Wot I Think: Unravel

I’d guess most people first encountered earnest puzzle platformer Unravel [official site] during EA’s E3 press conference. The creative director of Coldwood Studios, Martin Sahlin, took to the stage with slightly shaking hands and a doll he’d made of the main character, Yarny. “We put our hearts into [Unravel],” he concluded, “and we hope that when you play it you will feel that.” Let’s find out as I tell you Wot I Think.

Unravel has you playing the part of a yarn monster called Yarny who seems to spend his time wandering through people’s memories (you go into them via photographs) and collecting them. He’s snagged on something to the left of the screen and thus leaves a trail of wool behind him, gradually getting thinner and weaker as he unspools. You can pick up booster balls of wool to keep him going and create new checkpoints.

In order to explore the landscapes of these memories he can also hook or tie his yarn onto any point that’s marked by a scrap of red thread. By using these points you can create bridges, trampolines, abseiling points, tow ropes, rope swings and so on which let you access new areas.

According to Coldwood: “Yarny is on a quest to mend a broken bond, to tie up loose ends, and reconnect things that weren’t meant to be apart. Despite being small and fragile, Yarny is able to overcome all kinds of obstacles through courage, cleverness, and persistence.”

The thing is, that’s not the impression I got from the game. You start off watching an elderly woman as she looks at pictures and then heads upstairs with her knitting basket. The atmosphere is melancholy and the impression is that not all the memories are pleasant. But I don’t understand how that translates into needing a yarn monster. Sometimes it’s okay to be sad. She doesn’t seem to be struggling with these memories in a way that is strange, nor does she seem to be losing them and needing them to be gathered up or anything.

Yet when you start the photos in the album next to you are crackly and blurred, and other picture frames are blank. It feels like there’s a step missing here that explains how any of these things work together.

By completing levels you pick up the essences of these ruined photos and find red wooly scrapbooking motifs. With each motif you return to the album and inter the essences of these photos. The place starts to feel a bit cheerier and the photos and life story come into focus. Except it’s not a particularly coherent life story if you go by the album. There are family moments, sure, but also references to corporate greed and personal tragedy. It’s an album where you look at the pictures and read the inscriptions and see leaps from holiday snaps to societal angst and don’t understand why someone would have made this.

I mean, I used to work in an art and craft store. I’ve seen a lot of scrapbooking projects and had customers tell me about the things they’re working on. This scrapbook/album doesn’t make sense to me as a thing a real person would have made. It’s a vehicle for hammering home particular sentiments and messages – love… loss… the inhumanity of big business for some reason…

Moving on to the play sections, these fare better but never really reached their potential. The visuals are spectacularly pretty, Yarny is adorable and the soundtrack adds a thick layer of nostalgia and folksy charm. But because the gameplay rarely does anything unexpected or difficult I kept slipping into this play trance. I’d listen to the music and swing and trampoline on my own unraveling corpse (no-one likes it when I phrase it that way) and then realise I hadn’t taken in any of the last few minutes of the level. It wasn’t doing anything new so I was just reacting to the cues onscreen on autopilot.

“Oh, a thing hanging from the ceiling – I’ll swing across to the next thing.”

“There are two points where I can tie wool relatively near each other and a high ledge, I’ll make a trampoline.”

I started to do those things without thinking and would start to progress in this haze. Run, jump, swing, walk, jump, tie, tie, bounce.

A few times the game does something a little more interesting, either through having Yarny use his wool for something new, or by presenting an actual puzzle rather than the usual build-your-own traversal. The thing is, you don’t learn new abilities or unlock anything new during the game so these bits where Yarny uses his thready body for something innovative are set pieces rather actual expansions of his skillset. They are standalone incidents rahter than a means to open up new challenges.

The puzzles are more interesting. My favourite involved a lump of wood and a pool of water. They gave me a reason to play with the environment, to experiment, to think, to feel a bit of friction. There were glimmers of another game here. One which was far less forgiving, which relied on exploiting your skillset in interesting ways and which, perhaps, would demand far more careful management of your ever-diminishing body. I suspect trying to pick up all the secrets might scratch more of that itch but I don’t have any compulsion to revisit the levels.

Being hard as nails wouldn’t suit the atmosphere of this Unravel but the way it does play leaves it in this awkward position for me. I don’t mind lower-intensity interactivity if it’s in the service of delivering an interesting story/idea. But the story here wasn’t engaging. The two elements together produced this earnest, handmade, comfy fug. It was like playing a game based on the Etsy newsletter. It’s not a bad game – I want to stress that – but neither was it an interesting one.

Coldwood did put their hearts into Unravel and I can definitely feel that when I play. But despite his woollen charm, Yarny stayed well away from my own heart strings.

Unravel is out now.

28 Comments

  1. PancakeWizard says:

    “We put our hearts into [Unravel],” he concluded, “and we hope that when you play it you will feel that.”

