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E3: 'Unravel' ties together loss, loneliness and heart with one yarn doll

'It's kind of like a beautiful melancholy,' says 'Unravel' creator of the game's tone.

It all started with a Bjork lyric.

Martin Sahlin, creative director of small Swedish game maker Coldwood Interactive, couldn’t get some of Bjork’s words out of his head.

“While you were away, my heart comes undone,” Bjork sings in “Unravel,” a slow-building melancholic mix of orchestral and digital sounds. “Slowly unravels,” Bjork continues as the song gets more abstract, “in a ball of yarn.”

Bjork’s “Unravel” ultimately became the spark for Sahlin’s “Unravel,” an in-development game to be published by Electronic Arts for the PlayStation 4, Xbox One and PCs. The title was unveiled on Monday during Electronic Arts’ E3 press event, sharing the stage with bigger games such as “Star Wars: Battlefront” and “Mass Affect Andromeda.”

The game stars Yarny, an index-finger sized character made from a single thread of red yarn. Yarny can unravel himself, using his threads as a lasso as he explores an autumnal garden world and foggy Scandinavian landscapes, but he’s a fragile critter, and if one isn’t careful, Yarny can quickly unwind himself out of existence.

“It put an image in my head,” Sahlin says of the Bjork lyric. “I had the image of what the character would be from the start, this little thing made of yarn. That's kind of how inspiration works for me. I didn't really know what it was but I knew it was something. Because it's something, you keep pulling at it and pushing at it and prodding it until you find out what it is.”

Ultimately, what Sahlin arrived at was a platformer-style game in which the player moves Yarny from left to right – and up a few trees and over some small garden ponds. Occasionally, Yarny may find himself on the road, with a speeding car sending Yarny cowering in fear. By tying string from one locale to the next, Yarny can swing or crawl above ground.

Using yarn, the character can be become an explorer, a mountaineer or an acrobat, needing only to tether the yarn to something fixed in the game world. Playing the game during an E3 preview, Yarny solved puzzles by rolling apples into a garden pond, frightfully avoided a dangerous crow and reacted with wonder at the sight of a butterfly. There’s a magical quality to the yarn, as if it often possessed a soft fuzzy glow.

The look is approachable and the setting is familiar -- a chipped picket fence is spotted in a backyard, for instance, and colors in the world have their contrast turned up to ensure this universe is more vivid than the real one.

Yarny is also incredibly expressive. As the character thins out, during some especially tricky puzzles in which Yarny must swing from branch to branch and then avoid perilous, rolling rocks, the character starts to look rather frail. 

In a short playthrough prior to E3, Yarny never really felt like a stand-in for the player. Instead, the player was in a sort of custodial role, wanting to keep Yarny safe, first and foremost. Not yet knowing Yarny's full relationship with the universe, "Unravel" hints at a larger world that will be spooled out slowly, and with some trickier reflex tests than its childlike look implies. 

The game puts a large emphasis on tone. In just a short interview, Sahlin spoke often of the mood he wanted to strike for the game. Though a game starring a character made of yarn could definitely trend toward the silly side of the spectrum, Sahlin wants “Unravel” to be a more series experience.

“It's kind of like a beautiful melancholy, I guess,” Sahlin said. “That's kind of what we're going for, a beautiful melancholy with a slight sentimentality. We're trying to make it atmospheric. We want it to be nice, but not too sweet. We want to make something that feels friendly, that feels inviting, that feels magical and exciting, but without making it cute and bubbly. We want it to be a more serene experience.”

Story-wise, Yarny is born from the hands of an elderly woman. As Yarny moves through the world, Yarny can collect memories of her life. Sahlin said that now that he has two kids, he’s been thinking of creating more thoughtful game experiences

“The game starts in the house of an old woman,” Sahlin said. “She sits alone, she's left behind, and she's surrounded by memories, not family anymore. For different reasons. People grow apart. I was thinking about the story and was thinking about what are my own fears in life, and there are actually lots of scary things out there.”

Such as?

“What If my kids grow up and don't like me? I have a lot of people in my own family who don't put the effort in to keep in touch. This is symbolic of the opposite of that. It's about trying to actually reach out, to mend things, and tie them back together.”

The game boasts a relatively realistic look, inspired by a camping trip Sahlin took with a handmade Yarny. He took pictures of the character amid the Swedish forests – Yarny next to a stream, Yarny sitting in a tree, Yarny hiking up a hill. He wanted the game to have a natural look, hoping that it would inspire players to take a closer work at the oddities of the world around them.

“We want to appreciate the beauty that's out there, that around,” Sahlin said. “You don't have to be fantastical. You don't have to go to space. It doesn't have to be a fairy tale. Just step outside your door and you'll find beautiful things.

“Everyone's trying to be loud and stand out from the noise,” he continued. “But when everyone is loud, that becomes the noise. So you stand out by not being loud.”

“Unravel” is not just a departure for Sahlin but a change of pace for the studio as well. The 14-person Coldwood Interactive has largely created skiing and sports games.

“We've gone from sports games to more sports games and then more sports games,” Sahlin says. Personally, I wanted to do something that felt like it was from the heart. Nothing wrong with sports games, but once you've done like 10 of them you want to do something new.”

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
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