“Unravel” is a puzzle-platformer developed by Coldwood Interactive and published by Electronic Arts. Gameplay leans towards puzzle-solving rather than traditional platforming, as the physics in the game dictate that traversing the world can at times feel heavy and lack fluidity. This is a conscious effort on the part of the development team to make the player feel at odds with the environment, and also to force the player to appreciate the colourful setting rather than simply rush through it, as this is essential to the emotional reaction that “Unravel” attempts to provoke. It’s an interesting game with a novel premise, and a refreshing change of pace considering the kind of games that EA usually publish.
When this game was revealed back at E3 last year it was given a rousing ovation, not only because it looked gorgeous and boasted an incredibly cute main character, but because the game’s lead developer endeared himself to the crowd with all the charisma of a nervous teenager about to have his first kiss. Martin Sahlin, the creative director of “Unravel”, was physically shaking as he showed his baby to the world; he seemed somewhat overawed by the whole occasion, not used to having a worldwide audience scrutinise his every move. Lucky for him then that we gamers aren’t too unfamiliar with awkwardness – instead of alienating a judgemental crowd Sahlin’s behaviour won over an accepting one, bringing a sense of personality to an otherwise heartless presentation from EA, and starting a bandwagon that I was more than happy to jump on.
Eight months later and “Unravel” has taken its first steps, began to talk, and probably brought a tear to its maker’s eye. All the enthusiasm and hope that Sahlin displayed during his short presentation has been tenderly woven into the end product, as I can say with certainty that it is a beautiful, sweet, and incredibly thoughtful game.
The main character in “Unravel” is Yarny, an anthropomorphic creature made out of string; he’s loveable, expressive, and as cute as you could possibly hope for. Over the course of every level Yarny untangles, becoming more and more skeletal as the string which makes up his body gets caught on various everyday objects. In order to make your way through each level you have to ensure that Yarny has enough string left to make it to numerous checkpoints, because when he does so he is restored to his full self – this is an interesting mechanic, as it dictates that players must play the game at a considered pace, surveying their surroundings so that they don’t take an overly elaborate route and waste their string. If the player does take such a route he must either retrace his steps and untie unnecessary knots, or give up entirely by holding the down button. Doing this doesn’t make Yarny very happy, as he proceeds to sit down with his arms folded, letting you know just how disappointed he is with your efforts.
The title, “Unravel”, doesn’t just relate to the way that Yarny loses his form over time; in a less obvious figurative sense the title also refers to the story, as the player (through Yarny) is effectively traversing the memories of an old woman who is reminiscing about her past. In order to play each level Yarny must enter photographs from the hub world, which in this case is the old woman’s house – this works a little bit like hopping in and out of levels in “Rayman Legends”, and feels altogether natural given the game’s narrative. The photographs are snapshots of significant moments in the aforementioned woman’s life – some happy and some soul-shatteringly sad – each one represents an important step on her journey through time.
Yarny signifies the love that this woman has felt throughout her lifetime, and how that love has persisted despite difficult circumstances. He has to evade obstacles and solve problems in order to defeat each level, and much the same can be said of the way in which we have to overcome complications in our everyday lives. A lot of care is taken here as colour schemes and weather patterns are cleverly manipulated to signify the nature of each individual memory, eliminating any need for spoon-feeding in the narrative.
Aesthetically it’s immaculate; colours are vibrant and welcoming, as bright greens and blues pop off a screen filled with life. Each level is as pretty as a picture, and graphically it performs perfectly. Thematically it’s just as striking, with a focus on how the smallest details linger in our memory, and how seemingly innocuous moments can resonate through time. There are scenes of joy and playfulness as Yarny walks through the sunny Swedish countryside, reliving memories of berry picking and summer walks; and then there are others which act as an agonising reminder that life isn’t always so kind, as Yarny trudges up a rainy hill towards a station, reliving what was a rueful goodbye.
These memories aren’t simply shoved in your face; instead the player is able to pick up on the emotions that the old woman was feeling because of the atmosphere that permeates each level. The story behind the level is then explained through a photo album in the hub world; this album is updated after each completed stage with a short summary and a few pictures of the real world scenery that you have just traversed in the game. If you’re just casually playing the game then you might not even pick up on the story that’s being told, but for people like me it will be the most poignant and well-realised aspect of the entire experience.
You have to take your own meaning from the story of this game, or perhaps project that meaning into it, but that doesn’t mean that the story isn’t there. The narrative is clear and the meaning behind it is explicitly explained to you at the end of the game, but playing “Unravel” is a very personal experience. If you’ve experienced loss in one way or another then you’re going to have those memories on your mind when you play this game, so the way you feel about it will be informed importantly by things which are external to the experience. This, at least for me, made the game that bit more emotional and made me invest a lot more in Yarny as a character.
I’ve said a lot about “Unravel” so far, but there’s one crucial thing that I haven’t really explored – the gameplay. That might seem ridiculous, because this is a game after all! If the game played like it had been made by a blind man fumbling around with a computer then of course it wouldn’t be worth playing at all, so to leave gameplay till last probably seems slightly strange. However, the reason that I’ve done so is that it was the emotional impact of “Unravel” that stuck with me once the credits rolled, not the mechanics in play.
With that in mind you might think that I’m about to put forward a number of criticisms that ultimately make “Unravel” an average game with a good story, but that isn’t the case. This game has very few mechanics, but the way that they are utilised is intelligent and inventive – you use your yarn to attach to trees and swing from side-to-side, avoiding various hazards, and you also use that yarn to create bridges from one place to another… but that’s basically it. You can jump about as much as you like, but the jumping isn’t a very big mechanic in the grand scheme of the game; you can’t achieve any great height without using your yarn as a lasso, and you only ever really use the jump button as a prequel to throwing said lasso. This isn’t a problem as such, but the game lives and dies on whether or not there is enough variety in the landscape and the puzzles to keep the two core mechanics interesting over six-ish hours.
Thankfully, the puzzles in “Unravel” are clever and solving them feels extremely rewarding. At certain junctures the player has to attach one object to another to open a door or to release water so that Yarny can make it to the next checkpoint, and it is these sorts of issues which make the game exciting. You have to remember while you’re playing this game that a person just like you designed the levels, hid various secrets within them, and then came up with a variety of puzzles which properly utilise the mechanics in place. That’s no easy task, and it’s made all the more impressive by the fact that there are no bugs or glitches to be found at any point (at least I never encountered any).
The game does vary its pace from time to time, with an obligatory chase sequence which involves a squirrel spicing things up a bit, but more often than not the meat of the game requires brain power over reaction time. Your ability to play this game really does hinge on whether or not you understand the puzzles, rather than your ability to quickly respond to stimuli, so it’s a good thing that they are intuitive and mesh together cohesively with the gameplay mechanics.
Overall, I really enjoyed my time with “Unravel”. As a rule platformers are my favourite kind of game, which is probably down to the fact that I grew up playing them, so when I play a game as good as this one I really want to sing its praises. “Unravel” is a wonderful experience with a lot of heart; the story is subtly told but has a tangible emotional impact, the puzzles are rewarding and intelligent, and it takes just about long enough to complete so that it doesn’t overstay its welcome but feels worthy of its price tag. With beautiful graphics, a lovely message, and well-realised gameplay mechanics, “Unravel” is a truly special experience.