Can Unravel prove as charming as its character?
Unravel on PlayStation 4
Unravel is a story about a family you don’t know and memories you don’t have. Its journey is watching and becoming the force piecing them together, a force that takes shape in a small, humble character named Yarny.
Yarny has come to mean a lot in the months leading up to Unravel’s release. The red fellow first met the world at E3 2015, where game creator Martin Sahlin presented his muse to a press conference with shaky hands and a sincere story. Since then, Yarny has been sharing adventures around the world, giving out hugs on Twitter, and generally becoming the most charming piece of yarn I’ve yet to meet. Having already fallen in love with its hero, I prayed Unravel could be equally unforgettable.
Unravel is a puzzle-platformer, with players using Yarny’s woolly toolkit to cross gorgeous environments and circumvent intricate obstacles. The basic jump, push and climb are supplemented with the ability to attach yarn to various objects to create swings, trampolines, and grappling ropes. This simple talent goes a long way, and the game can pride itself on creating so many varied situations driven by merely string.
The puzzles themselves are comfortably challenging, designed so that you can actively find the solution by fiddling with the world and your yarn. The various mechanics become quite familiar over the course of gameplay, but their implementation in new environments, with fresh results, keeps the overall experience from becoming stale.
Keeping at it with a curious mind yields a pattern of resistance and reward not as rigorous as other titles (cough The Witness cough), but aggravating riddles, their interruptions and abstract rules, don’t seem suited for this adventure. Not to mention, thanks to the lively world, gratification can come in more forms than just tension relief.
Yarny also sheds his body – or less grotesquely, unravels – as he moves around. Part of the challenge is to solve puzzles without withering away completely. Across each level are spools of yarn that will replenish our friend, given Yarny has the wits and body mass to reach them. A collection of secrets, collectibles hidden behind more complex puzzles, also work to liven the adventure.
Each level is a unique playing field, all inspired by Northern Scandinavia which, given Unravel’s heavenly environments, needs to become a hotter vacation destination. Snow or shine, even in simple rooms, Unravel’s world leaves nothing visually wanting.
Especially noteworthy is a musical score that never fails to walk, sprint and leap alongside you. The stringy songs narrate the world, with Yarny’s vibrant behavior serving as the lyrics. Each movement is crafted to speak as loudly as words would; every emotion, from subtle wonder to dejected fear, reads clear across a face that is objectively rather featureless. Together, Unravel’s sights and sounds fill the world and tell a story without speech.
The story itself is not as defined as some may hope. The game opens with Yarny’s conception from a lost ball of yarn, and from there we begin traveling across a nondescript family’s timeline. My only gripe at the start was that I occasionally struggled to feel things about this family, though Yarny certainly had no such problem. Along the way, Yarny watches their memories with fear, tenderness, and sincere love.
Yarny’s bravery and empathy are what drive the player forward, partly because of an endearing mix of naivety and determination, and partly because the character offers more of a present personality and narrative for the player to connect with. Fragments of the family’s story are there to uncover, warm yet vague – vague enough that one may fail to feel an instant pull. Gameplay in some levels felt challengingly dissociated from the underlying story in this regard, though this detachment serves a critical purpose throughout the game. An early feeling of uncertainty, though unsettling, turned out to be Unravel’s most unique feat.
The game doesn’t make you care about this family by unceremoniously striking it with a tragedy or revealing a dramatic turn of events. Unlike some emotional heavy-hitters out there, Unravel doesn’t go about it by busting open your heart with an ice pick and feeding your ventricles to wolves.
Unravel offers a warm hand, glimpses into a real family and a real life through worn photographs and faded moments. It’s more genuine than I expected, and though it lent me some hesitation, I am thankful for this hands-off approach. Ultimately, the player will care as much as he or she is prepared to. Such is empathy, and Unravel wouldn’t be a game about it if it strung you along with all the common tactics that can make you feel some sort of drama-fed version of compassion.
Genuine caring is to join Yarny, to shoulder Yarny’s warmth and gain the same motivations as you observe and protect this actual manifestation of human bonds. A story of human life told through an interactive metaphor allows players to feel without names or strategically-placed plot devices. Unravel’s experience is pure, simple, and reciprocal – much like love itself.
Consequently, the game’s emotional payoffs aren’t as steep and often as in other titles. You’ll push forward for a whimsical sequence, a new chapter, a recovered memento – the moments and bonds that matter, no matter their size.
Then, when you’ve learned to care, Unravel’s final moments arrive, powerful and important to the player for reasons they’ve adopted themselves. It was every ounce of emotional reward the game deserved.
For a while, part of me was disappointed that in-game Yarny couldn’t always offer me actions as direct and obvious as those we’ve seen from Yarny outside of Unravel, but it’s no surprise the game’s greatest impact has been through touching the actual world. A story of tending and mending bonds, Unravel’s biggest payoff is in bringing its meaning into your own life.
In the end, you still don’t know much about that family. Those memories, like their faces, are obscured. But you know they are whole, and that you were behind it. The sentiments ring so clear at the close, despite hazy beginnings, because becoming the bonds of fate and learning Unravel’s calm kind of love is a true lesson, the one Sahlin first imagined.
Unravel is something special. After my 10-hour journey, I called my parents and some good friends in its honor. Though its brief run and subtle storytelling may not be for you, maybe it will help you take notice of the bonds in your life, even when they are worn and tangled.