When a quiet, slightly nervous, yet eager-looking man walked onto the stage at EA’s E3 press conference last year, clutching a small red figure made of wool, it was hard to know what to expect. Unravel; the achingly beautiful 2D puzzle-platformer featuring the little red wool figure itself was what we saw next, and it was probably low down the list of guesses for anybody considering EA’s other games at that event (you only have to look at the infamous change in tone brought on by Plants vs Zombies: Garden Warfare 2’s announcement after that to see how at odds it was). Unravel became one of the stars of the entire expo, a grand achievement indeed when you remember that this is the E3 that saw Shenmue 3, The Last Guardian and Final Fantasy VII Remake all show up unexpectedly. Now, we are very close to seeing the game out in the wild, and finding out what made industry juggernaut EA take such an interest in the work of a relatively small Swedish studio making a game about a yarn creature on a journey through beautiful Scandinavian landscapes.
Before I got to go hands on with Unravel’s first two stages for this preview, I was able to hear the thoughts of Coldwood Studios own Martin Sahlin, Unravel’s creative director, and the very same man who struggled to to contain his swirling vortex of emotions on that E3 stage. Sahlin is sitting in front of a computer camera, looking far more composed now, but with that same air of delightfully fidgety energy just about visible in his mannerisms “I can’t believe we’re almost at the end of this journey” he muses, before checking himself and, with that excited look once again on his face for a brief moment, adds, “of course, there’s a new journey starting soon too”. Sahlin notes that it’s been two and a half years since they started work on Unravel, though he feels like the time has just passed his team by swiftly, and stresses how much all of Coldwood cannot wait for his team’s game to finally meet the public. Judging by what I’ve played so far, it may well end in a satisfying payoff for the Swedish studio.
While the early adoration for Unravel has mainly spooled from how refreshingly un-EA it is, there’s obviously more to it than that however. Sahin’s enthusiasm won many people over at E3, and it helps that Unravel is a gorgeous looking game. The backdrops depicting the stark beauty of Swedish countryside, seaside and other locales are particularly impressive. Then there’s the little being central to this tale, Yarny. While many developers seemingly find it hard to make instantly likeable characters, Yarny is one of those rare exceptions, adorable from the second he first emerged onto the screens at EA’s conference. During the preview, I was relieved that Yarny remains voiceless. It would have felt off to have a voiced protagonist, instead Yarny says more with how he moves and interacts with the world.
The opening level of the game sees you crossing a garden, learning Yarny’s tricks as you go. Yarny can use his body to make a tail that comes in handy as a lasso to swing from hooks and pull objects around. Thing is, Yarny unravels the red stringy wool from his body when he uses it for creating rope bridges and swing points, and also as he walks along, meaning eventually you’ll run out of yarn and be stuck if you don’t make the right choices. Help comes from fresh yarn wrapped round objects as you go, replenishing Yarny once he reaches it. Reaching the next section is easy enough in the garden level, but it was possible to end up a little short of the next yarn marker by tying your unspooling body to too many of the world’s smaller, signposted hooks. By the time I reached the next level (a seaside area), the use of your yarn becomes an extra puzzle in itself, retracing your steps and looking at where you could gain some extra length and still progress. The challenge of this, and the other world-based puzzles increases at a steady pace in these opening stages, hopefully this will continue into the rest of the game’s levels. The responsiveness of a game like this is important, and while generally the controls are pretty tight, there were one or two fiddly moments that felt a little…wooly (sorry, not sorry).Comparatively speaking, Unravel has a lot in common with Limbo, both in basic mechanics and in its bright-eyed silent protagonist. Sure, Unravel is far brighter and cheerier in visual terms next to the monochromatic nightmarescape of that game, but it’s hard to shake a familiarity with the physics-based puzzles you encounter. Still, as comparisons go, it’s far from a bad one.
I pondered how far the selection of locales would go, hoping for no repeating pattern that would hamper later puzzle design, but Sahlin assures that it isn’t all back to nature.
“It’s not all about nature and outside areas, well mostly, but there is more to it than that” then goes on to add, ‘’the game will also go through different seasons, changing the dynamic’.
So Unravel sounds like it will take Yarny on a long journey indeed. What I played in the initial two levels is a good start, but there’s a feeling of being just a hint of the whole story, which is good in the sense that I feel there’s more to it than just standard physics puzzles and platforming, but frustrating for now because I really think that the quality of the story Coldwood wants to tell will be the defining factor in how well received Unravel is upon launch. Sahlin has long had a mantra of Unravel being about ‘mending bonds and longing’, and that’s quite apparent even in these early stages.
Now Coldwood is almost done with this journey, ready to embark on the next, so how does Sahlin feel about the finished product?
“Of course, you always want to have done better, but we are very happy with what we’ve made, and proud to be able to bring it to a wider audience than we ever could have hoped for.’’
If everything clicks, that audience could get wider still.