I hate the word ‘cutesy’. It’s something that’s undoubtedly already been used to describe Unravel and yet is somehow completely at odds with the game itself. While you’ve probably already seen plenty of the charm on offer, this beautiful side-scroller deserves your attention far more than its handcrafted sensibilities might suggest.
Erase the inevitable comparisons to Stephen Fry’s brand of sackcloth twee in LittleBigPlanet and instead combine a hand-sewn Portal, a knitted Limbo, and then add the soaring thoughtful joy of Journey. And then, just to slosh in some tears, add the poignancy of the saddest children’s tales you can think of and blend them with Pixar’s Up. Yep, I’m definitely still reviewing a game about a knitted red character jumping through platforming puzzles. Unravel might just prove you’ve got a heart somewhere in that black hole of emotion you call a chest. I know. It broke mine.
On the surface, Unravel looks much like flyaway fluff from little Yarny’s woollen tail. And from what you’ve seen of the game before now, this is likely what you’ll expect. Trotting through sunny days, this red bundle of string leaps from sunflower to sunflower, gets distracted by butterflies, and flies through treetops on a kite. To add to the sweetness, static ‘memories’ appear in the world as you journey through the life of an elderly woman via her collection of photographs. Yarny grabs a bright light from the air as each moment is captured, the delightful string (of course) soundtrack chirpily keeping the world feeling joyous and fresh.
But then there are the levels you haven’t seen. Yarny being crushed by heavy machinery. And eaten by cockroaches. And running along electrical wires only to be fried alive, or perhaps hurtling along the surface of a recently ploughed field, desperately trying to avoid the birds who want nothing more than to have a Yarny as a snack. Mmm, string cheese. The memories that appear change too. Where a snow sequence has children riding sledges, a dimly lit garage sees a man working on past his retirement age. And is that an ambulance arriving…? Unravel isn’t all sweetness and light.
Put a string on it
Unravel creator Martin Sahlin actually crafted Yarny when he was on a camping trip in the Swedish countryside with his family. In a tale so indie it hurts, he built the character from wool and wire. “I wanted to share a piece of home I guess,” he said when I spoke to him at Gamescom last year. “I think there’s nothing wrong with video games being sort of fantastical but every game doesn’t have to be like that. I wanted to make something that was just about basically appreciating the beauty that’s here outside your door. You don’t have to go to space, you don’t have to go to a fairytale land because all you need to do is go into the woods and look at stuff.”