there are two parts to this. There’s the voicing of the characters – Cookie speaks in a particular way, Elmo speaks in a particular way and you really have to write to those characters carefully and closely. There’s also the educational curriculum component. If you want to talk about shyness, for example, there’s actually a Sesame Street way they handle that kind of interaction, they effectively ‘model’ how to approach someone who is struggling with being shy.

Every script that we write goes to Sesame Workshop and their educational group vet the entire thing for both voice and educational content. One of our chapters starts off a little bit scary; it’s about a monster who is trying to be something he is not, and it’s also about bravery. The arc of the story is that with a little bit of bravery things aren’t as scary as they might seem. So fear was something we talked to them a lot about – how scary can we be? We don’t want to terrify three-year-olds – in fact the goal isn’t about being terrifying it’s about providing a counter-point, a context in which to be brave.

And you’re working with iconic characters here, really…Yeah, these are very visible characters, especially in the States. Sesame Street gets a lot of money via public service broadcasting and it’s very visible, both culturally and politically. There’s been a big debate in the States about how much funding congress is going to allocate for public broadcasting at large – so Sesame Street has to be careful; the characters can’t do anything unseemly or dangerous. Elmo in particular should not do anything that you wouldn’t be comfortable with your own three-year-old doing because he is the model for the good behaviour of a child that age.

But how much was Double Fine able to bring its own character into game?All constraints are both useful and challenging at the same time. When this was first announced, a lot of people were like, ‘Double Fine has sold out!’ But actually, this is the marriage of two IPs Sesame Street is one, but Once Upon A Monster, the storybook world and the monsters, these are all brand new, they’re created by Double Fine. It’s the fist time Sesame Street characters have ever entered another world. So the stories we tell, the monsters we create and they problems they have – we have a tremendous amount of creative freedom to make those, and by and large we make them as we see fit.

That said, we have to make sure the stories we tell, the lessons we teach, align not just with Sesame Street’s values but also the methodology of communicating those values. It’s very challenging – as with any game that interacts with such a powerful franchise. You’ve got to be very thoughtful. And the biggest challenge is, any game idea we have has to work in our universe, it has to work with Sesame Street and it has to be fun on Kinect. It’s really, really challenging to come up with stories and gameplay that connect all of those dots…

E3 2011





Game culture

Keith Stuart

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