Press Start: The nostalgia of ‘Unravel’
Every once in a while, I run across a game that sticks with me not because of its gameplay or story but because of the feelings it evokes.
"Unravel" is one such experience.
In this side-scrolling puzzle game, you play as a sentient ball of yarn that navigates levels by using unraveling bits of his own body as lassos, swinging ropes and platforms. It's clever, fun and occasionally challenging but nothing special enough to stand out on its own.
What caught my attention was everything else the game executes so well.
The game starts in the quiet, almost somber home of an old woman. As she goes upstairs, a red ball of yarn rolls off screen, becoming Yarny. It discovers old photographs it can walk into, and the woman's lifetime of memories become the levels in which the game is set.
And the levels are beautiful—at least at first. Backed by a charming, folkish soundtrack, Yarny navigates the nature of forests, mountains and the sea—places the old woman explored when she was younger. The stages have a hazy, dreamlike quality to them that makes them feel simultaneously foreign and familiar.
Each location reminded me of places I've explored and vacations I've spent with my own family, giving them more meaning. That was undoubtedly intentional. By keeping the levels and story vague, they become more relatable and personal to those playing.
At the end of each level, Yarny collects a small button or patch to take back to the old woman's home to place on the cover of a scrapbook. Yarney then opens the album, and the player gets to look through photographs based memories encountered in the stages. Like the levels themselves, the pictures evoke a nostalgic feeling. I never thought I'd be so interested in looking through a photo album based on fictional characters, but I spent minutes after each level poring over it.
The game grows darker in the later levels, as do the memories. The forest becomes industrialized, leading to accidents, waste and residents migrating to the city. The old woman's husband dies from a heart attack, leaving her alone. At the end of the game, Yarny unravels completely while trying to collect the last badge.
The game's creative director, Martin Sahlin, has confirmed that Yarny is a physical representation of love. The farther this little yarn ball moves away from the old woman's house in the game, the more it unravels. In life, the bonds between friends, family and couples unravel if they're not properly nurtured and cared for. I think everyone can relate to that in some way, and that is what makes "Unravel's" themes so powerful.
Years from now, when I think back on Yarny's adventures, I won't remember particularly challenging puzzles or a neat moment in the gameplay. Instead, I'll recall how "Unravel" made me reflect on my own life and remember those important to me.
Video game columnist Jake Magee has been with GazetteXtra since 2014. His opinion is not necessarily that of Gazette management. Let him know what you think by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org, leaving a comment below, or following @jakemmagee on Twitter.