Thousands of gaming fans and industry professionals grew quiet as developer Martin Sahlin shared himself and his creation on stage at E3 on Monday. After hours of press conferences filled mostly with sequels to big franchises, the authentic emotion this one game developer wore on his sleeve at the Electronic Arts event drew everyone’s attention, and then their applause, and then their Twitter effusions.
“It was a long road, two years leading up to that moment,” Sahlin tells us. “You got this really special thing and you are really keen to finally show it off, share with people. Once you are there, it’s really emotional.”
Sahlin is the creative director at Swedish game developer Coldwood Interactive, and the mind behind Unravel, a puzzle game starring a (now rather beloved) character called Yarny, a doll made of yarn who unspools himself as he moves about his world, collecting lost pieces of people’s lives.
At EA’s event, as he unveiled a doll of the protagonist Yarny, the assembled crowd saw his hands were shaking with emotion.
As Sahlin explained, while camping with his family in the countryside two years ago, he was overflowing with ideas. He physically made a character out of wire and red yarn, then acted out scenes with this half-foot hero, figuring out the mechanics of how Yarny could utilize his yarn to do things like move rocks or swing across holes by using it like a whip. He made this little guy and put him on a journey.
Sahlin says, “Games are really powerful things. They have the ability to grab you and move you in a way that few other artforms can. That gives us as game makers a certain responsibility. I think we should try to do more than just entertain. Unravel was created in that spirit. It was born out of the need to make something more personal, something with a heart.”
Returning to the 13 others at Coldwood, he found them receptive to the idea of a quest by a small man made of yarn. Using the yarn from Yarny, the player has to solve puzzles involving physics, such as dragging rocks, using it as a slingshot to shoot himself across holes, etc. But the yarn is more than just gameplay, and more than that thing that makes up the main character of the game.
“You play as a little character made of yarn which unravels as you move. And the yarn represents love and the bonds that we make and it unravels because that’s what happens when we are separated from what we love,” says Sahlin.
“When you look back at that tangle of winding yarn behind you, you have to wonder how you even got there. It’s kind of like life.”
This resonates throughout the game, as you move Yarny to find an old woman’s lost memories, see how he is changed by what happens to him. There is something at first whimsical, and then later sad, about a little man moving through the world alone and facing danger.
“You have to find a way forward, overcome all those obstacles that you come across,” Sahlin says. “Those problems can have simple solutions, like using your yarn to swing across a gap. Or sometimes things might get more complex, so when you look back at that tangle of winding yarn behind you, you have to wonder how you even got there. It’s kind of like life.”
Much like Sahlin’s photos from the vacation, Unravel puts Yarny in a realistic world. The realism of the graphics gives a weight to the physics gameplay, but more importantly, contrasts with the fantastical Yarny and the emotions behind his quest.
“As I was in the woods playing with that doll and doing all these things, this is exactly how I wanted it to feel. I want that physicality. I want it to feel like a real thing: that I’m pushing this, pulling this, clinging to this. The visual realism was also created in that moment,” says Sahlin. “There is this tendency for video games to be out there, like a fairy tale or you are in space. Very rarely do they actually ever tell you to just stop and appreciate the beauty that’s just outside your door waiting for you to discover it.”
Listening to Sahlin, it is hard not to get caught up in his earnestness to create something not only good, but powerful. He wants to share that personal journey he had in the woods with a real Yarny with the rest of the world, through a digital version of the doll.
“People really devote their time and focus to games,” he says. “I feel like it’s my responsibility to give them something that is actually saying something. Time is so precious. I want to do something that is enriching. That’s why there is a story that is kind of sad in places. The reason that it is sad is so you can feel better about yourself once you fix it. So you get that closure, you get that reward. This is actually important. This is actually meaningful.”