For all its aesthetic strengths, Unravel isn’t knit together very well.
In its debut at 2015’s Electronic Entertainment Expo, Unravel seemed like a real sleeper hit in the making, with an instantly relatable, cute-as-hell mascot in the form of Yarny, a little red guy with big eyes and an adventure ahead of him. In a show full of violence and over-the-top presentation, an indie platformer from a handful of Swedish developers calling themselves Coldwood Interactive was the kind of story I wanted to believe in.
Yarny is adorable in all the ways I’d want — he’s vulnerable and resilient and genuine, and Coldwood’s ability to capture all of this without a single line of spoken dialogue is impressive. It’s that characterization, through mannerism and animation, that does much of Unravel‘s heavy lifting. Without the occasional reminder of just how likable the little red yarn-man is, it would be difficult to recommend Unravel at all.
There’s a real asshole of a gopher
Unravel tells a story, though it’s hard to really get into without spilling the beans it very carefully doles out over the course of the game. You assume the role of Yarny, a little knit memento who sets out across a Swedish countryside that starts as a gorgeous bit of rural love letter and transitions to something more ominous. As Yarny explores, he comes across bits of memories and other knit objects representing the life of a family, and as he does, a faded, ruined photo album is restored, clarifying the story only hinted at over the course of Unravel‘s levels.
Shy of those glanced bits of memory, there are no people in Yarny’s adventure, though he visits a number of surreal representations of real places. You will meet other living things, though, from the harmless moose and (I think) reindeer of the countryside to more obnoxious and even dangerous animals like crabs and a real asshole of a gopher.
Unravel‘s presentation is beautiful, juxtaposing bits of fantasy — like a little man made of yarn running around — with mundane everyday objects and often playing with scale in a way that can be a little disorienting. Regardless, Yarny’s position is always clear, always exposed, always vulnerable, and always just a little bit more heroic because of it.
At first glance, Unravel looks like a dead-simple platformer whose narrative ambitions take precedence over any greater mechanical aspirations. For better and soon worse, this isn’t the case. Yarny runs and jumps and clambers up ledges, sure. But the yarn that makes him up is another system layered into his basic traversal options.
This starts simply, as you can swing from special points in the environment and make small rope bridges to walk across. It rapidly becomes more complicated as you’re forced to create rudimentary pulleys and nets. This is the foundation of Unravel‘s puzzle design, and the bulk of its gameplay.
It’s also where Unravel starts to come undone.
Yarny only has so much of himself to unspool, which means you can only tie off and backtrack your lines so often before he just can’t move any farther. This is an intentional mechanic, as many puzzles include a pile of yarn to respool his capacity at some point, but others don’t, leaving only so much room for error or experimentation. When it’s just a pair of knots to tie or retie, this doesn’t make much difference. Later, I didn’t know I had it wrong until I’d tied three or four knots that then had to be untied before I had enough yarn to try something else.
This doesn’t sound like a big deal, I know. But it adds an enormous amount of busy work to a process that already feels pretty trial-and-error in a bad way. Unravel isn’t great at suggesting solutions, as so many good puzzle platformers are, and the joy of experimentation fades after the 15th time retying a knot. Each level tries to add a wrinkle to the formula, often via some new environmental cue, but the feeling of sameness nevertheless hangs over the game.
Coldwood tries to break this up via a more difficult series of twitch-oriented platforming challenges. This could mean swinging from one point to another amid collapsing platforms or riding debris as it careens toward doom — the common factor here is an unpleasant wooly death. When Unravel wants you to solve a puzzle on your own time, it often struggles to explain what it wants. When it presents a sequence requiring reflexes as well, it speaks mainly via death.
At these points Unravel transitions from monotonous and cute to frustrating. I found myself wanting to like the game whenever Yarny had a moment to express personality in even the smallest ways, but repeated deaths are the kind of distraction Unravel can ill afford. This is exacerbated by checkpoints that feel miserly during demanding sequences but far too aggressive during more methodical knitting exercises.
Even features in Unravel designed to help can seem ineffective. While you can reset to a checkpoint by holding down on the controller, the implementation here is basically useless. Not once in my five or six hours with the game did resetting a puzzle untie all the failed knots I had made, forcing me to crawl back in sequence, taking care not to wrap my yarn line around something and further hamstring myself. I would guess this kind of backtracking functionally doubled my playing time with the game.
These consistent mechanical and level design stumbles undermine the story and narrative goals Unravel gestures toward. Underneath the ill-executed platforming and inconsistent signposting is a sort of exploration of life and death and family and the passage of time. Unravel is occasionally even successful here — I felt myself getting a little tight in my throat at points, even as the game practically beats you over the head with sentimental imagery. Yarny is charming enough as a character, and emotive enough to sell some of these moments; when he hugs something meant to represent a piece of someone’s life, it’s not just love but a fear of loss behind it.
This is less successful when these moments are projected in the background behind a frustrating puzzle or homicidally demanding platforming sequence. Which is unfortunate — there’s a real attempt at an examination of the course of a human life and the evolution of a family present in Unravel that goes beyond the tired rescue or redemption stories that pass for drama in the medium, much less game narratives that deal with growing old. I wanted to see it work more than it does.