The thing about empathy games is that they don’t do a very good job of teaching empathy. Instead, you wander around someone else’s problem and think about how much it’d suck to be them. Is that empathy? It feels more like sad voyeurism (but maybe that is empathy).
That’s what makes Unravel interesting because it’s not an empathy game but a peek into someone’s life, the things that have and do nip them when they’re down. The game follows a little adorable yarn creature who you will spend most of the game wondering if they are feline or not. Regardless, the little yarn creature is fucking cute and somewhat pathetic which only heightens the adorable factor.
The game play is fairly simple: you are a limp yarn Spiderman who must throw yarn and jump places and solve puzzles to find little pins. But what’s the significance of the pins? They belong to a grandmother, a particularly sad grandmother who has forgotten her memories of her family and you—the little yarn creature—must find them all, helping her unscramble her emotions. There are a lot of emotions too: you play through a berry field where her grandchildren fade in and out of the background and make your way to a railway where someone may or may not have been fatally harmed. There is a random, bizarre bit where you upend a memory of toxic waste and environmental hazards. Grandma has a lot to be sad about but, sheesh, one thing at a time!
To make things even more emotional, the soundtrack is a delightful, jaunty take on patented sad music a la all the gaelic fiddle in any Celtic Woman song. It’s folksy and cute but, boy, does it get a bit bonkers with hitting you over and over with emotional notes. It’s like listening to the saddest song on a Beck album repeatedly. Funny enough, the music is actually traditional Swedish music because, funny enough, the game comes from a Swedish game studio.
The sad saps aside, the game is quite well done and soooo good looking. From the faces of human characters to the lush and detailed playable naturescapes to the cute playable little yarn person, you will constantly find yourself sucked into the game, even when you’re annoyed and can’t figure out how to solve a puzzle. You can’t hate the game, though.
Moreover, you could play the game in episodes and be completely content with it. There are roughly twelve levels of varying difficulties, each of which take you anywhere from twenty minutes to an hour to complete. You can play the game in an entire weekend like I did but each level is so nicely bundled up that you could come home from work, complete a level, and put it away. It’s the first game I’ve played where the episodes so perfectly made for you to pick it up and put it down. Unlike Life Is Strange or Ori And The Blind Forest, the segment breaks in this game are not overwhelmingly long nor do they suck the life out of you. This is a wonderfully casual game.
It’s a great $20 worth of playing. It’s fun and adorable and will give you some emotional feelings as you explore why grandma is being such a mope. Is it because she’s losing her memory? Are her copper bracelets not working? Did someone break her heart? You’ll find out by the end of Unravel and, while it won’t devastate you, you will see that grandma has a lot to be sad about. Cheer up, old G!