You didn’t expect to fall in love with a tiny red string creature during EA’s E3 presentation last year did you? When Swedish indie studio Coldwood’s Martin Sahlin appeared on the stage with his very own homemade Yarny, the collective hearts of the gaming world duly melted. And it turns out we had a good reason to go all squishy. Having played the first two levels of Yarny’s adventures in Unravel I can without a doubt tell you that this game would like nothing more than to very gently break your heart. It would also probably like to break your controller, with its occasional ‘Oh God, why don’t I understand physics?’ moments.
As if it’s going through a checklist of things that have an above average chance of making you cry, Unravel starts off with an elderly woman. She’s alone. Tick. She’s sad. Oh God is that a tear? Tick. But what’s this? Yarny wants to fix things by journeying into the happy pictures of days gone by? *Sob* Even before you get into its beautiful levels, Unravel never wants to let you forget you’re dealing with those pesky feels. The central hub is the woman’s house, complete with ‘home sweet home’ cushions (in Swedish) and the kind of cluttered, comfortable mess you associate with grandparents, and potentially the taste of Werther’s Original. Add in a gently chirpy string soundtrack from a Swedish folk band and you’ve got a recipe for a platformer with heart. Once more with feelings, so to speak.
And the way into each level? Photographs of course. Because happier memories distilled into single moments - such as children sitting on a beach - won’t make your heart hurt at all. Thankfully, the levels themselves are bright and joyous. Yarny gets distracted by butterflies in the garden, pulls around flower pots in the shed and scares off seagulls on the beach. All the while, leaving a trail of red yarn which is key to the game’s puzzling success. Yarny progressively gets skinnier and skinnier. Run out and you’re at the end of a long leash and it’s impossible to move forward.
Rolls of wool are scattered throughout to pep you back up but the ways to progress using only string become pleasantly tricky. Yarny can throw a lasso, tie onto sections, clamber back up string like an abseiler and, most satisfyingly of all, tie onto two separate points and bounce on an insta-spring trampoline. The combination of these tricks quickly becomes enjoyably testing as you work out where to tie string to make sure you’ve still got enough to reach a wooly top up. Throw in items in the environment to drag and push to clamber up to new areas and the puzzles are enjoyably complex.
The environments are suitably threatening too. While the first level sees you skipping and swinging through a garden, the second is a salty trip to the sea complete with exceptionally violent crabs and the very real risk of waterlogged wool. Spoiler: Yarny dies. And no matter how many times it happens, you’ll feel terrible about it. Whether you’re attempting to move a float while waves roll in, or timing a swing over a row of furious crustaceans, there’s a definite sense of guilt as Yarny meets its tiny knitted maker.
This is just from the first two levels, but Unravel is a genuine pleasure to play and has the easy confidence of a solid platformer that understands its mechanics. It might be wrapped up in an emotional package, but there’s nothing wooly about the gameplay. Thankfully we don’t have to wait too long until the final game on the 9th, and you can play on EA Early Access from Thursday night. Sew much fun.