Unravel is a special game. From its first appearance at E3 last year, it certainly looked like something special; Martin Sahlin’s personal, intimate introduction of Yarny was a welcome change of pace from EA’s usual bombastic showing. I was even more taken when I got my hands on a small snippet of the game a few days later, but nothing could have prepared me for what the full, final game would be like.
On the surface, Unravel is a fairly straightforward puzzle-platformer. You guide Yarny from left to write, using his yarn to grapple past obstacles, rappel down cliffs, build bridges and trampolines, and pull objects around. Puzzle design is clever, if at times frustratingly obtuse, and there’s an expected sense of growth as new concepts are introduced from level to level, and obstacles become more complex. If you look solely at the moment-to-moment gameplay, Unravel is a good game, and nothing more.
But I challenge anyone to focus just on that, without being taken in by everything else that’s threaded through and around these mechanical hooks. It’s the context of these actions that makes Unravel such a powerful, special game. The story, music, world design, and animations all give Unravel’s puzzles a sense of place and meaning that’s impossible to ignore, and unless your heart is made of stone, impossible to not be moved by.
Unravel is a minimalist story of love, longing, and loss. There’s a grand total of two cinematic cutscenes in the game, neither of which has any sort of dialogue, and vague philosophical musings hint at the underlying significance of each level. Beyond that, everything comes through environmental cues, background music, Yarny’s body language, and the gameplay itself.
There’s a central metaphor that’s fairly obvious (and if you should miss it, the game does overtly explain it right at the end): it’s about the threads that connect people. As you make your way through the game, Yarny is constantly unravelling, using his own yarn to solve puzzles. If you could zoom the camera out all the way, you’d see a never-ending string of red wool running from the start of the first level to the end of the last, tied to trees, rocks, and other pieces of the world all along the way. Everyone you meet in your life and every place you’ve ever been is connected, with you as the common thread that ties them together.
Dig a bit deeper, and there are some powerful insights into the nature of relationships laced through the yarn mechanic. Fundamentally, you’re using Yarny’s yarn - your connections to the world around you - to solve puzzles and overcome hardships.
Sometimes those challenges are easily overcome, at other times what looks like a solution will be the exact opposite. Sometimes you’ll tie lots of knots in short succession, and other times you’ll go for what feels like miles without ever laying down a permanent connection. Sometimes, the bond you’re relying on to carry you to safety will break - when, say, a tree branch you’re using to swing across a chasm breaks; other times, you’ll have no option to take a leap of faith, trusting that there’ll be a grappling point waiting to catch you.
My one concern is that Unravel’s difficulty might alienate some people.
At one especially poignant point, you have no option but to split from a friend - who’s been there through the hardest moments of Yarny’s life - because, sometimes, that’s just what happens. You drift apart, you lose touch with people to whom, once upon a time, you couldn’t have been closer.
Again, Unravel is very minimalist in terms of actual plot, but that’s to its credit. It follows Yarny’s adventure through the beautiful but harsh wilderness of northern Sweden, stumbling upon the sites of photos from his family’s album along the way. I’ve no doubt that a lot of these locations hold a great deal of significance to Sahlin, and others on the development team, but details are kept vague enough that it’s easy to project your own personal tale into Unravel’s world.
In lieu of plot details, Unravel deals heavily in emotional storytelling. It’s no exaggeration to say that Yarny’s animations are phenomenal; whatever the animators are being paid, it isn’t enough. Despite never uttering a word, and not really even having facial features - the cornerstone of conveying feelings, Yarny has more of a personality than just about any other game character I’ve met. From his sense of playfulness as he chases butterflies in the first level, to the way he struggles with every step later on when you’re fighting through a blizzard, Yarny’s every movement seems to tell a story in and of itself.
Topping it all off is an exquisite soundtrack, composed by Frida Johansson and Henrik Oja. It’s inspired by a style of traditional Swedish folk music called “vemod”, which translates to something along the lines of “beautiful melancholy”. From calm, soothing melodies, to heavier, faster, more rhythmic beats when the intensity picks up, to a muted sense of mournfulness in the game’s bleakest moments, the score perfectly keeps pace with every emotional push and pull of the journey.
My one concern is that Unravel’s difficulty might alienate some people. This is a game that reminds me of a Studio Ghibli or Pixar film in the way it transcends the notion of target audiences, but it does, at times, get very hard, and I worry that people who aren’t “hardcore gamers” will just get overwhelmed and give up. There are more than a few times where, despite everything else that the game does so, so well, I felt ready to throw my controller out the window.
Some of this is intentional - like I said earlier, overcoming hardships is a central theme. However, at other times the difficulty seems to have more to do with not going through enough playtesting (which is not to discredit the great work of playtesters Ida and Aria Bohlin, but having a wider pool of testers would have helped a lot). Sometimes, and otherwise simple puzzle would seem almost impossible, until a stumble upon a key component that looked like it was part of the background, and not something with which I could interact. Other times, I’d have the right answer from the outset, only for it to not work due to some quirk of the physics engine, leaving me flailing about for some other solution that didn’t exist.
And yet, I walked away from Unravel thinking not about those moments of frustration, plentiful as they are. All I could think about - and still keep thinking about - is the beautiful adventure I’d been on with Yarny, all culminating in one of the most captivating, lovely, heartwarming endings I’ve seen.
Truly, Unravel is a special game.