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Wot I Think: Unravel

Strings attached

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.

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