Unravel is a gorgeous, thought provoking tale of life. Tackling elements of the joy and tragedy that face us each and every day. The thrill or loss and the inevitability of death. The game expresses this deep, emotional journey through the footsteps of a small inanimate object made of yarn called Yarny. The actual game follows a path similar to the story being told, there are ups and downs. The real question is, when it’s all said and done, was the journey worth taking?
The gameplay in Unravel is not specifically new or exciting, but it’s functional and intuitive. The game is a 2.5D side scrolling platformer with puzzle elements. You move Yarny with the left stick. Running and jumping and pushing and pulling to get from left to right. The primary mechanic in the game revolves around yarn. Using the Right Trigger, you can lasso various items around the level, highlighted by a red glow. Once lassoed, you can swing between platforms, pull items, or even make bridges. As you use Yarn, Yarny starts to unravel until there is no yarn left. Through each stage you will find bundles of yarn to re-wrap Yarny with and continue your journey. If you run out of yarn before finding a new bundle, you will need to back track because you did something wrong in the previous puzzle.
You can’t really talk about Unravel without mentioning just how amazing the game actually looks. Yarny is small, probably about the size of your cell phone. This means the game takes place in a more pronounced, lower level perspective than a person would normally see. The levels almost feel like small dioramas of life. From tall blades of grass to rusty nails on a dock, the attention to detail is phenomenal and really sets the game apart. And it’s not just the level design, but Yarny himself. As you walk through the level Yarny is responding to what is happening around him. You see him try to grab a butterfly, stumble through the thick snow, or shiver and try to stay warm in the rain. It just brings even more life to the world Coldwood created. If there is one thing the team nails with Unravel, it is atmosphere and art design.
One of the bigger issues that I find with the game is the stark contrast of a fail state. The game is bright and full of life and in order to create tension, the game introduces a handful of ways in which Yarny can die. That idea just feels completely out of place with the rest of the game. There have been a lot of comparisons of Unravel to Limbo, and those are definitely warranted, but in Limbo you were surrounded by death so every time you died it worked within the context of the game. In Unravel, watching poor Yarny drown to death as he reaches up for one shred of hope just pulls you out of the essence of the game. It doesn’t ruin the game and it doesn’t happen constantly, but for a game about tying life together with a strand of love, repeated death just feels wrong. I would have preferred the challenge to be just solving the puzzles and moving forward, without the threat of death.
The thing that really shines here is the overall presentation of the narrative. The story is not presented in long, voice acted, CGI cut scenes. In fact, it’s quite opposite. The game is book ended by 2 very brief cut scenes, and the rest of the story is presented in real life photos and text. This is accomplished by allowing Yarny to collect memories through each level. When you start the game, there is a photo album on the table. You can flip through the pages of that album but the text is missing and all of the pictures are blurry. As you play each level, Yarny runs across memories and collects them. At the end of the level, the memories are fed back into that photo album, at which time you can now read the text and see the photos from that level. The great thing about the story in Unravel is that it’s not specific. There are no names given or specific times mentioned. There is something that everyone alive can relate to in some way. Therefore, the story becomes about your interpretation of the material as opposed to a forced view on what the game is trying to tell you. Unravel, and similar games, are another prime example that video games can be considered true Art.
It’s the age old question really, is the joy worth the pain. As a metaphor in the story, the answer is clearly yes. The same cannot be said for the gameplay. When Unravel moves out of it’s own way and just lets you experience the world around you, it’s an engaging experience. When the trial and error and repetition, loose jumping mechanics, and sometimes frustrating design are forefront, the game is barely mediocre. What this results in is a heartfelt story of love told through the sometimes great and sometimes lackluster adventure of our new best friend, Yarny. If you value the story content of a game and love seeing emotion on display, Unravel is perfect for you. If you have never cried at a Pixar movie and get annoyed by gameplay loops, you might want to pass.