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Capturing The Spirit Of Sesame Street

In this interview, Double Fine project lead Nathan Martz and studio creative director Tim Schafer discuss the team's intent with Sesame Street: Once Upon a Monster, explaining how it fits perfectly with the team's desire to bring an ethos to games that's often absent.

[In this interview, Double Fine project lead Nathan Martz and studio creative director Tim Schafer discuss the team's intent with Sesame Street: Once Upon a Monster, explaining how it fits perfectly with the team's desire to bring an ethos to games that's often absent.]

San Francisco-based independent studio Double Fine has a knack for surprising the games industry and gamers, with unique original titles like the brain-diving Psychonauts, metal-loving Brütal Legend, Halloween-themed RPG Costume Quest, and the Matryoshka doll-based game Stacking.

Last week, Double Fine pulled another surprise by announcing its first game based on a licensed property: Sesame Street: Once Upon a Monster, due to ship for retail in fall this year, and published by Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment.

The kid- and family-friendly game, made for Microsoft's Xbox 360 Kinect sensor, might seem like a departure for Double Fine, which is known for creating games based on original properties.

But if one steps back and looks at the kind of characters Double Fine is known for creating, furry monsters with loads of personality are actually a perfect fit.

In this first interview for the game, Nathan Martz, project lead on Sesame Street: Once Upon a Monster and former lead programmer on Brütal Legend, explains how the game actually started out as an original title that just happened to fit extremely well as a Sesame Street-branded experience. He's joined by Double Fine creative director, founder, and industry veteran Tim Schafer, who's also working closely on the game.

For Martz, the creation of Sesame Street: Once Upon a Monster is about crafting an "uplifting" game within an industry "known for space marines who like violence."

How did Double Fine end up with the Sesame Street license?

Tim Schafer: In the middle of Brütal Legend, we broke our team up into four teams for our Amnesia Fortnight project, and they all had to make a game in two weeks. And one of the very, very first ones we ever did -- I think the first one we ever signed up -- was Nathan's idea for a game that involved cute, furry little monsters, making music and having fun. It was immediately just this charming experience, and it kind of evolved from there.

Nathan Martz: Yeah that was probably three-and-a-half years ago.

TS: Yeah, the prototype was three-and-a-half years ago. And I just liked it and we kind of kept working on it over the years. We got a chance to work on it again and polish it up. Then the idea of Kinect came up, it seemed like an interesting way to interact with these monsters.

And there's the idea of tying this to Sesame Street. Nathan's original pitch to the company had a lot of Jim Henson in it. It referenced Sesame Street and The Muppets and how much they meant to us and how much they were an inspiration for these characters.

As we talked about the game, it just came up with more and more people, "Have you thought about this as a Sesame Street game?" And it seemed like such a natural fit. You know, Double Fine doesn't really "do" licensed properties. So we kind of laughed it off the first time. But the more we thought about it, the more it actually made sense, and seemed to kind of fit naturally.

Our characters that we design, those original Scott Campbell drawings, fit so well with the Sesame characters, and we have a soft spot for Sesame, so we decided to pursue it. We had other options, to go with the game as a completely original property, but we just really wanted to do it with Sesame.

NM: It was funny, actually, when we were originally trying to shop the game around and try to talk to a lot of publishers, the reaction we got a lot was, "So, hypothetically, if you had the Sesame Street license, what would you do with it?"

And actually it was in Gamasutra that I read an article that was the announcement that the Sesame Workshop and Warner Bros. signed a deal together, and that was right around the same timing. And Tim and I were both like, "Erp?!" [the sound of one's attention being grabbed]

TS: That was the last straw. We just thought, "Okay!"

NM: For me, the genesis of the project, the real thrill about the whole thing... the thing I was passionate about was doing a game that was uplifting. I was really impressed by games like Loco Roco that were kind of so overtly and passionately upbeat.

TS: Unapologetically upbeat.

NM: Yeah, unapologetically. And actually the codename of the project was "Happy Song." It was basically like a prototype of almost a musical toy where these happy monsters of different shapes and sizes help you make your own personal happy song.


