Announced at 2015's E3 by its creative director Martin Sahlin, who was visibly shitting himself, Unravel looked like nothing else revealed at the game's industry's highest-profile expo. That it was being published by EA, and not a considerably smaller company, was fascinating: what did this obviously beautiful, somewhat melancholic, side-scrolling puzzle game have that a thousand other titles like it, genre wise, didn't? Surely just looking fantastic, and making the player feel a little sad, wasn't enough to make EA get involved?
Having now played the game for a significant period of time, I've got to say that, yep, Unravel's aesthetic appeal probably was the driving force behind its gargantuan publisher getting involved. Because how it plays, while compelling enough to never be boring, doesn't feels completely unique enough to qualify Unravel, built by the small Swedish studio Coldwood Interactive, as a game without precedent, a puzzler that sets the bar for such cerebral adventures at a new height.
You move your character, Yarny, who's made from a single (extendable) thread of yarn, from left to right across a range of terrain, from an overgrown backyard to a seashore, onto a mountainside and across railway lines, through a scrapyard and thick snow, on a quest to basically collect memories. Obstructing your progress through every stage is a series of obstacles, solvable by yanking on things with your own body-forming string, pulling or pushing objects – apples, rocks, floats, old tin cans, a spool of fishing line – or by being clever with knots: get a piece of yarn taut between two spots and Yarny can spring upwards from it, or you can shove an asset along it, from a lower level to where it's needed. You can pull thread you lose back into your body, and also use it to lasso hooks that sparkle on the screen, indicating a point of attachment. However, if Yarny travels too far without replenishing himself (or herself – my kids have decided Yarny's a girl) using the scraps of yarn scattered throughout the game, he'll simply fall apart. It doesn't let you go that far – instead, Yarny will simply stop, the line snagged, and you're forced backwards to work out where you might have hooked yourself up wrongly, freeing up length enough to reach the next save point.
The yarn mechanic is what gives Unravel its gameplay USP, and it's a vital inclusion, as without it this would very quickly begin to feel like a (gorgeous, admittedly) reskin of another brain-tester from northern Europe, albeit Denmark, namely Playdead's Limbo. In that game, a critically acclaimed puzzle-platformer with disturbingly dark visuals, you controlled a small boy, left to right, pushing and pulling parts of the environment to proceed. Said boy would often die, horribly, but generous checkpointing meant that Limbo never felt unbeatable. There were also several collectibles to pick up in each section of the game, breakable eggs that added to your overall completion percentage.
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And the same is true of Unravel, to the point of sporadic déjà vu. Yarny can briefly detour from the route of least tanglement to pick up trinkets (there are five in each stage), and several different creatures can savagely disassemble him if the player isn't careful with their swinging or quick to respond to danger. The snapping claws of shore-dwelling crabs are an obvious threat to be avoided, likewise the gnashing jaws of an agitated water vole. (I'm going to assume that's what that marauding bastard is, anyway – it looks like a gopher, but they're not native to Sweden.) Some animals lend a helping hand, though, such as a fish that pulls Yarny across a river – getting submerged is as big a no-no as trying to make friends with crustaceans. You'll also take a ride on the wind while holding onto a kite or a plastic bag.
Visually, Unravel is stunning. To the extent where you will absolutely just pause from time to time, gently strolling left to right and back again, drinking in a scene that is so close to photo real that it's like a stretch of northern Scandinavia fell into your TV. You'll rarely have seen rocks and moss, ferns and bark, knackered tyre rubber and rusted metal look quite so touchable in a video game. The water is so wet. This side to the game's presentation gives it a great sense of place – the stones and the streams, the rushing waves and the hardy flora, it all sings of its makers' homeland, an aspect aided by Swedish-language signs but comfortable without such obvious cues. Yarny, too, is terrifically animated and expressive, even without a proper face.
'Unravel', official story trailer
With no spoken words in the game, its music plays a massive part in the overall ambience, which taps into nostalgia – each stage is entered through a photograph, set within a "menu" screen that is an old woman's house (a little like the mobile game Quell, if that rings any bells) – while layering on the bittersweet feeling than can arise from looking through one's past, seeing the friends and family who were there at the time (and maybe aren't, anymore). Composed by Frida Johansson and Henrik Oja, Unravel's score combines frenetic folk passages triggered by set-pieces, akin to Marcin Przybyłowicz's more dramatic loose-strings-and-palm-skins arrangements for The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, with gentler, reflective moments designed to lightly colour the process of puzzle solving. While a parallel between a relatively diminutive affair like Unravel and the epic, open-world adventure of The Witcher 3 might seem unlikely, consider that both games are set in northern Europe, and each have an air of magic about them, and it's not such a difficult comparison to appreciate.
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February 2016's a strong month for games full of first-impression promise. Firewatch is unique within the "walking simulator" (uh) sub-genre of immersive, interactive-fiction titles; Far Cry Primal is taking the first-person shooter back 10,000 years to a time of spears and sabre-tooth cats; and Superhot is bringing both a singular visual style and innovative time-based strategy to the guns-and-ammo field. Unravel is another game where surface-level appeal is a given, but digging deeper into the experience, it isn't something to immediately drop whatever else you're playing right now for. Do get around to it eventually, though, because its design strengths outweigh any seen-it-before familiarity.
What it, and Firewatch too for that matter, should do is attract the attention of people who only very rarely sit down with a video game. It's challenging, but you only occasionally need swift reactions to progress. It's truly beautiful to watch in motion, and if you're in the same room as someone playing through it, its looks alone will make you want a turn. The character on the box is both fascinatingly unlike gaming avatars before it, and immediately an empty vessel for the player's own personality. Yarny's not about to be another Mario, but it's no stretch whatsoever to picture a toy range based on this game's unusual lead. I'd be very surprised if Unravel's hero didn't have merchandising opportunities ahead of him. A star is almost certainly born then, albeit in a game that doesn't completely meet the intimidating expectations that preceded its release.
Unravel is out now for PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One (version tested). More information at the game's official website.
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