"Hey, Alex, you've got kids, right?"
That distinctive Scottish burr -- this can only be the tones of Kotaku's hard-working editor. He's the observant type, too -- I am indeed a father of three children.
"Reckon they'd like this? I can't see myself playing it."
He's just handed me "Sesame Street: Once Upon A Monster", an Xbox 360 Kinect title in an oversized box. I'm a notable fanatic for all things Henson, so my interest was piqued, but my own kids, at ages 5, 7 and 9 are all approaching (or at) the age where Sesame Street might seem to be a bit naff; something they did when they were, you know, kids. Not the 5 year old, to be sure, but little Miss 9 is the example her younger brothers follow. Still, never one to pass up a freebie, I happily accepted it and took it home.
At which point it got put on a shelf and forgot about for a week.
It's been a busy time in the Kidman household with one thing and another, and it was sitting in my pile of "things to amuse the kids with on a rainy Saturday afternoon". Then last weekend, Good Game: Spawn Point, the for-the-juniors version of Good Game, ran a review of "Once Upon A Monster".
Spoilers: They didn't like it much, noting the short play length and imprecise controls.
That reminded me that it was sitting there ready to play, but what caught my eye was that it caught the attention of all three of my kids, who watched the review, quite engaged.
That was enough for me to sigh inwardly, and grab the box down. Sighing, because, well, it's a Kinect game, and one that's already been called out as having slightly less than precise controls. That could be the swift measure of death for any game, as my kids are pretty game-savvy, and anything that's frustrating to play is quickly something that flat out isn't played.
I was also sighing because typically, as the dad, it's my job to fix things that don't work, and I'd anticipated lots of Kinect tuning and frustrated children trying to do what the game told them, only to be faced with a game that couldn't interpret their tiny moves properly.
I can't lie; the Spawn Point review was accurate, and there are spots where Once Upon A Monster can be frustratingly inaccurate. It is, after all, a Kinect game, and while the underlying technology is pretty cool, its implementation in games can sometimes end up feeling a little lacking.
Lacking technology didn't matter. My kids spent the weekend playing it, over and over again, and asking to play it again later. It took me a little while to cotton on to why, especially as they're generally quite discerning gamers; more Super Mario Galaxy 2 than Trixie In Toyland if you follow me.
They played it because it enabled them to have fun with it. Think about that for a minute. It wasn't that the game was great -- it isn't. It wasn't that it did new or completely unique things; beyond the inclusion of a soft rubber strip to let kids know where to stand so Kinect can see them this is, in some ways, a by-the-numbers title.
But they had fun with it because they love (or loved; Miss Nine is just starting her "I'm not a kid" phase) Sesame Street, could relate to the characters and could just have fun with what it would let them do, whether it was jumping over logs with an oversized monster called Marko or flying up a tree with Grover. Actually, I challenge anyone not to like Grover. It's just not possible.
It reminded me that games, above all else, should be fun, but you're not restricted by what a game tries to do for you in order to have fun with it. In their context, that meant letting go of the stories -- which aren't that great anyway -- and having fun with the minigames. But you could apply that logic to any game. Strong pacifist urges but only have Galaga to play? See how long you can maintain a peaceful protest by not firing at anybody. Murderous urges but nowhere to play them out? Try skinning an entire town in Red Dead Redemption (but don't tell me about it… maybe your psychiatrist.). The rules of games do constrain us in how we play them, but play, as my kids showed me, can be more about the experience you take away than simply the story a game tries to tell.
Alex Kidman is the Editor of Gizmodo Australia. He owns more video games than any human being I've ever met in real life.