On a stage before an audience of thousands of people, hundreds of thousands counting those watching from home, a human took the floor. Electronic Arts’ 2015 E3 games briefing, one normally conducted with crossed T’s and dotted I’s by rehearsed EA higher ups. And an unknown enters the equation. He’s nervous, visibly shaking, in fact, as he tells us how much he’s been looking forward to this moment. He introduces us to Yarny, who in the game is a character, but feels more like a part of everyone, a companion that represents our emotions; our deepest fears and our highest joviality. Then he unveils the game he and his compatriots at Coldwood interactive have been working on, Unravel. Five minutes after Martin Sahlin took the stage, the entire gaming world fell in love with Yarny; and fell in love with Unravel.
“I was always into computer graphics,” says Sahlin, “my mom worked at this place that was trying to introduce the concept of personal computers, and they had a Macintosh there. I got a try Mac Paint and I was hooked.”
Sahlin never thought he’d get into video games, he never considered it an option. But then he wandered into it. “I joined a university course for computer graphics and ran into a friend of mine, who was actually in a band that I like,” Sahlin says. “He was one of the founders of Coldwood. I didn’t know about that until I met him at school, and we soon decided we should do something together. That’s how I got into it.”
Sahlin began as an artist, but soon started doing design, writing, art direction and concept creation, and fell in love with that. Sahlin is currently the creative director at Coldwood Interactive on Unravel.
Coldwood is located in Sweden, which happens to be a booming metropolis for game development. “What’s cool about Sweden is that there’s both big and small studios. There are the giants like Dice, Avalanche, Massive, and the small creative ones like Simongo and Frictional,” Martin Sahlin explains. He continues, “People get inspired by other people and there’s lots of knowledge and sharing – it all leads to a nice, creative community of creative people doing cool things.”
With Yarny, Sahlin and Coldwood have created a character universally loved by tens of thousands of gamers. “It’s a big deal to me because this is a very personal game to me, which I’ve put a lot of myself into,” Sahlin explains. “I think that’s when things turn out great, when you really put your heart into them. It feels awesome that people get it, and that they love it and they get this character as well. That’s a large part of the game, to create that emotional bond with Yarny.”
“That you want to see the story through, that you want to help guide Yarny to the end of the game because you care, because you empathize, because you feel sympathy. It’s quite nice to see that it’s working and people really connect with it.”
Unravel has been in development for just over two years, much of which as been behind closed doors. “It has been our little closely guarded secret. That’s part of why I was really excited to go to E3, that finally we get to talk about this. On one hand, I think it’s nice to keep secrets sometimes because the payoff is greater when people finally see it. But on the other hand, game development really is more fun when you can talk about it.”
Unravel is being published by Electronic Arts, although they weren’t involved from the start. “We had gone quite a long ways by the time we started talking with EA; what we showed them looked like a proper game instead of the idea of a game,” says Sahlin.
Sahlin believes the fact that the game was already quite formed was a factor in EA jumping on the game and bringing it on to their publishing team. “It is nice to present something that looks good and plays well. I’ve told the story quite a lot of how the concept was created. It’s the story that people really get, they connect with it, which is cool.”
“I loved when I presented the idea to our composers, or a photographer – a little light turns on and they just get it. But at the end of the day, it’s not about the stuff I say, it’s not about the story, it’s about the actual game and the actual gameplay. Showing them that we weren’t just about big idea, we were about actually delivering on those ideas was a big bonus.”
Unravel’s setting is Sahlin’s home, northern Sweden. Thus far, we’ve seen environments with water and wooded environments, though Sweden also has icy and snowy environments, mountains, and more. “There will be lots of different environments,” Sahlin confirms. “Nature is obviously the direct threat – as in, nature is the recurring theme in all levels, but there will be different aspect of it, such as different seasons, different tones. We wanted to capture the mood of those places, there’s a certain kind of feeling you get from being in a place like that. It’s not just how it looks, its about other details that get you a great sense of place.”
Sahlin once again took the stage at Gamescom 2015, where his presentation was centered on how Yarny, and the player, will solve problems. “If you look at a game like Limbo,” he says, “each time you encounter a problem, you learn by dying. You’re set up to fail. This is a great mechanic. It’s just that, Unravel will be a bit of a weird game if you died constantly and were torn apart in gruesome ways,”
“That’s not to say, however, that we don’t have difficult and punishing parts as well. I think that the best way to approach problem solving in Unravel is curiosity. It will usually be possible to solve puzzles in multiple ways – because it’s a physical space and dynamics are at play.”
