Unravel is earnest as a game about a tiny person made of yarn could be.
The yarn person in question is named Yarny, and he’s perhaps the most mascot-ready character created since the mid-90s. His head is a red-hued crescent moon, and he has white button eyes that teeter between lifeless and determined. He’s equal parts adorable and uncanny, like any good mascot.
Yarny embarks on a journey of family, living through memories of his owner’s life in order to reclaim knit charms made out of, I guess, him, presuming that Yarny is a male, or even gender-determined at all. Yarn people are confusing in this way. Unravel works toward sentimentality and resonance on all fronts, hoping to imbue the running, jumping, and yarn-lassoing of the gameplay with significance, awe, and a touch of healthy sorrow.
Unravel really tries. But it doesn’t quite have it. Instead of resonant, it’s mostly unremarkable. Occasionally frustrating. I didn’t feel much else.
The greatest triumph of Unravel, strangely enough, is technological. Published by Electronic Arts but developed largely by the independent Swedish studio Coldwood Interactive, its environments are detailed to an impressive degree. The levels, which seem to have been very closely based on actual photographs, are clearly digitally rendered but come as close to photorealism as any game has.
Playing as the tiny Yarny, these fields, mountains, and train yards feel thick with energy and detail, sometimes eclipsingly so. Alongside stellar sound design, the art adds a satisfying tactility to movement and interaction. Leaves crunch like they do on a fall day. Rocks fall and shift with visual and sonic heft. When you pull on a tree branch, it creaks as it snaps.
Unfortunately, Coldwood’s achievement only amounts to a backdrop on bog-standard platformer design. While some stages have themes—a water level, an underground level—each area amounts to roughly the same set of maneuvers. The gameplay is strictly 2-D: Yarny can swing his lasso, jumping from place to place, pulling and pushing objects in the environment on a quest to move from one side of the screen to the other. It’s nothing most videogame players haven’t done a dozen times before.
And even if this style of play is new to you, or just a welcome familiarity, Unravel‘s version is a less-than-perfect realization of its model. The controls are overly precise, and the fixed camera moves in strange ways. Frequently, the player has to jump without knowing where they’re jumping to, which, in a game built around planning and executing complicated acrobatics, is incredibly frustrating. The striking density of the environments even work against Unravel here, too; it can be hard to see what parts of the environment are interactive and which aren’t, foreground and background blending together.
This would be less of a problem if the emotional resonance Unravel was going for didn’t fall flat. As Yarny’s journey follows the life and times of a small family, seen retrospectively from the perspective of the aging mother, the game works to tug on the player’s heartstrings, trying to communicate sincerely the vicissitudes of life, aging, and grief. It’s laudable territory for any piece of art to get into, and certainly an admirable goal for a tiny platformer, but Unravel fails to effectively communicate its messages.
Most of the narrative takes place in fuzzy still-lifes set against the game’s backdrops, or in photo albums unlocked after beating each stage. Neither method manages to communicate with any depth or specificity, and as a result the whole affair feels shallow. The juxtaposition of cute, playful gameplay with serious feeling seems to be an attempt to conjure the appeal of, say, a Pixar film, but it misses that mark widely.
It’s easy to generate emotions in the abstract, conjuring scenes that feel sad or nostalgic in vague, underdetermined ways. But that approach comes off as empty and saccharine when it’s not coupled with actual emotional honesty or depth. No attention is paid to character here, or the specific ups and downs of these people’s lives. They’re just caricatures, blanks in which to put feeling. At one particularly flat moment, the game takes a turn toward environmentalism, and Yarny is suddenly clamoring over drums of glowing green waste as if the game had suddenly been bought out by Mr. Burns. Tonally, it all falls somewhere between an after-school special and a Hallmark card.
That probably sounds more biting than I intended it to. Unravel isn’t a bad videogame. It has some mild charm, and it’s one of the most visually stunning things I’ve seen in a long time. It’s just unremarkable. Which is a pity, because with the clear passion that went into its development, it’s easy to picture it being so much more.