Unravel is two very different things at the same time. On one hand, it’s the game you may have seen in trailers and screenshots, a heartwarming adventure about a tiny creature made of yarn who travels through the memories of an old woman. It’s touching and understated, in a way that games usually aren’t. That Yarny, as he’s known, is one of the most adorable video game characters ever created, capable of displaying a range of emotions without the benefit of a voice or a face, doesn’t hurt. That’s the visual side of Unravel, its appearance. But there’s also the act of playing, and while Unravel looks like a straightforward platformer, it’s actually more of a puzzle game.
At its best, Unravel manages to sew the two together to create a game that has the nostalgia and headiness of a jigsaw box covered in dust in your family’s attic.
Yarny’s adventure starts in a quaint home, filled with old pictures, each one serving as a different level to explore. Over the course of the game you’ll venture through various parts of the Swedish countryside, from sunlit fields to cold, windy mountains, all rendered with an astonishing attention to detail. It looks like a real place, despite the fact that a tiny little wad of red yarn is wandering around it.
The red yarn humanoid feels jarringly lifelike. Video game characters are infamously stodgy, incapable of capturing the same range of emotion as a real person. Game developers have used a number of tricks to get around that, from fancy motion capture suits to big-name voice actors, but Yarny is able to express itself, thanks to one key factor: animation. Yarny moves in a way that feels right. The world reacts to his existence, and he reacts to the world. You’ll see Yarny skip through tall grass, chasing butterflies, and flap through the breeze while holding on to a flying kite. When he dies — crushed under a rock, or pulled to the bottom of a lake — it’s heartbreaking.
And you will see him die quite a bit, because for all of its cuteness, Unravel can be an incredibly challenging game. Yarny’s core abilities will be familiar to anyone who has played a Super Mario game; he can move left to right, run, and jump. But he also has the ability to use his own yarn body to navigate the world. He can swing a piece of string like a lasso to grab onto high ledges. Sometimes he’ll swing about like Tarzan, others he repels down a bench like a mountain climber.
For all of its cuteness, Unravel can be incredibly challenging
Yarny leaves a trail of yarn behind him, which means that, if you ever find yourself stuck, you can just follow the trail back to where you started. But the growing trail also means that Yarny will eventually run out of yarn as he explores. To grow, he must find spools of thread to replenish his body, or else he won’t be able to progress. You’ll know Yarny’s out of thread as his body withers away, eventually becoming feeble and skeleton-like.
Navigational skills will be put to use in a number of physics-based challenges, as you’ll have to figure out how to use the world around you to move through the levels. Sometimes a puzzle’s as simple as pushing a bunch of apples into a pond to create a makeshift bridge. Other times speed is of the essence, and you’ll need to make jumps in quick succession, outrun animals like gophers and crabs, or ride a speeding tricycle to safety.
Yarny’s adventures can veer into frustration. It’s not always clear what exactly you’re supposed to do, and even when you figure a puzzle’s solution, the game occasionally requires what feels like needlessly challenging fast reactions to accomplish it. A generous checkpoint system coupled with the ability to backtrack makes this less annoying than it otherwise could be, but it’s still not a lot of fun playing a section repeatedly because you can’t make a particular jump. And you will definitely hate gophers by the time you’re done this game.
Outside of those moments of irritation though, Unravel is exactly what it sets out to be. As challenging as the game can be, those moments of being stuck and annoyed almost feel necessary; you’re playing as a fragile piece of yarn navigating a treacherous world full of dangers, after all, so it only makes sense that it’d be a struggle. Unravel is about the ups and downs of life, a game that crams a lifetime’s worth of memories into a short puzzle game, one that manages to — for the most part — nicely balance moments of quiet and moments of intense concentration. It can be overwrought at times, but, like Yarny, it tries very hard. You can’t help but appreciate the effort.
Unravel is available now on PC, PS4, and Xbox One.