Marco, an original character designed by Double Fine, celebrates with Cookie Monster and Elmo.

And that monster is actually Marco, who you see in the screenshot. He was the very first monster that we built. Like Tim said, they were big influences. I'm a child of the very late '70s and '80s, and Jim Henson's character designs were a huge part of that. We looked to his inspirations to design characters that were original but inviting, complex but accessible. Of course he came up with a lot. Sesame Street was a huge influence for both Tim and I. I actually grew up maybe just 30 miles south of where they filmed the TV show, where they still film it, actually.

All that came together, the early ideas of making a game that's uplifting, then we heard about Kinect, and we thought, "This is great." We want to do something good with mechanics, here's a great, innovative interface that we know is going after that family market, which just seems natural for it.

Sesame Street was actually just the final piece of the puzzle, getting characters and a franchise that we felt really supported our values, and we support its values. It's really a great opportunity for this title to just springboard off of Sesame Street's very well-known brand.

And we're working with a partner whose values are very, very compatible with this product. We're not a non-profit, like Sesame Workshop, we're not officially, governmentally a mission-driven company -- but the truth is, we are a mission-driven company. At Double Fine, we do games that we think will make our medium better, or at least more interesting. There's a lot of synchronicity between what we want to do with games and what Sesame Workshop wants to do with television and entertainment properties.


What lessons are you learning from Sesame Workshop about making entertainment for kids?

NM: One of the things that's funny, one of the things that people often think of when they hear "Sesame Street", is numeracy and literacy. You know, the "letter of the day" and the "word of the day." These are concepts that after 41 years, Sesame Street has made incredibly iconic.

But actually, there's another part of their curriculum called the "Whole Child Curriculum" that is focused on life skills outside of the didactic stuff. So it's about social and emotional development...

TS: Making friends, facing fears, solving problems together...

NM: Exactly. Even adults take for granted the skill of recognizing that people have emotions different from your own, recognizing and identifying what those emotions are, all that kind of stuff. Those are really integral parts.

Those things are one half of the Whole Child Curriculum. And then the other half is called "Healthy Habits for Life," which is their nutrition and physical activity series, where it's all about encouraging people to live happy and healthy lifestyles. And of course the Kinect is a great fit for that.

And there are the stories. Our game is structured as a book that's a story about monsters. Every chapter is a story about a monster with a problem and who needs your help to solve it. And it's in the storytelling where you're helping those monsters where actually a lot of that Whole Child Curriculum comes in.

And Sesame Workshop is very involved. They have their own group called the ERO group -- the Education Research and Outreach -- that vets all of what they call "mission-driven" products, their certified educational products, to make sure that the content actually is built on healthy, established curriculums.

So they look at all of our scripts, all of our design documents, and their interactive group has a lot of experience in bringing Sesame Street to different types of interactive media, from Genesis games back in the day to Flash games today.

So you're crossing the line over to edutainment with this game.

TS: Half of it is all that stuff that Nathan is describing, but the thing that I got when I was doing research and watching a lot of videos of old and more recent Sesame Street episodes was that you have to remember to be funny. I didn't even realize when I was a kid that Sesame Street is a secret comedy show.

Tim you have children, right?

TS: I have a two-year-old, two-and-a-half. Almost three.

And you Nathan?

NM: My video games are my children. [laughs]

So Sesame Street is a secret comedy show?

TS: It's got that kind of New York improv comedy vibe to it. If you look at The Muppets, those are live performances by comedians who are kind of riffing off what's going on. You see Cookie Monster on Martha Stewart or you see Elmo on Jimmy Fallon, those guys are live comedy performers, and they're really talented.

And it's tempting when you're writing material for kids, like in this game for younger players, to just play it safe and make it stuff that's kind of bland and non-threatening. That's what I think people feel with kids' writing.

But then you watch the videos of the [Sesame Street] shows, and they're really, really funny. They're satirical -- they don't just make bland shows for kids, they make them actually funny. I think that's important for the kids and especially for the parents who watch them together. We're hoping that this is something parents play with their kids.

