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.
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.”
Like Limbo before it - but without the the same number of hair-tearing puzzles - Unravel wants to push you to die before you can learn to survive. And there’s no fighting back here, only the avoidance of eager and ever-present death. Crabs viciously snip at Yarny in a sea level as waves crash into the screen. A furious vole attacks when you venture into its hidey hole amidst the phosphorescent glow of underground mushrooms.
Puzzle-wise, you trail a constant thread from your wool-bound body, creating a useful way to retrace your steps. That is until you reach a point where poor Yarny simply runs out of fuel; straining on the knotted leash like a puppy who just can’t reach a particularly deliciously scented patch of grass. Balls of yarn look just out of reach but there’s always a way to get to them.
Jump down into an area and can’t get back up? Hold your left trigger and you’ll climb up your own rope, regathering yarn as you go. When it comes to the other, err, strings to your bow, a knitted lasso lives on the right trigger and lets you swing like a tiny handmade Spider-Man. Yarny can tie wool between anchor points too. Fasten two together and you’ll build a gently sparkling trampoline for bouncing to distant areas, or using as a bridge to drag items across.
While there are a number of puzzles that’ll leave you scratching your head - including a particularly nasty one involving floating on a log across a well - the majority of levels retread a theme of string trampolines, swinging and making the most of the environment. Refreshingly, anchor points are the only highlighted puzzle elements, which means finding your own ways to reach areas. ‘Oh, so these apples aren’t just set decoration’.
Every so often a more complex teaser crops up that forces you to work out the physics of the job at hand. More of these would have been welcome, but each level is so different in theme from the last that the existing puzzles on offer never overstay their welcome. Plus, if you’re really a glutton for punishment, 5 secret extra button collectibles hide in each level and require some serious string management to reach.
And then there’s dem feels. While each level is almost staggeringly pretty, as snow gathers on Yarny’s little woollen legs and the boughs of trees bend gently under your weight, each one has an unshakeably bittersweet edge. The memories you unlock all centre around the rebuilding of the elderly woman’s photo album. It’s here, as you collect a unique knitted heirloom from each level, that Unravel gently begins to gnaw at your heart. As Yarny collects each token and sticks it to the front of the album, a new story is unveiled, introduced by a small paragraph of text.
While it would be easy to cynically dismiss, these gently remind you of the fleeting nature of life’s little moments and the fact that the photographs you’re collecting are all that’s left of these memories. Flicking through the emotion-skewering real life images, you’ll find pieces of the level you just encountered. A plastic bag Yarny used as a parachute through the countryside is on the foot of man whose boot must be leaking. A bridge that you crossed is the site where a love padlock was snapped closed. Yes. Ow.
The joy - and sadness - of all this is the instant memories it drags up for you personally. Childhood trips, walks in the woods, the choices we make as we grow older, the realisation that life isn’t as long as you want it to be. These aren’t just emotions tied with string to a creature made of yarn. They belong to all of us and almost effortlessly, with some help from a heart-wrenching soundtrack, Unravel manages to elicit far more emotion than I was ever expecting.
There’s a bittersweet edge from the get go but Yarny’s adventure continues, Journey-like in a way that’ll gnaw away at the soul you’ve hidden carefully away. Compared to the cold sterility of a puzzler like The Witness, Unravel is where all the heart lives, and there’s nothing our futile cynicism can do about it. Ironically, this is also a game that - with its beautiful recreation of the natural world - might just drive you to pop down the controller once it’s over and go outside and make some of those moments for yourself.
This game was reviewed on PS4.