He continues, “There is also a level of skill to the game. There is a solution that the moderately skilled people will figure out; if you’re quite good at swinging on the tail end of the yarn you can do some fancy stunts and bypass problems with sheer agility. Other players will go for a more ‘puzzly’ solution, like moving things in place or climbing.”
Sahlin explains that usually, players will have an idea of what the solution will be, but will always have to be creative and try different things in order to work out the solution. “You have to consider at all times that you have yarn trailing behind you, and sometimes that may get you stuck. If that happens, you would have to attach your yarn somewhere else, and attach it to the object it’s caught on, to create slack on the rope.”
“I think what I want people to do when they see a problem is try the toolset they’re most comfortable with and see how far it gets them. After that, I’d like them to try new, different things and just have fun with it.”
Unravel is about a journey; about reconnecting with those closest to one’s self. This is a game that is very much of a personal nature, not just to Sahlin, but to the entire team at Coldwood.
“It is inevitable that you put a lot of yourself into something like this. Of course, it’s not about me specifically – rather, it’s about experiences I’ve had, thoughts I’ve had, things like that. In a way, it has been kind of scary, because when I wrote the game, I wrote the story for the game, and a lot of what I wrote ended up happening to different people in different ways. It is just coincidence, of course, but its quite weird when stuff like that happens.”
Perhaps the largest personal influence on Unravel is the fact that Sahlin is a parent. “I want people to make the game into what they want, or need it to be. The story is very open to interpretation; it will mean different things to different people. To me, it is very much about being a parent.”
“When I sat down to write the story, I was thinking about what worries me. There are a lot of things that worry you. There are a lot of terrible things in the world. One of the things that is most immediately apparent to be, and easily relatable, is: once you have kids and once you get to know them as people and they grow up, what if one day we grow apart?”
“You see people in your life – friends, relatives, and you see them not necessarily dealing with their relationships so well. That was one of the really tangible fears I wanted to write something about. It we should ever grow apart, I would be committed to trying to fix that. I’ve seen many people that don’t try to fix that. These bonds we have with other people, they are very important, and strong. They can stretch continents, they can stretch over generations.”
“Also, they need to be cared for. They need to be kept and tended to. That is Yarny’s purpose. It is my little commitment that if my bonds would break, I would try to fix them. I would overcome any kind of obstacles to do that.”
Storytelling in Unravel will come through the environment. After an introductory cut scene that strikes the first emotional note in players, the story becomes what they see and do. “I think the only way you can tell a successful story about the themes we’re aiming for is to let the players come to the story rather than force the story onto them,” says Sahlin.
“We put all these little hooks in the levels, little things for the player to find, things that might mean nothing to some people and everything to other people, and they might make you curious or trigger a memory. It’s all about those little details, about piecing together your own story from the things you see and find.”
In games such as Unravel, games with storytelling and emotional connection at their heart, music is imperative. One of Sahlin’s favorite aspects of working on Unravel, in fact, has been making its score. “One of the benefits of working with EA is that we could afford to dream up, and deliver, such a great score,” he says. “We’ve got two really good composers and some great musicians, and we’ve made a score very much inspired by this area, our home.”
“We’ve made music that is inspired by that environment, so it’s drawing heavily from local folk music and traditional instruments. We wanted it to be very interactive. One of my favorite games in terms of music is Red Dead Redemption, where they have this completely dynamic score with layers upon layers of music that can be blended together dynamically depending on what the player is doing.”
“Unravel’s score isn’t quite as complex, as it is a linear experience, rather than the open world experience of Red Dead Redemption. However, we still have a dynamic score that reacts to what you’re doing. In fact, we’ve created far too much music – I don’t think people will ever be able to hear it all!”
Sahlin compares Unravel’s approach to music with Journey’s. “They’ve got a fairly linear score, but they trigger every part of it at the exact right moment. They’ve done quite well with that score, hats off to Austin Wintory, who composed it. It feels as if it was written specifically for whatever is happening at that very moment.”
Early on in Unravel’s development, the team set out to make something fairly small, as, “when making an emotional game, it’s tempting to make it quick so you can fulfill the experience in just a few sittings.” However, that sentiment has changed. “We just had too much fun making it!” says Sahlin. “It’s quite difficult to estimate how long a puzzle game will be, because each player will take a different amount of time to complete each puzzle, but it is for sure a bigger game now than we ever thought it would be.”
Unravel does not yet have a release date, so be sure to follow Martin Sahlin and Unravel Game on Twitter (here) and (here). Stay tuned to TheWayfaringDreamer for more on Unravel in the foreseeable future.