Thursday, February 18, 2016

Unravel Was Made For Me

Released on my birthday, Unravel is some kind of miraculous cosmic gift. Rarely is there a work of art so tailor-made for me, so informed by my own passions and imagination, so uncanny in the way that it keenly reflects the inner workings of my heart.

On paper, Unravel is a physics-based puzzle-platformer that stars Yarny, a tiny sentient creature made out of a single strand of red yarn, but to me it’s an incarnation of my inner childhood. As a child, one of my favorite games to play was “little character explores big world”* (*unofficial name I just came up with). Using some kind of avatar, usually a small plastic toy of some sort (the character was never really important; it could have been anything from a tiny plastic triceratops to Hamm, the piggy bank from Toy Story), I would use my imagination to transform the ordinary world around me into something extraordinary; or perhaps even more accurately, into “levels” informed by my video game-fueled brain. The Christmas tree would turn into a labyrinthine forest, the snow bank into a great mountain, the gravel walkway of my grandfather’s house into...something. It’s one of the prime reasons I loved Playmobil as a kid and making construction sites with it in my living room and backyard. It’s why I love Toy Story, The Borrowers, Pikmin, and The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap. For as long as I can remember, I have been completely infatuated with the idea of little people inhabiting our big world, and with transforming the ordinary into the extraordinary.

Unravel is all that. Like, that’s what this game is. It’s the epitome of that theme and it’s my childhood imagination turned into a game. It’s me. But there’s more. This is a game made by people who not only understand the beauty of nature, but the beauty of detail. Nature is not just beautiful in the obvious ways, the sunsets and the distant mountain ranges, but in so many other more subtle ways: the puddle nestled in a dirt road, the hidden grottoes full of spiders and critters beneath mossy tree stumps, the way grass grows around a forgotten boot…Unravel puts a magnifying glass on our world to find the wonders that we take for granted lying right under our noses, all around us.

It’s not just nature that Unravel and I find beautiful though, but rust and metal as well; even the “ugly” parts of the world are beautiful. I was surprised by the amount of industrial locales in the game, something that I feel the Pikmin series is lacking in. One level has Yarny traversing an old railroad bridge on a cliffside, its fence clamped with locks inscribed with the initials of lovers. Another sees them visiting a snow-covered junkyard filled with overturned rusted hunks of automobiles. This latter area is probably one of the most beautiful environments I’ve ever seen in a game. Wait, no, that’s not accurate…this whole game is one of the most beautiful environments I’ve ever seen in a game. The photorealistic visuals are so lifelike at times that I often had to sit back and marvel at the fact that I was interacting with this world. Yarny themselves only heightens this believability, as watching the lovingly crafted little character’s detailed animations and the way they interact with the world around them makes Unravel often feel less like a video game and more like a window into Yarny’s world. Every single location is also crammed with detail: a hedgehog bumbling through the tall grass in the background, a snake slithering through Yarny’s path, some deer grazing in the distance; the tiniest weed and mushroom is brought to life in loving detail. Then there are the grander moments, like a moose suddenly stomping through a marsh, its comparative immenseness giving the whole proceeding a delightful and magnificent sense of place and scale. Complementing all this is a beautiful dynamic soundtrack that smoothly transitions throughout a level, from slower pieces in more relaxing scenarios to higher tempo ones in tense, frantic moments.

Thematically, atmospherically, and tonally Unravel hits all the right notes, but its level design also speaks to me as well. Unravel is a side-scrolling platformer, one of my favorite genres. Something that many of my favorite platformers share in common is great context, a world that feels like a living, breathing place, that has reasons for its obstacles and goes to painstaking detail to tell a story of sorts through its level design. Unravel’s level design is borderline poetic in this regard. These aren’t levels; they’re real environments that Yarny has to travel through. The “puzzles” in the game are all merely a means to an end and they are all made of components that occur naturally in the world. They merely involve using yarn to manipulate the environment in some way so Yarny can move forward. The way Unravel turns apples bobbing in a puddle, waves rolling beneath a wooden pier, and snow-covered tree branches into level design is utter genius. Nothing feels out of place here. The game’s singular yarn mechanic is novel, creative, and put to excellent use throughout the journey, and puzzles often have a logic to them that requires real-world thinking instead of abstract “video gamey” thinking.

My other favorite video game genre is adventure, and first and foremost that is exactly what Unravel is. It starts out as a peaceful stroll through nature, but Yarny soon finds themselves leaping through tree branches, stumbling down into caves, being chased by guinea pigs, lassoing fish in a miniature boat, and running through a frost-covered field while crows try to carry them off. The game displays not only the beautiful, joyful side of life, but the dark and gruesome side as well when peaceful meadows transition into rainy toxic wastes. The amount of horrific ways Yarny can lose their life really surprised me, from falling into a trash compactor to being mauled by cockroaches. This is another reason why I love the numerous industrial areas in the game, as the construction sites and machines that Yarny is forced to tumble through provide an interesting contrast to the more pristine natural locales. I love industrial themes almost as much as natural ones, and Unravel delivers on both fronts. The ever-present danger and tradeoff between calm moments and harrowing ones makes Unravel a well-rounded journey, an odyssey of sorts, and one that could take place in your backyard.

Does Unravel have flaws? Yes. For one thing, while I love the minimalist approach to narrative and think it was absolutely the right way to go for this game, I do think some narrative context could have been better weaved into the experience. Each level plays out like a separate vignette of sorts and while there might be an overarching narrative I’m just not really seeing here, the narrative seems a bit disconnected and scattered. I like the idea of Yarny encountering the memories of humans throughout the places they travel in and piecing those memories together, but I question whether a more focused, personal story would have worked better than the game seemingly being a story of humanity as a whole. The chapters involving environmental decay by human hands particularly stuck out, not because a man vs. nature theme doesn’t seem appropriate here, but because it just came out of nowhere and doesn’t fit in with the more family and relationship-driven stories that Yarny encounters in the other levels. What I appreciate about Unravel though is that, similar to other minimalist masterpieces like Shadow of the Colossus and Journey, it never falls into pretentious, heavy-handed territory. The focus here is on the experience and the narrative is really whatever you make of it; but even open-ended narrative can have some kind of focus and I think Unravel’s lack of one does hurt the game’s emotional punch and keeps it from striking the same kind of sublime balance that those aforementioned works achieve. In other words, the level designs in Unravel have great context, but the context of Yarny’s journey itself is unclear.

Perhaps that’s ok though, because Unravel captures the spirit of a little character running through our big world so well, and brings its world to life in such stunning detail, that the experience is captivating nonetheless. Unravel is not only a brilliant concept for a game, but a game that was clearly made with love and passion.  Passion for nature. Passion for art. Passion for video games. Passion for every fiber that makes up this experience. At the end of the day, I can’t help but love Unravel. It feels very personal to me. It is just too entwined in what inspires me creatively and imaginarily. It’s simply a lovely, lovely game, and I thank Martin Sahlin and his team from the bottom of my heart for giving me this wonderful birthday gift.