E3 2015: Hands on with Electronic Arts' emotional new adventure Unravel

During E3, the press conferences have lots of predictable announcements. We learn about the latest sequels and see early gameplay footage of previously announced titles. Sometimes we do get some nice surprises though, such as Microsoft announcing Xbox 360 backwards compatibility for Xbox One, or Sony announcing the Final Fantasy VII remake for PlayStation 4.

One relatively small but pleasant surprise for me came during Electronic Arts' E3 2015 press conference. There the mega-publisher revealed Unravel, an uncharacteristically small-scale game. Unravel stars a character made completely from yarn. This gives him unique powers but also causes him to unravel when he travels too far. We don't see many games as humble and thought provoking as Unravel from the larger game publishers.

Naturally I had to play Unravel during my visit to E3. Read on for my extra detailed impressions!

Paul Acevedo Unravel E3 2015

Creating Yarnie

Swedish developer Coldwood Interactive has produced a number of games over the years, starting with Ski Racing 2005 for the original Xbox. All of their follow-up titles have been either sports titles or motion controlled games for the PlayStation Move. They've never had a chance to make a game that truly expressed themselves as artists – until Unravel.

EA asked Coldwood for "pitch material" to get a better idea of what Unravel would be like. If Coldwood wanted the publisher to pick the game up, they had to give them something in a hurry! The CEO actually found himself on a family camping trip when the request came in.

He quickly improvised by borrowing some yarn and making a real-life Yarnie doll. Then he took photos of Yarnie in the wilderness environment in order to show how the character would fit in and interact with the world. It must have worked, because EA picked up Unravel and the game will soon be a reality.


The ties that bind us

Unravel starts with a cinematic that could almost be mistaken for live-action footage. Almost if not for the elderly woman featured within it. She looks good, but still a bit uncanny. We see that she is sad and lonely. Pictures of loved ones adorn her walls, but none of those people seem to be in her life any more. Have they moved away, or simply moved on to next world? Probably a mix of both, as happens the older you get.

The woman leaves her sitting room and carries her basket of yarn (and presumably other knitting supplies) upstairs. As she does so, a ball of red yarn falls out. It rolls down the stairs and begins to unravel…

The actual gameplay begins with Yarnie, the creature made from the woman's dropped red yarn, emerges from the front door of the woman's home. The game takes place from a 2D perspective but uses lifelike 3D graphics.

Our pal Yarnie is extremely expressive. Since he has just come to life, he gazes at everything with wonderment. I have one complaint, though. Yarnie's white eyes look odd when they blink. Rather than scrunching up as you might expect actual pieces of yarn to do, they just shrink as if the white yarn is magically disappearing somewhere.


Yarn powers

As Yarnie walks away from the house, tutorial text explains some of the ways he can interact with the world. Spread throughout the environment are little red hoops of yarn. Using one of the triggers, players can throw a piece of yarn out to latch onto those hooks. Yarnie can then swing around or pull himself up to the hook, not unlike Capcom's Bionic Commando Rearmed.

The little red guy can't actually jump up from the top of the hoops he hooks – he can only let go or swing and jump horizontally. But he does have the unique power to actually tie his yarn to (I believe) up to two hoops. This gives him a more permanent tether, though he can naturally untie it at will.


When two hoops lie relatively close together, Yarnie can sometimes create a yarn bridge by tying himself to both of them. Naturally he can walk across the bridge. Pulling down and then up on the analog stick while standing on the bridge will cause Yarnie to bounce up, kind of like pulling a bowstring. This proves very important for reaching high places.

One of Unravel's unique mechanics involves Yarnie's finite supply of yarn. One end of our hero's yarn always remains attached to the beginning of the level (or probably beyond it, back to the house). The farther Yarnie moves and the more he extends himself by hooking onto things, the thinner he gets.

Once the yarn supply grows too low, the little red guy won't be able to move any farther away from the starting point. He can't completely unravel himself. But Yarnie can find piles of yarn here and there. Touch one and he automatically winds it into himself, allowing him to move farther along.


Push and pull

Although Unravel naturally capitalizes on yarn-based mechanics, Yarnie can do a few other things as well. For example, he can push and pull small objects. Early on, he has to push a couple of buckets into place in order to jump across them and reach a higher platform. In another example, Yarnie finds himself in a pit that rapidly fills with water. If he doesn't jump out of the water, he'll die. I guess yarn's not waterproof? But he needs to cross the pond.

I backtracked a bit and found four apples that had fallen from a tree. I pushed all of them into the water at once by standing behind the outmost apple. Once they landed in the water, Yarnie could safely hop across them and continue his journey.

Another fun puzzle combined Yarnie's pushing and swinging abilities. Our hero hopped over a bent metal sign but soon found a fence that he couldn't climb. Returning to the sign, I found an object that could be pushed onto one end of the sign in order to make the other stand tall. This allowed Yarnie to jump from the tallest point of the sign and latch onto a hoop up above.

Although Unravel is a puzzle platformer and Yarnie can be killed, he won't die from falling in bottomless pits. The developer tells us that he'll always pull himself out of such holes. Being tethered to the start of the level's not always so bad!

E3 2015 Unravel players

A beautiful and emotional platformer in the making

We only got to play a couple of parts of the game – the beginning and a sequence set somewhere in the middle. I can't say how the story will play out yet, but we did see a few small bits farther along. Sometimes Yarnie will encounter memories that belong to his elderly owner. These create ghostly images of her loved ones that soon fade away.

One of Unravel's themes is that distance from the people we care about causes us to unravel and feel less whole. Perhaps Yarnie will find a way to reunite the old lady with one of her relatives; it's hard to say. But Unravel does have things to say. Its narrative has the potential to be truly emotional, despite the apparent lack of dialog.

I had a great time with Unravel during E3. Like any puzzle platforming game, players can get stumped now and then. But the game's realistic look, use of emotions, and unique yarn-based mechanics had me hooked. I hope you guys will get to give this yarn a spin soon as well!

Unravel will come to Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and Windows on an unspecified date.

Paul Acevedo

Paul Acevedo is the Games Editor at Windows Central. A lifelong gamer, he has written about videogames for over 15 years and reviewed over 350 games for our site. Follow him on Twitter @PaulRAcevedo. Don’t hate. Appreciate!