Someone at EA is paying attention to why people play smaller games from independent studios. If big budget triple-A games like “Anthem” are the summer blockbusters of the gaming world, EA has been carefully broadening its horizons with the equivalent of art house films. “Unravel Two,” from Coldwood Interactive (and the other EA Original revealed at EA Play 2018, “Sea of Solitude”), is about nourishing the soul with emotional adventures.
The first “Unravel” captured gamer hearts when it was announced at E3 2015, thanks to an adorable lead character, Yarny. Coldwood created an intriguing juxtaposition between its loveable hero and a story about loss that reflects creative director Martin Sahlin’s own background.
“My 2015 was a tumultuous year,” Sahlin tells Variety. “It started horribly with a lot of sad stuff happening. Then we had the big reveal of the game, which I had been looking forward to for so long. It was one of the highest points ever. That’s when I wrote the first snippets of what eventually became “Unravel Two.” It was about crashing horribly, but bouncing back. It was about making something positive and uplifting. It takes something terrible and turns it into something great.”
Unfortunately, many players didn’t get to “Unravel’s” redemptive moment. So, Coldwood decided to flip things around and create both tension and redemption in “Unravel Two’s” opening moments. Yarny encounters a terrible storm and is tossed overboard, stranded on an island.
“It starts horribly, but you get that redemption right away,” Sahlin explains. “You find a friend and make a new bond. We build and develop that bond over the course of the game.”
The tone of Coldwood’s second outing is decidedly more uplifting and empowering. Sahlin describes the narrative technique used to evoke player empathy used in the first “Unravel” as “a little mean.”
“We presented you at first with something that was super sweet and lovely and incredibly beautiful,” he says. “We wanted players to fall in love at first sight. Then, once we had them in that state, we wanted to break everyone’s heart. This time, we wanted to just make something that builds you up. No matter how dark things get, you can deal with it. You’re brave. You’re strong. You’re together.”
“Unravel Two” is an entirely new tale. The pair of connected Yarny heroes you can control—alone or with a friend on the couch—are not the same character from the first game. And you’ll discover many more throughout the adventure if you look around the lighthouse hub world for hidden challenge levels. The lighthouse develops throughout the game, symbolizing the player’s mental state.
“As you play more, it starts turning into something friendlier that feels like a home,” Sahlin says. “You’re learning to live with yourself.”
While Yarny looks as adorable as he did in the first game, this is an entirely new character. In fact, there are multiple Yarnys to be found throughout the game.
“This is a different Yarny,” Sahlin says. “The idea is that Yarnys are an embodiment of our positive emotions, like our hopes and longings. They’re little helpers, and we can all have our own. There are a ton of them. They appear when they are needed. These haven’t found their purpose yet. They’ve found each other, but not their mission yet.”
Finding more Yarnys offers additional options for the new customization feature. Since you can merge the two characters, playing around with the color and design can create a gorgeous Yarny hybrid that also allows you to move through straightforward sections more quickly.
Coldwood subscribes to a renewed philosophy of accessibility and openness in game design. “Unravel Two” is unabashedly challenging, presenting players with complicated platforming and puzzles. However, Sahlin wants as many people as possible to experience the story.
Yarny’s latest outing includes a number of features to help people who don’t usually play games (or are unable to interact with traditional control modalities) hop onto the couch and pick up a controller. Players can turn on slow-motion to better tackle the trickier jumping and swinging moments. They can also use a baked-in hint feature to work through complex puzzles.
Even without these tools, “Unravel Two” gives experienced players a way to offer less experienced friends (and children) a helping hand. One player can tackle most of the harder platforming moments for both Yarnys. Once through, the more experienced player can hold the yarn connecting the two characters and allow the other to climb up.
“Unravel Two” includes subtle and overt nudges to keep players moving forward. The Yarny duo follow a spark (representing Yarny’s spirit) that helps illuminate the path. The character you’re not controlling also gently gestures in the direction of what you should be doing next. This all comes together to create a game that is challenging without leaving players at the mercy of complex platforming or puzzle solving.
Coldwood didn’t completely re-create its narrative approach with “Unravel Two.” Players will encounter memories of the people who have visited the island as Yarny traverses gorgeous environments. Those memories can house what Sahlin calls “bad moods,” that can cause problems for Yarny. In one scene, two children witness a fight that leaves them scared and confused.
“There’s a concept of how [the children are] wrestling with bad moods,” Sahlin explains. “Where the bad moods go, these angry sparkling things appear. Whenever the bad moods get the upper hand, the spark can shatter. You have to solve a puzzle to put it back together.”
EA took a risk with “Unravel Two,” releasing the game immediately following its E3 2018 press event (and at the start of a week that will inundate players with news and distractions). Sahlin sees the surprise announcement and release combo as a challenge that could net Coldwood big rewards.
“We like challenges. Game development is like playing a game, too,” he says. “‘How can we up the stakes? How can we make this interesting?’ I really like the challenge. Also, we are a smaller game, and we have to make the most of our time in the spotlight. We noticed for the first game that we made a pretty big splash when we announced it, but then there was nine months until launch. We had to get the wheels turning again. When you don’t have a huge marketing budget, it’s hard to do.”
Coldwood set out to create an experience that brings people together. While you can play “Unravel Two” alone, it’s clear there is more to get out of it with a partner.
“You’re always helping each other out,” Sahlin says. “One of you can be the anchor, a safe spot you can return to, your trusted friend that’s always there.”