When Martin Sahlin stepped on stage at EA’s E3 2015 press conference, his nervous enthusiasm and handmade doll "Yarny" helped shape one of the show’s most memorable moments. His game, Unravel, features that very same doll traversing a version of Scandinavia which looks incredibly beautiful, but is incredibly treacherous to the tiny protagonist.
It’s a physics-based platformer filled with complex puzzles, and its primary mechanic involves the manipulation of continuous thread of yarn. But Unravel is also a game about a family, with Yarny acting as a physical metaphor of the ties that bind them. We spoke to Martin Sahlin at PAX Australia to about balancing the game’s puzzles with its omnipresent theme, the importance of Unravel’s existence, and why games can and should try to have something important to say.
GameSpot: You’re obviously working with EA on Unravel, how much creative control do you have as an independent developer working with such a big publisher?
Martin Sahlin: We have full creative control, which is pretty cool. It’s actually the first time in 12 years of our studio’s history that I think creative control is actually in the contract, so that’s pretty cool. EA have been super supportive--they’re there to back us up, they’re not there to try and take over what we’re doing. I think that’s awesome, all credit to them.
You’re getting a great reception to Unravel so far. Are you at all worried about the fact that everyone’s so excited about it, or are you pretty confident you can deliver what people are anticipating?
Of course I worry. At E3, everybody fell in love with the idea. You talk about what it is, you talk about the theme, you talk about the background and people love it, and they get it. I think it’s beautiful that they do. But it’s also... it’s a different thing to fall in love with an idea and to fall in love with an actual thing. It’s easier to make a flawless idea.
But what’s been so good is that a lot of people have played the game now: at E3, at Gamescom, and now at PAX Australia. And it’s actually working. I don’t think I’ll ever stop worrying that we didn’t do enough, but still, it feels like we’re actually reaching people. They like it. And not just because they’re having fun with it, but they also seem to connect with it, which I think is the most important thing.
It’s a different thing to fall in love with an idea and to fall in love with an actual thing. It’s easier to make a flawless idea.
Was it important to you to think of something that hadn’t been done before?
Well, yes and no. The thing is, I didn’t really do it on purpose because the premise for the game, the story for the game is what came first, that you’d play as a character made of yarn, and the yarn would be a symbol for love and the bonds between people, so you were basically trying to re-establish a broken bond. And that was pretty much the sum of the idea. That’s what it all started out with so of course that had to be part of the game. Lately there have been quite a lot of games that are like, a "platformer with a twist". But that’s not what we set out to make. It was about the story and about the theme.
How do you integrate emotional bonds and the concept of love and connection in Unravel’s story with the gameplay? Do you think those two connect quite strongly?
Yeah, I think they do. I think what’s important is that we leave it in the hands of players, so we don’t try to shove it down people’s throats. Because then it would probably risk ending up just sentimental and just kinda lame.
Our approach is to make it this thing where if you don’t care, you can play through it and enjoy it and have fun with it, but if you do care you will have thousands of little hooks to just notice. With the animations, with the music, with the details you find in the world, with all of these things that just talk about what’s going on, about the symbolism, about the underlying message and just, we try to be subtle about it. But also try to give as much as possible for people to latch onto if they want, if they’re interested in it.
There’s also this thing about reflecting about what it is that you actually see. For a super casual person they might just look at it as decoration. But when you really start thinking about it, the fact that everything there is there for a reason, you can sort of start to connect the dots and see how it all fits together.
What’s important is that we leave it in the hands of players, so we don’t try to shove it down people’s throats. Because then it would probably risk ending up just sentimental and just kinda lame.
Do you think games in general are doing enough in general to be "innovative"?
I must say, yes. I think there are tons of hugely innovative games coming out. I think every game in a way, is full of innovation. I think on a technical level, we’re innovating all the time, every game has something unique to offer. As far as that goes, I think we’re in a good place. I wish there was more innovation on the field of making meaningful games, but interesting games, yeah. There’s tons of them.
Do you think meaningful games is something that is easier with a small team? Is it something that can realistically make its way over to big-budget games?
I guess we’re getting to the point where I think even a bigger game developer can see that "Yeah, maybe there is actually room to do something like this" and they might dare to try it. I think it would be a slow process because of the risk involved in making one of these huge things--you do increase the risk by making something like that because it’s harder than making something that’s pure entertainment.
It’s not like they’re not trying to do narrative emotional experiences already. It’s just, maybe the problem is that maybe they don’t always have--that much to say? Which sounds really rude, now I sound arrogant. I mean, we can turn on the string music and put on the feels, but I think it’s important that you have some kind of message, that you have something you’re, y’know, trying to address.
I would definitely like to see more of it. I mean some do it, but more should. I think games have a history of underestimating themselves. We think it’s just good for entertainment and escapism, but really it can be good for so much more than that. So I hope more people try to make interesting things, and more useful things as well. I think that games can actually do some proper good.
Games have a history of underestimating themselves. We think it’s just good for entertainment and escapism, but really it can be good for so much more than that.
Unravel is due for release in the first quarter of 2016 on PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One