If I were to choose just one word to describe Coldwood’s 2016 2D platforming puzzler, Unravel, it would be “charming”. Everything about this game oozes charm; from the muted visuals, unique puzzles and of course, our knitted hero, Yarny. The game has a quiet confidence that knows exactly what it wants to be and tells the kind of story it wants to throughout its five-hour running time.
The game begins with Yarny emerging from a small ball of red wool dropped by an old woman. At first, his connection to her seems ambiguous but as the game progresses you begin to discover how the pair are linked as the game reveals a touching story of family, love and loss which the game itself perfectly summarises:
“Love forms bonds, like strands of yarn. Like yarn, those bonds can be fragile, or get all tangled. But when they’re kept and cared for, they can bridge any distance.”
At its most basic level, Unravel sees Yarny journey across the Swedish countryside. Making his way through various locales ranging from the seaside, mountain treks and snowy forests. In total there are 12 separate chapters and each level has been carefully crafted with enough diversity that it feels unique to the last.
Gameplay is relatively simple and the mechanics are easy to learn. Seeing as the lead protagonist is a miniature figurine made from yarn, there is no combat, crafting systems or elaborate side quests. Instead, the game focuses on solving puzzles and getting Yarny from one area to the next.
Despite a seemingly simple model, the game does have some nice variety in its mechanics. Yarny can use his excess wool to lasso onto hooks and swing from one platform. Or he can build bridges of yarn to move essential items across. The one catch to this is that Yarny himself isn’t made up of an infinite amount of wool and as he moves he leaves a trail of red fibre behind him before he is a feeble figurine and no longer able to move until you find a stash of wool to replenish him.
Herein lies one of Unravel’s tedious mechanics. Whilst, an intentional move by the developer to add an element of challenge to the game’s otherwise simple model, it does limit the amount of trial and error you can do as the player which, seeing as the game doesn’t provide any guidance or hints to solve some of the more challenging puzzles, becomes essential. On more than one occasion I found myself having to restart a particular section because I was a little too generous with my yarn bridges.
Nevertheless, players seldom turn to a game like Unravel for the perfected mechanics and it is the overall experience that players will be invested in. The game carries a certain sadness to the experience which is hard to explain. There aren’t any incidents that are particularly sad or moments of peril but the nostalgia the game embodies is relatable and enabled me to draw on my own experiences to connect with the story.
For games like Unravel, it’s essential to strike a balance between delivering a meaningful but satisfying, interactive experience. For the most part, the game does succeed in delivering this. It is the quieter moments where it thrives; allowing players to unlock disjointed memories to feed into the overall narrative.
Unravel does have its share of shortcomings but for those who are more interested in the meaning behind the experience, this won’t deter them. However, for the more general player, the payoff might not be worth the effort.
Unravel is a simple game. But in a time when studios are reluctant to take gambles on smaller developers or new ideas, it perfectly shows what can be achieved with some creativity, a touching story and a little risk.