E3 2015: Unravel is a Classic Platformer with an Emotional Touch – Hands-On Preview
Among the announcements of huge titles like Mass Effect, Mirror’s Edge, and Star Wars Battlefront, EA’s E3 2015 press conference brought us what could be the next big gaming character. Yarny came on stage alongside Pelé and The Hoop Gawd to show off a quiet, emotional game about the connection between people. That game was called Unravel, and it was clear from the very beginning that it was something unique. After getting to play the game on the show floor I can say that it was easily the most emotional experience one could find at the show.
Unravel tells the story of Yarny, a tiny creature who is made of nothing more than some wire and red yarn. Coming from a small Swedish gaming studio, Coldwood Interactive, the game could have easily been lost among the AAA behemoths that surrounded it. However, it offered up such a fantastically personal, and genuine experience that it still garnered plenty of praise and attention.
That personal touch is exactly what Coldwood was going for. “We wanted to make a game that was sort of more personal, a game that mattered to players,” said the representative in my demo. “So, something that is more than just entertainment.” They went about this by creating the character of Yarny, who will act as the emotional connection between a lonely old lady and the family that she has lost.
The yarn that makes up Yarny’s body is representative of that emotional connection, with Yarny tying together the memories and past of the lady that created him. This is just the story justification though, and while it is powerful and intriguing, it also lends itself well to the gameplay.
“If you were made out of yarn, what kind of abilities would you have? What kind of puzzles could you solve?” These simple questions are the foundation of Unravel, and from what I saw in my demo, that foundation is pretty strong.
Yarny begins each level with one end tied to the ground, or a nearby object. His objective is to make it to the end of the level, tying things together along the way. However, as he moves forward he loses pieces of himself, unraveling the yarn that makes up his person. To combat this Yarny will have to locate balls of yarn along his path, which sometimes takes him slightly out of the way, such as up into trees, or under random objects.
The benefit of this is that the player can never really get stuck in Unravel. If you get somewhere that feels wrong you can always grab onto your trailing yarn and move backward, climbing up when necessary. This is one of those small innovations that really reshapes the platformer genre in new and interesting ways, while tying into the main theme of the game.
The yarn does other things as well, such as acting as a grappling hook, rope swing, or even a bridge if you tie it onto two opposing objects. Yarny can then perform more traditional platforming maneuvers, such as jumping into the air, swinging across gaps, or climbing to higher areas. You can also move items around the level, with realistic physics interactions involved, such as apples floating on water.
Running out of yarn is one of the first ways that players will become attached to the character of Yarny. Seeing him begin to look thin and emaciated, watching as he slows to a crawl, grabbing onto and tugging at the trailing thread of yarn to try to get that extra inch. Coldwood has achieved that immediate emotional connection that so few games do, and Unravel is that much stronger for it.
Further into the game there are more dangerous hazards, such as pools of water, falling rocks, or high altitudes. Directing Yarny into any of these traps elicited a true, genuine emotional response from me, something that rarely happens in 10 minute demos on the E3 show floor. Something about the character of Yarny and the way I had failed him caused a real connection.
The emotional stuff would be useless without good gameplay though, and Unravel seems to be nailing this part effectively as well. It’s nothing revolutionary just yet, but traversing the levels contained in the demo was fun and felt like a classic platformer. It controlled a bit like an improved version of LittleBigPlanet, which always used realistic physics a bit too much for my taste, causing weird floaty controls. Things have certainly been toned down for Unravel, reaching a happy medium between Mario’s 6+ foot leap, and Sackboy’s muted movements.
As you play through the game you’ll visit other locations and pass through different seasons. Yarny’s journey will unveil memories from the life of the old woman and her family. Coldwood has truly put their all into Unravel, and they seem to have gotten something special out of it. How well it will turn out in the end will be determined when Unravel releases for PS4, Xbox One, and PC later on.