Unravel, which stars a little red knitted character called Yarny, is unusually personal. It is an intimate game, tied to a certain place and time, and it very obviously means something to the people who made it.
Yarny is based on an actual doll that creative director Martin Sahlin knitted whilst out camping with his family. His game, Unravel, is essentially a really good-natured version of Limbo. You move the little yarn gent across the screen from left to right and use twigs, apples, pine cones, branches and whatever else is lying around to solve little physics conundrums. All the while, you’re using the thread that trails behind you to create bridges, slingshot yourself around, climb and swing about, and tie things together to keep them in place. Little Yarny himself (itself?) is evocative despite the simplicity of his design; he shivers in the cold, tiptoes fearfully through dark forests, and projects an air of innocent wonder as he stacks pine cones and ties knots and chases after butterflies.
At the outset, Yarny ventures forth from a grandmother’s country cottage, a home replete with little domestic details like a cat-shaped candle-holder, a plate of half-eaten biscuits and boxes of old photos. He must retrieve little woolen charms that are redolent of different times in the grandmother’s life and the life of her family, venturing through snapshots of the natural world in miniature.
With its strong familial themes, charming recreations of the Swedish countryside and the conspicuous symbolism of Yarny’s trailing red thread, Unravel aims to say something about the invisible threads that tie us together with our loved ones, the pull we feel towards the places that mean something to us.
Unravel is not exactly deft about communicating all of this. Its emotional resonance is on about the same level of subtlety as an advert featuring an old couple walking down the beach. Nonetheless, it is earnestly felt. Its credits feature sweet pictures of the developers’ lovely Scandinavian kids on wholesome-looking family outings. The grandmother’s photo album, empty at the outset, gradually fills up with carefully ambiguous memories - beach trips, hikes, fathers and kids, boyfriends and girlfriends, all with faces obscured just enough for you to see yourself in them. The photos are accompanied by aphorisms that would not look out of place as a Facebook photo-meme posted by your aunt (“Can you truly appreciate how special or beautiful something is if you don’t know what it took to get it?”). It is impossible to fault the sentiment, however bluntly delivered.
A puzzle-platformer generally needs two things to be enjoyable: precise, predictable controls, and clear level design. Unravel has neither, but it still works, partly because its central idea is so novel. Yarny’s trailing thread means that you don’t have to worry about falling, like in most platformers, because you can always grab on and climb back up. But the thread introduces other complications, like figuring out how to untangle the mess of knots and yarn-lines you created whilst solving a puzzle. Yarny can’t go too far, or he’ll completely unravel; little spools of extra yarn mark out regular checkpoints, from which you can helpfully restart if you tie yourself in knots (literal or figurative).
Yarny’s imprecise, floaty jump did frustrate me from time to time, prompting me to shout the words “JUMP, you little knitted wazzock!” at the screen on more than one occasion. The physics-y nature of the puzzles can lead to some unfortunate failures that have nothing to do with how you’re playing. During one of the early levels, for instance, a bit of branch that I needed to use as a platform got stuck on a rock and refused to move, prompting me to spent 10 minutes trying to figure out an alternative solution before reloading and realising that I had been right all along.
There are also times when it looks like you should be able to reach a high branch or swing across a chasm jump over a rock, but you can’t—or conversely, where it looks like you shouldn’t be able to, but if you give it a few tries it might happen anyway. When an area has you stumped, you’ll find yourself creating mad cat’s cradles of thread in increasingly frustrated attempts to divine what the game wants from you. Instead of “aha!” moments, there are just as frequently “FINALLY!” moments, when something that you’d tried several times before suddenly works.
Fortunately, Unravel is more creative than expected with its level design. The cheerful springtime Scandinavian forest vibe doesn’t last for long; as the seasons change, Yarny’s excursions take a darker turn. There is a strong environmentalist message running through its middle section, where Yarny finds himself in grim, depressing industrial settings rather frolicking around in the grass.
I found this change of tone more affecting than Unravel’s more obvious theme of human connectedness. There is such abundantly evident love for the Northern Scandinavian countryside in Unravel’s fond recreations of woodlands, beaches, mountainsides and moors. Its creators’ evident anxieties about what is happening to it are hardly unique to that part of the world. There is something primal about the horror that you feel when you see places of austere, natural beauty colonised by industry and pollution; it’s a feeling that something is deeply and essentially and perhaps irrevocably wrong. Unravel is very good at evoking this. As I paged through the photo album, looking at pictures of happy children holding up crabs at the seaside, I wasn’t feeling maudlin about my own childhood; I was wondering, genuinely, how many more generations of children will have memories like this of our world.
Unravel is undoubtedly sentimental, which is perhaps inevitable in a game this personal. Even though I found it all a little overly earnest, that does not undermine the satisfying thematic unity of its story, character, puzzles and preoccupations. For all its various shortcomings it remains memorable, a loving and heartfelt game that only this team, from this part of the world, could have made.