Unravel is a game that stars a tiny character made out of yarn. He’s pushes around apples like they’re giant boulders, and when he walks through flowers he might stop to idly chase a butterfly. At one point in the game he grabs on to a kite, for a brief, exhilarating sequence that feels like you’re riding a hang glider. I’ve only played 20 minutes of Unravel, but it’s already one of the most charming video games I can think of. It’s also a product from EA, the monolithic publisher that everyone loves to hate.
When you think of EA, you probably think of blockbuster shooters and sports games. It’s the company behind the Battlefield franchise, and the one that releases a new Madden and FIFA every year. But the publishing behemoth also has a history of treating games as art, and not just commercial products (after all, it is called Electronic Arts). In the early 1980s, when the company first formed, it differentiated itself by putting the names of game creators right on the box; you weren’t just playing Pinball Construction Set, you were playing Bill Budge’s Pinball Construction Set. More recently, the company set up the EA Partners label, to work with indie developers and release smaller titles like Shank and Warp.
And with two of its most interesting titles coming in 2016, EA is looking to show that it's about more than just money-making blockbusters.
Unravel is published by EA, but developed by a Swedish studio you’ve probably never heard of. Formed in 2003, Coldwood Interactive has primarily worked on sports games, including multiple titles where you race Ski-doos and a few games built around Sony’s Move motion controller. But Unravel is the studio’s first real chance at doing something completely original. It’s a side-scrolling game, and one of the key conceits is that, as the main character — named Yarnie — progresses, he leaves a trail of string behind him. This has two effects: In order to move forward you need to keep replenishing your yarn supply, and if you get stuck, you can just climb back using the trail behind you.
At first glance the two games have little in common
The best way to describe the game is pleasant. You’re allowed to move at your own pace, with no enemies to put pressure on you, and the Swedish countryside you’ll explore is incredibly peaceful. You swing from branches lazily, and at one point you have to sit and watch as a tub slowly fills with water. The fact that you simply go back when you make a mistake means that it’s not as frustrating as similar side-scrolling adventures. Plus, Yarnie is just absolutely adorable; I spent too much of my demo time just watching his idle animations.
Unravel is launching sometime in early 2016, and joining it will be Mirror's Edge Catalyst, which makes its debut next February. At first glance the two games have little in common; after all, Mirror’s Edge is a first person action game developed by the same team behind games like the Battlefield series and the upcoming Star Wars Battlefront. But it’s also a successor to an incredibly inventive game, one that wasn’t a huge sales success yet EA is funding a sequel anyways.
The Mirror’s Edge games take place in a 1984-esque world where a beautiful, futuristic city is home to an oppressive, ever-watchful government. You play as Faith, a "runner," part of an underground courier network that deals in information. Unlike most first-person games, Mirror’s Edge isn’t about shooting; the core of the experience is movement, using parkour to move about the city, getting places other people can’t. The sense of movement in the game is absolutely thrilling; Catalyst is the kind of experience where you never want to stop moving, and you’re constantly aware of your own momentum. It doesn’t even have a run button; instead, you sprint automatically, because you wouldn’t want to do anything else.
EA doesn’t need to make either of these games
How Catalyst fits in with the original still isn’t entirely clear — it’s been described as both a prequel and a reboot — but it appears to keep what made the first Mirror’s Edge a cult classic, while cutting out the frustrating bits. The controls have been streamlined, and during my brief time with the game I never found myself stumbling with the controller. The game felt fast and fluid, the way it should. One of the biggest issues with the original was the combat; often you’d be forced to pick up a gun, turning Mirror’s Edge from a slick runner to a bad shooter. In my demo of Catalyst, fighting off guards never broke the flow. Kicking an enemy in the face just became another facet of Faith’s never-ending movement.
EA doesn’t need to make either of these games. It has free-to-play Minions games that are plenty lucrative, and neither Unravel nor Catalyst will sell the way a new FIFA might. But these two games help the publisher maintain its shaky image as a company that cares about games. They also help fill in a big gap; there are plenty of small indie games and huge blockbusters, but not a lot in between. Unravel is an indie game with the production values of a blockbuster, while Catalyst is a blockbuster with the soul of an indie. They’re games that need two things to exist: a developer with a new idea, and a publisher willing to fund it. Thankfully EA is, at least sometimes, willing to be the latter.