One of the more visually striking games announced at this year’s E3 was Unravel. Already high on my ‘anticipated games for 2016’ list, I was excited to learn that it would be playable at PAX Australia this year. Add the fact that Creative Director, Martin Sahlin, was going to be talking about the game, well, I just had to make way in my schedule for the game and the discussion. And boy am I glad I did.
Unravel is a game where you follow a little red yarn creature, Yarny, through his journey throughout the world at large. Having been created after a yarn ball falls out of an elderly ladies yarn basket, Yarny has to use the yarn that makes up his body to swing from the environment and collect extra yarn to make up for the yarn that he’s used up. It’s a very simple idea, but the presentation alone brings this idea to a higher level.
Sahlin’s story about where the idea for Unravel came from is interesting. After a few career disappointments, Sahlin was on holiday with his family relaxing, thinking. In the Swedish countryside he found a piece of wire, and started bending it into the shape of a creature. Fortuitously, a punk rocker happened to be at a camp nearby and had some red yarn. Sahlin wrapped the yarn around the skeleton he created and Yarny was born. Whilst the odds of there being a toy version of Yarny is fairly slim in the future, the developers have provided a DIY guide as to how to make your own Yarny – something I will be doing as soon as I can.
Swamped by a huge Battlefront banner, crowded by the Uncharted 4 and Playstation VR booths, Unravel’s demo took place quietly on two Playstation 4 consoles. I sat down on a small stool, put the almost comically large headphones on, and was immediately immersed in the world of Unravel. First of all, Yarny, oh boy, Yarny. Yarny is a character you’re going to see a lot of in 2016. Its red yarn looks so natural and realistic, with the little ‘yarn hairs’ sticking out of the threads. It’s as if the elderly lady knitted the little guy herself. Think of it like the high quality Nintendo’s yarn Yoshi Amiibo’s, except in a non-Nintendo game.
Having a great looking character is good, but what use is that if the environment that character exists in looks average? Well, gladly the world here is simply beautifully realised. Coldwood Studio is based in Umeå, Sweden, and it’s obvious to see how that environment has crept its way into the game. Luscious green environments and beautiful rivers and streams made up the most of the world in the demo that I played. At the talk that Martin Sahlin gave, he mentioned how the developers would go out for journeys into the world and take photo’s of the Swedish countryside and use those shots to influence the environments in the game.
Sahlin showed off a few shots of the Yarny that he first made where he had placed it in the wild. Yarny’s interaction with the world around him felt real and natural, so it’s nice to see that they had put a real Yarny in the real world to see how the physical version would interact with the world. It’s this extra touch that was noticeable in the demo. As odd as this sounds, Yarny’s movement in the game feels exactly like you’d expect a little yarn creature to move in the real world. He tumbles over pebbles, he clambers over rusted out barrels. When a rock slide occurs, the rocks slide naturally and Yarny’s movement feels (again) just as you’d expect a little yarn creature to move.
One of the elements that made me stop the demo early was the simply sublime score and superb sound design. Every splash in a puddle, every crack of a tree branch, sounded perfect. Combine that with the (excuse me for a moment) simply dreamy music score, and those vivid visuals, well, I just didn’t want the experience of playing through this world for the first time be tainted by a festival environment. I want to play Unravel wrapped up in a blanket whilst it’s cold and raining outside. I want to let the game move me in the ways that I think the game will move me.
Of all the studios that were available to make Unravel, it seems like an odd move for such a small indie game to end up with EA Games. Sahlin addressed this non-issue at his talk by mentioning how if it weren’t for EA Games, then there was a possibility that the game wouldn’t have been made, or at least, wouldn’t have been made with such high quality. Take that original score I mentioned for example – playing through the demo I noticed how necessary it was to help create this world, but without EA’s involvement then Coldwood studios may not have been able to afford a whole orchestra to create that score. Think of Austin Wintory’s work in Journey and you get an idea of the impact of the score that’s here in Unravel. So, whilst it’s odd to see a game like Unravel appear on EA’s roster of games alongside Battlefront and Need for Speed, it’s no odder than seeing games like Valiant Hearts and Child of Light on the same roster as Assassin’s Creed and Far Cry on Ubisoft’s roster. In fact, it’s gotten me excited to see what kind of games EA will support as they start to invest in smaller studios to vary their game roster.
Part of what makes this game feel so exciting is that already in short ten minute play time that I had, I got a great sense of emotion within the world. The voiceless Yarny exhibits so much personality in so many small ways – the way it moves throughout the world says so much about who it is as a character and also the world around it. The music and environment make you feel like a person going for a Sunday trek in the forest. Sahlin mentioned in his talk about how much he wanted the game to evoke emotions and tell a story without vocals or writing, and so far my initial impressions are that that is something that has been achieved.
Needless to say, after hearing Sahlin talk and actually being able to play Unravel, it’s jumped right up on my ‘most anticipated’ list for 2016. At the moment, there is no scheduled release date for Unravel, but hopefully you can expect to play it in the first quarter of the year.