It seems like only mere moments since Unravel’s creative director Martin Sahlin nervously took to the stage at EA’s E3 press conference last summer, and won the hearts of many watching as the game was shown off for the first time. Sandwiched between heavy-hitting franchises like Mass Effect, FIFA, Madden, Need for Speed and Star Wars was this adorable woolly character clambering about the great outdoors of the developer’s native Sweden, trailing yarn behind. For Unravel to be a major talking point of that conference, with those names, speaks volumes about how out of leftfield it was for EA.
As you first load up Unravel, a message from the fourteen-person development team, Coldwood, pops up. In it, they thank the player for giving them a chance, spelling out the key concepts of the game such as ‘loss’ ‘longing’ and ‘mending broken bonds’, and generally letting you know they’ve put their all into the game. In a post-Witcher 3 world, you could be forgiven for taking that statement at the start of a game backed by an industry standard-bearer like EA as corporate hot air disguised as customer-friendly patter, pandering to what fans want to hear to try and make a quick buck. Well, play Unravel and you’ll soon see Coldwood mean every word. You can see the love, care and attention that Unravel has been blessed with.
Unravel’s story is predominantly about Yarny, a small red figure made of yarn who traverses the Scandinavian outdoors to obtain tokens of nostalgia that seem to hold some importance. Why he’s doing this and for who is unclear to begin with, and the reveal of this is slowly built and subtly done. It’s not some major twist or revelation you’re chasing however, more immersing yourself in a collection of connected memories and taking the message on board. It’s affecting without being schmaltzy or overly dramatic. This, like much of Unravel, fits into a set of ideals that drive the game’s design, aesthetically and mechanically, to a singular point. It tells its tale with such subtlety that it almost seems a bit alien compared to
Unravel has that often unattainable trait in modern gaming of endearing you with its main character and the world it lives within seconds of entering its realm. When Yarny first crawls from a knitting basket to begin his adventures, it sets the tone for the rest of the game perfectly. The visual style Coldwood have aimed for is a dreamlike version of reality, hazy and sharply-detailed in equal measure, that, with one exception late on, draws you into the atmosphere of Sweden’s countryside and beyond through different seasons with a real sense of place and time.
Unravel is an absolutely beautiful game, no doubt about it. The recreation of everything from marshes to mountains to machinery and elk is superbly done. Coldwood have used the time spent on making Unravel wisely if the presentation is anything to go by. I stopped so many times just to appreciate the scenery, it’s that good to look at. Yarny is also wonderfully realised, conveying emotion and narrative with movement rather than facial expressions and words. It’s surprising how invested in his journey you become. Yarny almost instantly wins you over without a single gurn or quick-witted quip, in short, he’s the star attraction. Oh, and the musical score is a perfect compliment to the visual wondery. Folksy, and instilled with that same dreamlike quality as the game’s graphical content.
That’s only a part of the story of course. Being pretty and full of charm is all well and good, it certainly catches the eye of potential buyers, but you need substance if you want to be remembered beyond that. Unravel, thankfully does that too. It starts in a deceptively simple manner, climbing on things, using Yarny’s tail to lasso relevant objects and not much beyond that. Soon though, you find the game opening up mechanically, adding more complex puzzles and bringing the use of Yarny’s unravelling woolly body into all aspects of the game.
The checkpoints in each level are represented by red yarn wrapped around part of the scenery. These also replenish Yarny’s body so he can continue forward. Using your yarn thread to help solve puzzles becomes a major part of later levels as Yarny uses it to create platforms, trampolines, swings and pulleys. Tying off your thread means you lose a bit more of Yarny’s body and you start to learn the impact of setting up your puzzle solutions correctly or risk not reaching the next checkpoint. It adds a clever twist to what is some good, if not exactly revolutionary platforming and puzzling.
Physics have a big say in how the game operates, as you use the likes of balance, weight and velocity in the majority of puzzle solutions. It bears great similarity to other puzzle platformers like Limbo and notably LittleBig Planet, but the addition of the yarn-throwing gives Unravel a unique selling point. The controls are pretty solid, generally quite responsive and fair. There’s moments that arrive requiring your full attention and pinpoint accuracy, thankfully these rarely frustrate, just once, perhaps twice did I feel the game was a little unfair with what it expected at me, but perseverance was all that was needed to get past them. With so much to like, nay love, about Unravel, minor frustrations are kept that way on goodwill alone anyway.
One particular puzzle flummoxed me for a bit, and a tinge of the aforementioned frustration set in. I walked away and came back to it ten minutes later with a clear head and solved it instantly. From that point on, almost everything about Unravel has captivated me immensely, with the exception of a section in a later level that feels a bit out of sync with the rest, a bit too cartoony and generically platform-esque in design. It takes you out of the dreamscape Coldwood have constructed somewhat, but not offensively so, but soon enough the game is steered back into more appropriate locales and normal service is resumed. The only other relatively major criticism I can level at Unravel is that the CGI cutscenes that bookend the adventure look less polished than the game itself, robbing Yarny and his world of a little bit of that dreamy realism as well as hampering the impact of the ending.
I thought I’d find it hard to convey my feelings on Unravel during its earlier moments. I’ve been absolutely sure I at least liked it from the start, but did I think it was anything more than a simply good game? That doubt melted away soon after, and Unravel became a thing I cherished. Coldwood have created a game that speaks from the heart and is wholly invested in its key themes of loss, longing and renewing bonds. No, it isn’t the most original puzzle platformer ever made, but it innovates where it matters, and captivates beyond that to help Unravel blossom into this special, warm and inviting game that needs to be played to be fully appreciated.