Unravel immediately had my attention: a puzzle-platformer with an adorable character in a big, scary world.
The game opens with an elderly woman at home, nostalgically examining her photographs. As she picks up her basket of yarn and ventures upstairs, a red ball of yarn falls to the floor. As it rolls, we meet our protagonist, Yarny. This is how the game begins; this is all the story we are given. The game offers no invitation, completely relying on our curiosity and desire for exploration.The game’s structure is straightforward and linear. The goal is to complete all of the levels, thus filling the scrapbook that sits on the living room table. The hub world is the house, consisting of a few rooms, each with different photographs that can be entered — a nice homage to gaming conventions of the past (such as Super Mario 64). This presentation, of course, makes sense in a game that is centered on gathering memories.
Each level has several memories floating in the background. As you pass these ephemeral figures, they vanish into bright dust that Yarny absorbs. The level is completed upon reaching the end and gathering “the missing piece”: a crocheted decoration for the scrapbook’s cover. As a bonus, five secrets – in the form of extra crochet items – exist in each level for those desiring an extra challenge.More chapters are added to the scrapbook upon completion of a level, and each chapter is named after a photograph. Each chapter has an epigraph about life connecting to the physical environment of the level completed, and following that is a series of realistic photographs from that level. There are 10 levels in total making the game a short but satisfying experience. Skilled gamers will probably fly through this game, but some of the puzzles still require a little thought.
The majority of the game comprises of swinging, tying yarn to create bridges or trampolines, and moving objects that are at the forefront of the action. While Yarny has the ability to jump, the gameplay is primarily based on your capacity to engage with the environment — a hallmark of any puzzler. You go through the game keeping an eye out for anything that can be grabbed or to which you can attach yourself. Branches become swings; empty soda cans are steps, and yarn trampolines can be created almost anywhere within the game’s environment. Unravel is all about being resourceful with what you have.The puzzle solutions are interesting, and the physical capabilities of Yarny create a nice challenge (especially for anything involving water). Yarny isn’t able to run fast or jump very high, so it’s both challenging and rewarding keeping him alive through some of the game’s trials. Unravel has its fair share of charming moments, but on occasions some of the problem-solving techniques become contrived, such as having to make a yarn ramp to bring small objects with you.
Yarny literally uses his body to progress in the game, but he only has so much yarn to give before he unravels. While it’s important to be conservative with your use of thread, there’s usually more intentionally placed along the way to pick up. It’s a challenge to ration out, but it never gets so hard as to be annoying.
And intentional is just the word to describe this game. Northern Scandinavia was used as inspiration for the game’s environments, and the soundtrack – created by two local composers – matches the visuals to a tee. Each epigraph perfectly matches the level; Yarny reacts to his environment even in the midst of gameplay – from shaking in the cold, to being startled at the site of a butterfly. Unravel is a deliberate craft.Cutscenes are seamless; rather than cinematic clips, Unravel integrates them with the action. It’s all done so subtly that I barely notice when I am no longer controlling Yarny, and it always seems to take me a moment to realize that the cutscene has ended. It’s techniques such as this that make Unravel such an immersive experience. We can’t help but connect.
Upon startup, the game greets the player with a message from the development team directing us through their motives for creating a game like Unravel. Coldwood Interactive, I would venture, is successful at tugging at our heartstrings and stimulating our minds, just as they had intended. As I completed each level, I eagerly opened the scrapbook to read the descriptions of each place to make sense of where I had been and what I had witnessed. The poetry of it moved me. I played off the rails and thought about my own relationships. I struggled through how much is enough and contemplated environmentalism. I ventured into winter sun and was reminded that nothing is forever.
Coldwood Interactive stays true to its opening message. In fact, if anything, it stays too true to it. While Unravel moved me, the story was scattered. I left Unravel with an amalgam of thoughts and feelings, but nothing tangible. We as the players are forced, as the developers put it, to “Make of it what [we] will.” While I applaud it for subverting our expectations of storytelling in video games, I condemn it for doing this sloppily: as the game shifts from family/relationships to environmentalism to vaguely both. You can try and connect the themes presented, but you will inevitably run out of yarn. Some may see this as intentional obscurity to mirror the disjointed nature of life and memories, but I see it as lazy storytelling.
Still, Unravel shines at giving us a unique experience. Psychology tells us emotionally charged events are easier for us to remember. With that in mind, Unravel will be hard to forget.