Yarny, a red cotton figurine spun to life out of an old woman’s misplaced memories, at first seems like a flimsy hero for a video game. And yet, he proves to be as durable as the real-world locations that make up Unravel’s backbone; he’s a spark of whimsy and artistry that enlivens every aspect of this platformer. The physics-based environmental puzzles aren’t just a matter of simply pushing, pulling, and swinging on objects, but of learning how to outwit snappy crabs and greedy gophers with contextual objects like oysters and mushrooms. Unravel also benefits from Coldwood’s Pixar-like storytelling, which uses homespun, childish constructs to maturely depict an entire woman’s life, from first love to “last leaf.” It’s a game of childish wonders but adult gameplay, and the surprising difficulty curve makes sense given one level’s epigraphs: “Can you truly appreciate how special or beautiful something is if you don’t know what it took to get it?”
Unravel earns its beauty, then, though the narrative isn’t always as tightly knitted together as it needs to be. One sequence, which takes place in an industrial dumpsite, is closer to environmental activism than Yarny’s personal quest to recover its owner’s missing memories. This zone is a gorgeous wasteland that requires Yarny to float corroding batteries across toxic pools, but without a strong emotional connection, it comes across as gimmicky and perfunctory—gameplay for its own sake. And that’s a bit of problem, considering that Unravel’s photorealism can sometimes make it difficult to identify interactive objects, or to clarify which things Yarny can use his string tail to pull, as opposed to simply rappel down or swing from.
Thankfully, Unravel isn’t too beautiful for its own good. The majority of its puzzles are logically tied to the real-world environs, and the more abstract ones can be brute-forced, thanks to the linear structure of the game. Yarny’s limited range of motion—he can only go so far between fresh skeins of yarn—is actually a boon, for it ensures that players are never stuck for too long. Any remaining knots of frustration are quickly pardoned by the beauteous sight of moose grazing in the unfocused background, or the gaping span of two train rails. (Besides, those rare exceptions where the game remains unfairly deceptive are all for optional secrets.)
Unlike Nintendo’s stitchcraft adventures, which delightfully appropriated Yoshi and Kirby, Unravel is also resolutely its own thing, playing closer to Bionic Commando or Indiana Jones’s swinging sections than anything before it. Yarny’s palm-sized scale also puts a unique perspective on familiar settings, such that the displacement of a few pebbles threatens to become a disastrous landslide or a reclining lawn chair can serve as a makeshift catapult. Yarny is incapable of violence, but uniquely susceptible to it, which only makes the player feel more protective of and invested in the character as they seek out roundabout ways to avoid a field full of peckish crows or to shoo away a room of tenacious termites.
As the game wends through each of the four seasons, new obstacles continue to present themselves, from using a displaced plastic bag to descend from the treetops to rolling up acorns into snowballs that can float across half-frozen pools of water. Despite the title, then, Unravel isn’t a stitched-together game in danger of falling apart, but a well-constructed and surprisingly emotional platformer. There’s a logical progression to the game, and by the time it reaches a blizzard-struck cemetery, the frigid finality calls Journey to mind. The hero this time around isn’t nothing more than a rogue, frostbitten spool of yarn, but a metaphor for threads that tether us to life, and there’s no reason Yarny’s struggle to roll on can’t be both whimsical and uplifting.