A well-woven tale
When Unravel’s creative director Martin Sahlin took the stage at E3 2015, he said that Yarny represents love, and the unraveling trail of yarn represents the feelings you leave behind. It’s a tough subject to tackle, especially when your main method of transferring that story is a non-verbal bundle of yarn. It’s not surprising that Sahlin’s vision for the game isn’t completely present in the materials it offers, but a baked-in narrative isn’t what makes Unravel so beautiful—it’s that the team at Coldwood Interactive was able to create an abstract world with some delightful puzzles that allowed me to make my own meaning of the game that evolved as I played.
The way you’ll find that meaning is through Unravel’s adorable protagonist, Yarny. Without ever saying any words, the character endeared himself to me exclusively by the way he interacts with his surroundings more than I’ve seen in any puzzle platformer, and perhaps any game. He shivers in cold environments, shakes himself off when he gets wet, and even reacts to stray objects in his surroundings—such as one of my favorite moments in the first minutes of the game, when he grabs at a butterfly in a field. Through those small touches, Yarny becomes a genuinely relatable bundle of fabric.
Because of this endearing nature, you’re able to feel a bond to the memories the game fabricates. As you play through each level, you’ll collect those memories, which you’re later able to view in a scrapbook. Scenes such as toddlers sledding down hills, girls playing together, and even a few pretty grim images appear in the background as Yarny runs through levels. Even though you only have a vague understanding of who those memories belong to, looking back on the scrapbook never feels prying or voyeuristic, since you’ve traveled the same paths those memories were forged on and discovered those them as Yarny.
Unravel is far more than a delivery system for an emotional journey, though—it’s also got a load of puzzles that can get surprisingly sophisticated. Your major method of solving them is the trail of yarn that you leave behind. Players can tie off the string to certain points marked by a knot of twine, creating bridges, trampolining tightropes, and pulley systems in order to solve environmental puzzles. Rationing my yarn so I could advance without getting to the end of my string required me to adjust the way I progressed through certain puzzles, and the way I had to think about each area reminded me of the first time I played through Jonathan Blow’s inventive puzzle platformer, Braid.
That comparison brings me to one of my knocks against Unravel. I’ve never played a game quite like it before, but it does constantly remind me of the same journey that I took with similar titles like Limbo, Braid, or Fez. There are plenty of moments of eye-opening discovery to be found in this charming platformer, but they undeniably step on ground I’ve tread in the past.
However, unlike many of its similar predecessors, no puzzle ever felt purposefully devilish. That’s not to say that they’re simple—in fact, there were many intricately-designed obstacles that left me scratching my head for a while. However, the challenges never felt like something a designer cooked up in an attempt to snag players. Instead, they were more like organic methods of exploring the game’s environment.
Part of the reason that the puzzles feel so natural is because Unravel doesn’t rely on the cartoonish tropes that many other puzzle platformers employ. Where some games might use suspended platforms and springs, Unravel grounds every obstacle in the environment. For example, one section requires Yarny to travel through the insides of an active machine. The electrical hazards, punching pistons, and winding gears made the area feel less concocted, allowing me to take in the level as a whole instead of segmenting it into individual puzzles like in similar titles. The challenge presented by Unravel is also astonishingly well-paced. I never felt as though I was pounding my head against a wall, since every tough moment is followed by a few lighter—but still inventive—puzzles.
Though Unravel’s interesting approach to marrying puzzles and narrative did leave me with many lasting impressions, it’s tough to deny that the actual game itself is quite short. Outside of a batch of collectibles that I never felt compelled to retrieve, there isn’t much reason for me to go back to it.
That said, anyone who would skip out on Unravel because of its length would be missing out. When the credits did roll, however short the quest may have been, there was no other word for what I had experienced other than a journey. Coldwood Interactive’s ability to pull me along an abstract string of objectives was compelling and impressively cohesive, especially considering that I was playing a puzzle platforming game—a genre that more often lends itself to unconnected levels tied together by a series of fiction-breaking menus. Unravel is a beautiful game from every angle, and the compassion poured into it is apparent around every turn.
|Developer: Coldwood Interactive • Publisher: Electronic Arts • ESRB: E – Everyone • Release Date: 02.09.16|
It might be tempting to write off Unravel as another indie-made platformer, but you’d be denying yourself a surprisingly deep puzzler with an unmeasurable amount of charm. There might not be much replay value, but you’ll be glad you took the time to see it to the end.
|The Good||An interesting union between storytelling and gameplay makes for a memorable playthrough.|
|The Bad||Little to no replay value in a short package.|
|The Ugly||I should call my parents more often.|
|Unravel is available on Xbox One, PS4, and PC. Primary version reviewed was for PS4. Review code was provided by EA for the benefit of this review. EGM reviews games on a scale of 1 to 10, with a 5.0 being average.|