    Immediately thought of this

    • Voidlight says:

      Classic BBC gold. “Tissue?”

    • Butts says:

      Yeah, that’s a real rabbit hole. After following the link I spent the next 30-40 minutes watching other Mitchell and Webb Look clips.

  2. Premium User Badge

    Hammer says:

    I found the story quite affecting, but that might be because the story (to me) hinted at dementia with the loss of the knicknacks and the blurry pictures. To me, it definitely recalled the way that certain items would see my Gran’s memory spring to life, even though she couldn’t remember who anyone around her was. Big YMMV on there of course.

    • Philippa Warr says:

      I wondered about that but I ended up not going with the idea because for me it didn’t feel like it sat well with Yarny fixing things and just remaking the memories. Then again, I also hit a big roadblock with the game in that the lifestory scrapbook progression kept breaking the idea that this lady was a believable person, if that makes sense. Interested to see it ringing emotionally true to someone else, though. Thanks for taking the time to comment.

      • Premium User Badge

        Hammer says:

        I think if the story is only fully accessible to some people who can identify with it and not conveyed well to others, that is completely valid criticism. I could well be reading too much into it.

        It’s an interesting compare and contrast to Braid in some ways.

        • Premium User Badge

          Don Reba says:

          They could have put “experience with dementia” into the minimum requirements list.

          • davethejuggler says:

            I kind of felt the need to watch a documentary from the devs about what the game was supposed to represent to appreciate the game more. You can tell it’s trying to get across a message, but I just couldn’t really understand what that was from the actual game itself. The WIT is pretty spot on I reckon.

  3. qrter says:

    I just can’t get over the fact that they named the character Yarny..!

    • Darth Gangrel says:

      Did you find that yarring (I mean jarring) or was it more of the awkward, facepalmy variety?

      It’s got really good reviews on metacritic, but from this review as well as others it seems harder to predict whether one might like it or not. YMMV like Hammer said in the comment above.

    • bexley says:

      Presumably Yarny is from Nylar 4.

  4. leeder krenon says:

    “like playing a game based on the Etsy newsletter” – huge LOL there.

  5. DanMan says:

    Being an old person in their 30s, I like my entertainment to be a laid-back experience. So I’m still very much interested in this. I contrast to Ori and the Blind Forest, which is supposedly very challenging.

    I’m just too busy with the Witcher 3 DLC and the new Tomb Raider, so I don’t have time right now. I’ll pick this up later.

    • DanMan says:

      Btw – Origin needs a wish list, badly.

      • davethejuggler says:

        If it helps, I am also in my 30s and not that good a gamer, but was able to complete Ori relatively easily, apart from a few sections that had me shouting at the screen. I’ve played both, and Ori is magnitudes better than this game. Just moving about the environment in Ori is a joy, whereas the only lpeasure i got out of this game was seeing the pretty backdrops. The actual gameplay felt severely lacking. Really wanted to like the game so it’s a real shame.

        • DanMan says:

          Thanks for the insight. I’m still considering O&tBF, but I’m waiting for the definite edition.

  6. BrianEvol says:

    Thank you for the candid review. I still feel compelled to purchase and play Unravel based solely on Coldwood’s genuine and touching presentation at E3 when Unravel was announced, which (to me, at least) stole the show.

  7. LionsPhil says:

    So, rather than being enthralled by it, you felt the plot was just stringing you along?

    • Bweahns says:

      Some people have reported having a real ball with this game, which will probably rope in a few more customers. It can sometimes be hard to reach an accord with a plot that twists and twines like the one featured in Unravel. Either way, I won’t have the wool pulled over my eyes on this one.

  8. elanaibaKHG says:

    Might this be something I could play with my 4 year old?

    • davethejuggler says:

      If by that you mean with them controlling it then not really. Some of the platforming requires pretty precise input and the grappling mechanic requires multiple button presses at once to do what you need. I kept hitting the wrong buttons myself which was frustrating!

    • alms says:

      My favorite part of that post is: “I’m fine with cuteness—I am a cat person”. It’s like someone who’s never seen a cat in flesh and hair while their whole experience is being a rabid upvoter of cat gifs on imgur, and they’re trying really hard to pretend that they get it.

  9. grrrz says:

    so this is more of an Epic Yawn?

  10. SuicideKing says:

    Sounds a lot like “Brothers: A tale of two sons” to me, then.

    • SuicideKing says:

      Not in terms of what the theme/story was, but the gameplay and the overall feel of the game.

  11. soopytwist says:

    For some reason the frame rate was like watching a slideshow right from the start making the game completely unplayable. Oh I tried tweaking it but nothing helped. Gave up and had to get a refund (which on Origin is surprisingly a massive pain in the arse). A shame, as it looked fun. Uninstalled Origin now. I won’t be putting that shite on my PC again. To hell with Mass Effect 4.