NM: One of the things that was revolutionary when Sesame Street aired 41 years ago was the idea of what they called co-viewing -- not just designed for adults, not just designed for kids, but designed for adults and kids to be able to watch and enjoy together.

Sesame Street wanted parents to be involved with their kids, even when they're watching TV -- not just to use TV as an electronic babysitter. We're actually trying to take that idea of co-viewing and turn it into co-playing, where the game is actually designed to be fun for parents and kids to collaborate, to play off of one another and strengthen their abilities. And the storytelling not only includes lessons for kids, but also jokes and funny situations for the adults.


Working with the Kinect, can you talk about how that translates to a game that features puppets?

NM: For us the biggest thing with Kinect games, a lot of our design lessons are very similar to what you hear any Kinect developer talk about: it's important that the interfaces be intuitive -- the activities for us that are really successful are the ones where you don't need to do a lot of instructional video.

Generally speaking, with Kinect games, the more physical they are, the more fun they are. Our original design had an even mix of physical activity, music activity and aesthetic activity. And it'll still have a mix of all of those. But what you'll find is the aesthetic and musical activities become more intrinsically physical with Kinect, and more fun to do with your body.

We actually went and twice visited Jim Henson's shop in New York where they built every Sesame Street Muppet ever created. So they're actually in the studio, you see them lined up and meet the people who made them.

We tried to be very faithful to the construction of the Muppets. Actually, the game has a dynamic fur system, a bunch of puppet geometry simulators under the hood, a lot of stuff to keep that sense of interacting with Muppets come to life, rather than just stock CG characters.

That said, the game is not primarily about being a Muppeteer. Because Elmo and Cookie Monster, they're not puppets -- they're living, real-life creatures -- that's why you can see them on TV! They have attitude, personality, so we prefer to focus on interacting with them. They're very much alive and vital parts of the world, not just things for you to control.

TS: And that trip to Henson's studios was really inspiring, and a little intimidating, because we were in the room with Cookie Monster and Snuffleupagus over there, and those are two of my favorites from when I was a kid. And I asked them, "Which Snuffleupagus is that? Number 50 or whatever?" And they said, "That's it, that's the first one that we ever made. That's it over there."

And I also realized that there were just a couple Cookie Monsters. Standing there, I could touch the fur on the Cookie Monster that I had seen as a kid, and Snuffleupagus, and you just... it was really meaningful to me to see these things from my childhood. Then I felt this responsibility, just how serious it is to work with the characters, and how important they are.

Sesame Street is all about learning and having fun and all that, but as far as kid properties go, it's huge. What more can you say about that responsibility of doing it justice?

TS: I put up a dumb video of me on our website of me playing with a Cookie Monster puppet. ... That is my Cookie Monster puppet from when I was a little kid. I've kept that and have always had that around, so I've always felt really close to those characters.

And when you really study them, you see the body of work of these characters, and all the things they've been through, and you realize you can't just wing it -- you can't just do a half-assed job.

Can I say "half-assed" in a story about Sesame Street?

Sure.

TS: Pardon me! [laughs] You really have to love the characters and you feel an awesome responsibility to live up to it and not just stay on canon, but also create something that adds to the body of work of these characters.

NM: Yeah, absolutely. For me there's another aspect where it's not just about the characters, but also staying true to the mission of Sesame Street. It's interesting if you read some of the original interviews when Sesame Street was going on the air -- between the chairman of the FCC, Henson and the educational founders whose general feeling at the time was that television was going in a bad direction -- that most of what was on TV was not very enriching. Even the kid stuff was Cowboys and Indians -- disposable fare.

People felt really convicted about wanting to do something uplifting, that would feel better for their medium. Frankly, I feel kind of the same way about video games right now, that we're not nearly as creatively broad as we could be. We often stay very safe, and safe in some pretty often reprehensible directions, or at least thoroughly uncreative.

You know, we're known for space marines who like violence, primarily. And I think our medium can do many more things than that. And I think that mission of Sesame Street, that original vision of a medium being a force for good -- one that can make people feel better about their lives and one that they can learn from -- I feel incredibly beholden that we make a product that lives up to that pretty audacious, inspirational goal.

TS: ...and still be funny.

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