It is rare for a videogame to really capture something essential about the squishy center of what makes us human. Most videogames are more interested in using digital bullets to expose a pixelated rendering of that squishy center, rather than attempting to drive at our emotional core, but Unravel, published by Coldwood Interactive in February of 2016, is a stunning example of the exception to that rule.
Coldwood Interactive, the game’s creators, are based in Sweden, and they set their game very tangibly in their own space: signs are in Swedish and the “feel” of the game’s settings strikes this upper Midwesterner as very “Scandinavian.” I found this setting both honest and refreshing; so many games choose settings which are either generically “Western” (particularly fantasy games and space operas), unapologetically American, or cringe-worthily imperialist (such as Tomb Raider or Call of Duty).
Unravel is both beautiful and soulful, and is utterly unapologetic in its ideological argumentation for human connection to both one another and to our natural environment. The levels are lush, the early scenes set in forests or seasides and rich with plant and animal life. Later levels are equally detailed, but incorporate elements of human intervention and destruction: factories, a flooded quarry with nuclear waste, a junkyard. The narrative told with the settings alone is one of human interference which has changed the landscape from beautiful to toxic, a teleological descent into darkness which is both figurative and literal, and culminates in death.
But in addition to this narrative of environmental destruction is an entirely separate story of very human connection and loss. Unravel follows the adventures of a tiny yarn monster, known as Yarny, as he attempts to collect small yarn badges from the various levels of the game so that he can reattach them to the exterior cover of an empty photo album. Each level is accessed through a photograph somewhere in Yarny’s house, and the acquisition of each small yarn badge puts a memory and series of photographs into the album.
Yarny himself is the epitome of adorable—a tiny, red yarn creature with white eyes and tiny hands and feet (he’s so cute, there’s a “How to Make Your Own Yarny Guide,” and yes, I want one). He uses his own yarn to navigate obstacles, climbing up his “yarn tail,” tying it off to create bridges, or casting it to swing from attachment points throughout the levels. From time to time, his yarn “runs out,” and he has to recast his body from small caches of yarn distributed at appropriate points along the levels.
As the player moves through the game, it becomes clear that Yarny is reconstructing the memories of the mistress of the house, not simply in the collection of yarn badges and photographs, but in the ghostly apparitions of children and adults which appear throughout the levels. These brief moments tell the story of family vacations, weekend excursions, and summers spent on the ocean or camping in the woods. As such, they are the kind of magical, fairy-tale memories that appear universal, but don’t touch on most of the everyday parts of life—the arguments, the hurt feelings, the day to day drudgery.
But as Yarny’s journey continues, the images change. First, there is the introduction of train tracks, an invasion into the natural world by human invention and innovation—the beginning of adulthood for the children who now appear older, taller, more interested in one another than they are in their parents or the fantasy of their childhood. Fences are climbed, and Yarny begins to face difficulties which present more danger than before—birds which threaten to carry him off and a very persistent rodent who has to be lured away before he can proceed.
And then the adult world becomes rapidly, painfully apparent. One of the children, now grown, is arrested protesting the destruction of nature by a mining company whose use of toxic chemicals poisons the earth (and will kill Yarny, if he falls into it). Industry takes the place of forests and grasses, and Yarny now has to navigate conveyer belts, rusting machinery, and a car-repair shop, where the father—his hair greying—once worked on a deteriorating engine.
The world Yarny now traverses is more dangerous than idyllic, and the music is bittersweet rather than bucolic. By this point, it was clear to me that this game was not going to have a happy ending in the Disney sense; as the levels progressively become darker and more tarnished, the daylight in the house (the hub) dims, and the people age, a trajectory that cannot end any way but in death. At the end of the last industrial level, he finds only half a yarn badge—half a heart, torn in two by, it turns out, the death of the father and husband of the woman whose memories we are rebuilding.
The final level is cold and dark, and begins with the slow swinging open of a wrought-iron fence. It’s different from the previous levels, as Yarny is tied—literally—to a lantern and must remain so or be blown away by the winter wind. The lanterns are grave-markers, lit to commemorate the dead on All Saint’s/All Soul’s Day in Sweden (and other countries). Yarny must drag his lantern through the wind and snow until he is able to reach the end—and find the other half of the torn patch. Once he finds, it, he is lifted by human hands—live hands, which we have not seen until now—and taken home.
The game’s ending reminds us of two things: first, that death is an inevitable part of life, to be mourned but not to overshadow the lives of the still-living; second, that life continues—at the game’s conclusion, the woman—presumably Yarny’s creator—leaves the kitchen with her granddaughter, starting another generation of memories like those in Yarny’s now-full album.
As such, Unravel itself is a bittersweet game, a reminder both of the persistence of life and of the inevitability of death. It contains both a warning against the exploitation of our natural environment and a caution to preserve both our memories and the natural world—for ourselves, but also for the generations to come. Yet, at the same time that Unravel looks forward, it also looks back, celebrating the richness of memory and the beauty of those who have lived before us, reminding us, as we hurtle forward into a digital future, of the importance of the analog and of the stories which make us who we are.