It’s hard not to fall in love with Yarny on sight. Unravel’s protagonist is a tiny little creature made of red yarn, a fuzzy bundle of childlike curiosity in an ever-expanding world. Swedish studio Coldwood Interactive has brought remarkable artistry to the table, creating a loveable character and a rich world for him to explore, without the use of any words. Unravel’s artistry is undeniable, its story emotive - and its gameplay frustratingly inconsistent.
From the moment Grandma’s ball of red knitting yarn escapes out the door, introducing Yarny to the world, he’s scared and vulnerable - but hungry for adventure. And well he might be, for it’s a big ol’ world out there, and the environments Coldwood has created are full of wonder, beauty, and danger. Some are warm and inviting, others cold and unforgiving; all are loving recreations of natural splendour.
Each level displays a different element of Sweden’s landscape in literal cross-section. It’s like we’re playing through a terrarium, with our TV screen forming the glass barrier that holds everything in. These diorama-like environments teem with life: I gasped when I first saw a hedgehog, but that was far from the last time a living creature would come into play. Because Yarny is so expressive, his mostly-scripted interactions with animals are lovely - even when they result in a horrible death.
It’s important that the environments be so rich with detail, because they carry the majority of the storytelling responsibility. Story in Unravel is hinted at, not told. As Yarny explores the Swedish landscapes, he’ll catch glimpses of moments past; back at Grandma’s house, he assembles a photo book adorned with woollen trinkets. There’s a strong thread (shown visually through the blatant metaphor of Yarny’s “tail” always connecting him back to home) of family drama in here - one that feels deeply personal, even if we don’t know exactly what it’s about. But Unravel is a story about collecting memories, and as with all memories, it’s up to us to interpret them.
To a degree, Unravel’s environments are its story. Coldwood has infused a strong environmental message into Yarny’s adventures, painting industrialisation and pollution as a special kind of hell. The game’s initial bucolic landscapes become increasingly strewn with litter, before giving way to construction equipment and toxic waste dumps. You really miss the charm of the seaside as the tone turns noisy and frightening, and Yarny gets trapped inside the chaotic, lethal machinery of “progress.”
What a shame, then, that the gameplay mechanics that get you through these evocative worlds are so hit and miss.
The early stages of Unravel demonstrate some ingenious gameplay and puzzle design based around the substance of which Yarny is formed. Yarny can use his own body as a lasso, a climbing rope, a bridge, and even a slingshot, - it’s very clever design, creating a multitude of mechanics from a simple concept. Some puzzles are even simpler than you’d think, prompting an “oh duh” response when eventually worked out.
But all too often, the execution of these clever puzzles is a little bit clumsy. What the adorable character design doesn’t prepare you for is the frequency with which Yarny will die. Many of the platforming sequences are extremely particular in how they must be played out, meaning tiny mistimings can result in Yarny being drowned, electrocuted, burned, crushed, eaten, or ripped apart. Some of the deaths are even thanks to a simple case of the camera not zooming out far enough to adequately anticipate danger. These repetitive sequences - and the constant death that comes from them - absolutely get in the way of the storytelling and atmosphere. When a family-friendly puzzle platformer causes an experienced player to exclaim “this is harder than Dark Souls!” in exasperation, it’s got a problem.
Unravel is a game that pines for what once was, but is lost. At its best - and its best is so very good - it mourns the loss of the natural environment, the loss of innocence, and the loss of family. The glorious look and feel of the game is unmatched amongst platformers, likely thanks to an injection of cash from EA, making each level a visual and aural treat. But too often, the gameplay overshadows everything else, reducing those wonderful levels to brutal geometry and physics. At that stage, the only thing you’ll be mourning is Yarny - over, and over, and over again.