A lot of games sell themselves on their visuals. Hell, graphics are often a main marketing strategy for whole platforms. Aesthetics are a major pillar of the experience of play, and it’s most of what people have to go on when they’re deciding whether to play your game (unless you’re among the few developers that still release demos). A lot of discussions have taken place regarding the relative importance of aesthetics versus gameplay quality; would you rather have a beautiful game that lacks in the gameplay department, or an ugly yet mechanically accomplished title? For me, Unravel illustrates why game design should favour quality gameplay before visuals.
Coldwood Interactive have created a very pretty game. Its environments vary from fresh and earthy woodland to breezy seaside to rolling countryside blanketed in crisp, fresh snow. Each level really does feel visually and tonally distinct. The player character, Yarny, is a downright adorable design that feeds well into the core mechanics. The excellent animation and application of lighting effects make the game very emotionally expressive. Pathetic fallacy is particularly well employed to tweak the emotional tone of Yarny’s adventure, an effect the delightful soundtrack compounds beautifully.
Yarny’s journey is realised by some pretty solid core mechanics. As Yarny runs and jumps from left to right, he leaves behind a trail of yarn. This not only serves to realise the checkpoint system- Yarny unravels as he progresses and must find spools of yarn throughout the levels to maintain his body- but also allows you to rappel safely down long drops as well as climb back up. Yarny sports a loose strand of yarn that he can use to grab faraway points to climb up to, swing from, or pull towards himself. You can also make knots in your yarn trail to tether points together, or make a taut bridge to bounce from. It doesn’t take long to get used to this relatively broad range of mechanics, and I can’t help but admire the imagination at work here.
Sadly, control foibles and the design of the game around the puzzles often lead to frustration. I have no issue with difficult games, but there are lots of points in Unravel where I met a sticking point because I just couldn’t see what I was supposed to be doing. A lot of the puzzles are in environments that are unfortunately not designed to effectively communicate my options for progressing in the level.
A particular offender in this area is the climbable environmental objects that are advertised with a slight shimmer. They’re not advertised very well, though. The sparkle effect on these objects is very slight and often blends in with the myriad other particle effects happening onscreen. I can see that Coldwood Interactive didn’t want to compromise the visual style with obvious shimmering lights on the screen, but the game needs to prioritise effective communication. One maddening is a tense chase as a gopher pursues Yarny through an underground burrow. This segment culminates with a steep drop that requires you to leap from a ledge to grab some climbable roots to escape. My attempts for this sequence number in the double digits, and I was driven to say some quite regrettable things at the screen before I eventually spotted the “telltale glimmer” on the hanging roots. This is not an example of good game design.
While your controls are precise enough for general platforming, there are a lot of sequences that require more precision than the decidedly floaty controls can reliably deal with. The core mechanics work well for calm puzzling, but don’t hold up very well when there’s an element of timing or stress to proceedings. Unravel is at its best when you’re serenely progressing through the lovely environments accompanied by a soundtrack that intensifies the sense of fun adventure. Sadly, instances of frustration are too frequent, and shatter the carefully cultivated sense of lighthearted fun and poignancy when they rear their head.
The story, such as it is, is decidedly serviceable. The game provides a nice framing device with Yarny exploring areas linked with memories of an old lady to magically restore her photo album. It’s a story told very convincingly from the heart in what feels like a very honest expression of the soul of the folks at Coldwood Interactive. It’s like a sweet poem, all bright eyes and optimism.
Unravel is very effective at making you empathise with Yarny and his self-appointed task. Often all the visual and musical elements of a scene build up to create memorably stirring sequences. A particular level late in the game is remarkable for this effect, as Yarny needs to pass through a snowstorm and needs to drag a lantern with him to keep himself warm and anchored against the freezing winds. This sequence is indicative of the game’s main issue, though; while it’s a very effective segment for making you really empathise with Yarny and want to fight with him against the elements, it’s also maddening to be blasted a considerable distance backwards in a massive gust of wind. The emotional weight of the scene in undermined by gameplay that’s just a touch too frustrating.
Unravel is a game that had the potential to sit alongside games like Limbo with its imaginative mechanics, honest emotional core, and arresting visual design. Sadly it’s too often hampered with game design problems from poor communication, unreliable controls, and serious pacing issues. Lots of sections of the game would have been saved from this with a few tweaks to make them less awkward. Ultimately Unravel is defined by its sense of aesthetics and heart, but also by substantial issues with its gameplay that often serve to erode its sense of adventure.