By Ben Griffin
I didn’t go hands-on with Unravel at E3, Martin Sahlin’s sidescrolling indie curveball unveiled at EA’s press conference alongside titans like Battlefront, FIFA, and Mass Effect, but for one good reason: he received a phone call from his kid.
“I’m really sorry, can I take this?” said Coldwood Interactive’s creative director and now E3's most famous family man. Sure, it meant our interview overran and ate up my demo time, but what kind of monster would I be to refuse?
The interruption made sense. Developers who give presentations on E3’s grand stage primarily talk features and innovations; Sahlin showed slides from a family camping trip. That’s where he ‘discovered’ Unravel, a game in which players use yarn to solve physics-based puzzles in Scandinavian-inspired locations, and talking one-on-one in a small room with the same passionate, nervous, gleeful intensity as when he spoke in front of thousands, Sahlin explained his studio’s two-years-in-the-making platformer.
"Was it hard to keep Unravel secret?" I ask. “Yes, very much so,” he says. “That's kind of the big thing about the show yesterday. I've been looking forward to that moment for so long, I was so super excited to finally get to share this game with everyone. You carry this little secret pretty closely, it's a really special thing to you, and it feels so good to finally show it off. You're so proud, you want everyone to like it. You're finally at that moment, and you see those smiles, and it's like ‘yes, it's so good’.”
Among EA’s slick, trained, carefully managed speakers, Sahlin’s inclusion was a breath of fresh air. He deviated from the script, he faltered, he produced a doll from his jacket pocket and made it wave to the crowd while making a goofy voice. It didn’t take long for his sincerity to win people over. So clear was the disparity between him and E3’s typically suited and booted presenters that people are already drawing Sahlin fan art and asking him to appear in Reddit Q+As.
As Sahlin speaks to me, he’s stroking the same Yarny doll he brought with him on stage. It strikes me that, in both shape and colour, it resembles a human heart. I ask him how he came up with the design of the mascot.
“That's what happened when I was out on that camping trip. I had this vision about this character made of yarn and I just figured I needed to make it somehow, so I could visualise all these ideas I had. Peel some old metal wire of this cable and cleaned the rust off and created this poseable skeleton with it.” Somehow I think if this thing ever got mass produced, the creation process might be slightly different.
Like some of the best entertainment ever made – J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter, Janis Joplin’s Mercedes Benz, and to a lesser extent, my Buck Bumble fan fiction – Unravel emerged out of Shalin’s head fully formed. “I felt like I just found pieces of a puzzle that were already there, waiting for you to discover them. I didn't set out to create this specific thing. It was more like, as I was playing with it and messing around in the woods with this doll, that's how the art direction happened.”
Without wanting to sound mean, Sahlin was almost shaking during the start of our interview. To be fair, it’s a big moment for him and Coldwood Interactive. This 14-man studio has spent the better part of two years working on a project they’re positively entwined with. I’m not sure if it was excitement or nerves (I am pretty scary), but he eventually started to relax.
Conscious I wouldn't squeeze in a hands-on session, I was keen to know details about the game’s structure. A series of self-contained sandbox puzzles? Metroidvania? “It's divided into chapters which are all based on different environments from northern Scandinavia,” Sahlin said. “We wanted to base all the levels on our own homes. So the places that we care about and stuff that means something to us....And so you play each chapter trying to find the missing pieces of someone's life. It's kind of the goal of the game, to try and make your yarn reach all the way from the start of the game to the finish, making one unbroken line.”
You probably don’t need me to tell you Unravel is a metaphor. A metaphor for reconnecting with people. For overcoming life's hurdles. For not losing sight of yourself, and maintaining your sense of identity despite the hardships that here quite literally unravel you. Love, health, relationships, experience, all represented by a single thread. Let’s hope there are no sharp objects lying around.
Despite Sahlin’s endearing positivity, there’s unquestionable poignancy in a game where your character comes apart at the seams. What exactly is Unravel’s tone, and what is Sahlin trying to say with it? Is it upbeat? Is it sombre? “I think it's both. There's definitely some sort of gravity to the story. It does get slightly dark at times, but what I think most of all is it's important that the whole experience makes you feel good and you're doing something useful and worthwhile, like you're on an important quest. What you're trying to do is something pretty deep and meaningful. I think it's both.”
As I shake his hand, Sahlin walks off to his next appointment, still cradling that Yarny doll.
Unravel is for Xbox One, PS4, and PC, and due for release early next year.