For me, a very important piece of the puzzle when it comes to creating a platform game is the design of the main character. All the most successful games throughout history have a recognisable protagonist: Sonic, Mario, Crash Bandicoot, the list goes on. With the design of Yarny – the hero of the 2016 game Unravel – the designers at Coldwood Interactive smashed it out of the park. Yarny was almost literally a ball of wool, vaguely shaped into a humanoid shape. Looking cute and moving in an appealing manner, I have to say that Yarny is my second favourite video game character made of wool, after Yoshi in Yoshi’s Woolly World.
I first saw Unravel as part of EA’s E3 event in 2015, and was immediately blown away by not only the design, but the movement of the main character. What was very endearing to see on the big, slick stage that EA always present was Martin Sahlin, Coldwood’s creative director – he appeared nervous, with shaking hands and a cracking voice, but to be fair to him his passion for the project absolutely shone through, and I for one don’t think I could have made a better job of standing up in front of a watching world. Unsurprisingly, the way that Sahlin presented the game and himself actually touched a lot of people, and generated a lot of goodwill for this guy from a little Swedish studio and his game.
The story of Unravel is a beautifully told one, seeming to follow the life of an old lady in whose house we awaken. As we stand up and look around, not only does everything appear to be very large, given the small scale of our body, but we can also see various picture frames dotted about the room. These are the entrances to the levels, and the landscape we have to traverse is based on the contents of the photo frame. These, at the start of Unravel at least, are based around happy memories, such a trip to the beach, or going hiking in the mountains.
As we proceed through the levels, darker themes begin to be introduced: a forest is industrialised, leading to problems with toxic waste, and the break-up of the old lady’s family as people move away to the city. In one heartbreaking stage, it’s revealed that the old lady’s husband has died, possibly of a heart attack, and the way these sad elements are handled is very sensitively and beautifully done. I’m not usually prone to being a crier, but I have to admit that I may have got something in the eye at the climax of the game. It was revealed, according to Sahlin, that the yarn that makes up Yarny’s body represents love, and that the character unravels as they travel away from what they love. That makes it even more emotional.
The gameplay added a puzzle element to the classic platforming action, with Yarny able to use the very fabric of his (I assume Yarny is male, but there’s no indication in game) body to swing from branches, climb up and even pull things out of the way. An interesting mechanic is the way that Yarny has a limited amount of wool to play with; as he uses the yarn to swing about, for instance, his body gets noticeably thinner. Obviously, there is a finite amount of yarn in his spindly form, and eventually he will run out, signified by his body looking very thin indeed. Luckily, there are spare balls of yarn around the level that can be picked up, letting you extend your range.
The puzzles usually revolved around real-world objects, and required a surprising amount of thought in order to maximise the amount of yarn you can use. Control-wise the game was a little creaky, with the controls themselves feeling a little, well, clunky for want of a better word. There were a number of times that I died in a manner that I didn’t feel was entirely my fault, but honestly the look and feel of the game kept me trying. It even committed the number one sin in my gaming book: it didn’t give me an achievement when I clearly fulfilled the criteria for it. It’s a measure of my disappointment that this is still in mind now, many years later.
The original Unravel was superb, but then there was a sequel released, Unravel 2, which was launched in 2018. This brought in a much needed two player mode, and finally my son could have a go. I have to say that the co-op gameplay was a lot of fun to play together. The tone seemed a lot darker this time around, but luckily it still retained the charm of the first title, so I was able to gloss over the narrative with my son, who was just seven at the time. From there, I do feel like there’s room for more adventures featuring Yarny/Yarnies, and would love to see a game with online capabilities, for instance; perhaps one that can leverage the power of the new generations of consoles. Imagine a 4K, ray-traced Yarny!
So, these are my memories of playing Unravel, and I hope you’ve enjoyed this trip down Memory Lane with me. But how about you guys out there, on the other side of the screen? Did you play Unravel, and if so, what did you think? If you didn’t, its currently free on EA Play, a part of Xbox Game Pass Ultimate, right now, so get over to the Xbox Store and unravel a download. Let us know all your thoughts in the comments.