Tim Schafer has never been one to dodge a challenge. From the surreal platformer Psychonauts through heavy metal fantasy romp Brütal Legend and on to Stacking, he has given his stamp of approval – and sharp Pythonesque humour – to seemingly every offbeat idea his Double Fine team has thrown at him. So when Brütal Legend lead programmer Nathan Martz came along four years ago with the concept for a children’s storybook game about helping cute monsters overcome their fears, he went for it immediately. Along the way, the studio picked up the Sesame Street licence and incorporated its characters into the project – along with Kinect support. The result looks to be a beautifully stylised and intuitive dancing and action game.
Although some fans have been sceptical about the news of a Double Fine children’s title, Shafer asserts that it’s a natural progression of the studio’s past work. “There’s always been a kid-friendly element to what we’ve done,” he says. “With Psychonauts there was a definite attempt to appeal to younger as well as older players – to work on two levels. Sesame Street has always been an inspiration in terms of how to do comedy for kids and adults at the same time. As a child you don’t get all the jokes but you know it’s funny. As an adult, you realise there’s a whole level of cleverness and wit to what Jim Henson and Frank Oz were doing. I was really inspired by that – it’s something we strive for. And there’s something about connecting with children that puts you in touch with your emotions.”
Programmer and Once Upon A Monster creator Nathan Martz (above left) and Double Fine founder Tim Schafer
A project aimed specifically at children has, however, required the team to think about design in a new way. Throughout development, it has consulted with Carla Fisher, an expert in the interaction between children, education and gaming who has spoken at GDC. “She provided us with a framework for understanding what children are capable of,” Schafer explains. “If you look at their gross motor skills, there are things we take for granted, like jumping and leaving the ground, and ambidextrous behaviours like doing something with one hand and something slightly different with the other – these are challenging for a kid.”
A key element, then, has been focus testing – getting children and their parents in front of the game from the beginning, even when it was still in the prototype phase. “In a normal game, when you’re near the end and don’t want to fix a bug you’ll say: ‘Oh, we’ll just assume a friendly player’,” Schafer admits. “But with kids you have to assume… not a hostile player, but a complete force of nature. They will run towards the camera, they’ll run out of the screen, they’ll lie on the floor or turn their backs – they are uncontrollable agents of anarchy. For me, it’s really personal. It’s very moving when my daughter comes in to the office and laughs with the game – I could watch that all day long. Realising she’s the audience for the game makes everything about it more appealing to me.”
The structure of Once Upon A Monster, which is divided into five chapters, each based around a different monster, has also been designed specifically for children. “We heard from parents who told us: ‘I love playing games with my kids, but it’s really hard getting them to stop – they want to play forever’. So we separated it into bite-sized segments, which means parents can say: ‘OK, we’re going to play one chapter’, and each one has a natural conclusion so you feel like you can put it down. In fact, you can play just one five-minute activity – there’s a natural closure.”
The Kinect support has also helped in building an experience suitable for children aged between four and six. In each chapter there are various physical tasks: we play one level in which we help a monster have a birthday party – there are dancing challenges, as well as areas where we need to run through the woods, jumping over fallen trees and ducking under branches. “Kinect has really helped – especially with the youngest kids,” says Martz. “It’s much easier for them to physically duck than to learn where the X button is. But what we’ve learned about Kinect is, if the player thinks they’re doing it right, by and large, the game needs to recognise it as right. It’s not like a traditional game where your inputs are unambiguous – either you did press the a button or you did not, and we’ll grade you strictly on it. You need to provide a much squishier set of affordances to make that kind of interface fun for kids. You need to be flexible and forgiving.”
Ultimately, Martz reckons the most important lesson is that is hasn’t been necessary to abandon the studio’s offbeat style to incorporate education themes and issues. “We thought it would be mostly about curriculum and technique, and that’s a big part of it, but you can do substantive, enriching stuff and still have humour,” he explains. “As Tim would say, Sesame Street was a stealth comedy show, especially in the early years. It has a lot of those New York improv comic sensibilities about it. So, actually, one of the biggest lessons we’ve learned about writing games for children is to be funny.”