Unravel all started with a song, according to Martin Sahlin, creative director at Coldwood Interactive. He said the song lyric goes something like “while you were away, my heart comes undone, and slowly unravels in a bowl of yarn.” Thus was born an idea that became Yarny, the protagonist of a new side-scrolling puzzle game set against natural backdrops inspired by Sahlin’s hometown of Umea, Sweden, which is literally located at the top of the world.
Electronic Arts, which is better known for huge franchises like Need for Speed and Battlefield, was entranced by the indie game and stepped in as publisher for the upcoming console game. And there’s a lot to like with this atmospheric story-driven game, which puts players in control of a tiny stick figure made of red yarn that leaves a trail as it traverses giant (real-world-sized) photorealistic outdoor landscapes.
“Games are unique in our society as a form of cultural expression,” Sahlin said. “They can captivate an audience. I feel I need to make my games meaningful to gamers. We chose to make a game that’s personal and close to the heart.”
Sahlin explained that yarn is a symbol of the bonds between people, the red thread that connects everything through one’s life like people, memories, and experiences. The game’s story, which Sahlin wants to leave for players to discover on their own, is one of those things has broken and Yarny is out to fix things. In essence, it’s about taking what you have around you and making something out of it. That’s exactly what Sahlin did in creating the real-life Yarny doll, which he built while he was out camping.
The game design happened organically by playing with the doll in nature. Players can use yarn to make bridges and swing across tree branches. Sahlin said that the physics-based game is all about overcoming the obstacles that life places in your path. Since each player makes their own choices, the yarn trail of yarn they leave behind will be different. All of the game’s beautiful natural environments are based on real places in Northern Sweden. Sahlin wants players to appreciate the beauty that surrounds us in the real world.
“I wanted to show off the beauty that I have around me, the nature that’s just outside your door waiting for you to discover it,” Sahlin said. “That’s something you don’t really see in games that much. You tend to see things that are more fantastical and ‘out there’ and are louder things. I wanted to remind people that there’s a lot of nice stuff just out there waiting for you to discover.”
Unravel is a puzzle-based platformer that features basic controls like pulling, pushing, jumping, and running. But the yarn adds a new layer of complexity and fun to the gameplay experience. Physics adds chaos to the gameplay in the form of unpredictability. Everything in the world responds and behaves in a way that you’d expect it to, which Sahlin said allows players to have fun with the game. But there’s also an emotional element to the game.
“It’s about striking the right notes and not trying to be sentimental and mushy and all that stuff, but getting people in the right mindset and have everything from the music to the story to the environments just invoke that feeling,” Sahlin said. “I try to make it atmospheric and nice, but not too sweet. We’re going for beautiful melancholy.”
While Coldwood Interactive wants to strike the right note with the environments and story, the developers want to let gamers play the music. Sahlin said they have filled this world with details that players can find to piece the story together if they so desire.
“There’s going to be a lot of stuff to discover, but we don’t believe in cramming things down your throat,” Sahlin said. “We want to be subtle about it and leave it in your hands because I usually find that those stories work best when it’s left up to me to make it myself.”
With EA backing this little indie gem with a big heart, gamers are much more likely to hear about it and try it out. That’s huge for a game that was developed in a small town at the top of the world, starring an unspooling yarn protagonist.