Interview: Martin Sahlin On Unravel, Story Telling & Making Your Own Yarny

Unravel was one of the best surprises from EA’s press conference at this year’s E3. Tucked between Need for Speed, FIFA and Star Wars: Battlefront was a game on a much smaller scale to which we were accustomed to from the publisher. On top of that, as Martin Sahlin stood on stage to present Unravel and introduce the character of Yarny, it was clear to see the nerves and the emotions.

Gamescom gave him another opportunity to show some more of the game, with a demonstration set on the shore as the waves roll in and out, before we had the chance to sit down with him and talk about the game.


TSA: Have you recovered yet from your appearance at E3?

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Martin Sahlin: Yeah… It took a bit of a landing, I guess. A couple of days to just process everything, think it through, and just adapt to this new reality where the secret’s no longer a secret.

TSA: I think you did a lot to endear yourself to everyone watching as you told your story on stage and your emotions were visible.

Martin: Yeah, I mean it was a really emotional moment, since I’ve been building up to it for so long, working on the game for two years. To me it’s this really special thing and I’ve really been dying to share it.

Like I was saying to someone before, it’s like Christmas morning you know? It’s like, “Open your present already! Look at it!”

TSA: [laughs] I’ve also been wondering how this partnership with EA came about. When you think of EA, they’ve got such a catalogue of massive games they work on, and this is a much smaller project.

Martin: We did a port for them of Bad Company 2 for PC, so we kind of knew them from that. And DICE is Swedish, we’re Swedish, so obviously there’s some crosstalk going on!

TSA: I know that a lot of Sweden’s big game developers are basically all in the same spot in Stockholm…

Martin: Yeah, we’re not though. We’re way in the north, so we’re pretty far away from everyone.

But we did that port, so Patrick Söderlund kind of knew us from that. They heard about the game we were making and wanted to see it, and just showed such a genuine passion for it. It was just one of those things where you come there and expect to pitch your game, but you end up being pitched an entire company instead!

He was basically telling us about EA and about what they’re doing and what their visions are. He was very sincere and very genuine in his passion for this game.

To be perfectly honest, it’s not like EA needs a game like Unravel, because they’ve got these multi-million selling monster franchises. That’s almost better, because now you know that they’re doing it because they really, really want to. It’s a passion project for them as well, and that’s exactly what you’re looking for, because it’s a passionate thing for us.

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TSA: You’ve gone into it a little bit before, but can you tell us about the story to Unravel, why Yarny has this thread coming from his back and the emotions that you’re trying to represent?

Martin: I don’t want to say too much, but the way I look at it is I talk about the themes and some of the tone of the game. To me, the yarn is this symbol of love, it’s this symbol of the bonds that form between people, and you’re kind of on a quest to try and restore a broken bond.

But that’s how I see it, and I don’t think I want to shut any doors. I want people to be able to turn this into their own thing and that’s basically our approach to the storytelling. We want players to feel empathy for the character, we want them to feel like they’re on a really important quest, but the details of what the quest is actually about? We want that to be up to them.

We’re going to put lots of clues and cool stuff in the game for you to find and use to piece together your own story, but I don’t want to sit down and say, “This is what it’s about…” That would be true for me, but it’s not necessarily true for you.

TSA: So I guess, if you’re hiding things in the world, the story that you create will be tied to what it is that you discover and see?

Martin: Yeah, kind of. I was saying to someone before, and I guess it’s weird using the same answers twice, but it was good so I’ll use it again! [laughs]

It’s basically like we fill the world with notes, but you get to make the actual music.

TSA: Sorry, I didn’t realise it was a musical game! [laughs] In terms of the actual gameplay, this is very much a puzzle platformer?

Martin: Yeah, it’s a puzzle platfomer and it’s all physics based as well. That’s a big deal to us, that we want everything to be grounded in reality, so you can look at things and guess how they would work, just by looking at them.

They’re often real world things – or at least look like real world things – because I think that sometimes, when you’re playing puzzle platformers, there’s a lot of trial and error in there. Things don’t necessarily make any kind of sense.

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TSA: It’s like the old problem in a point & click adventure games of trying all of the items in your inventory, to find what works. So here, things have to make a logical sense…

Martin: Yeah, I mean it is still a puzzle platformer, so it’s not necessarily logical… or you could say it’s logical, but it makes no sense! [laughs] “Just walk around the thing!” But no, it’s logical in a 2D sense.

But yeah, I kind of want puzzles to be, instead of these random, cobbled together things, I want the puzzles to tell more of a story and to be about recognisable things. I want players to be able to retell a level.

So the level we showed today [at the EA Gamescom press conference], it’s obviously the sea level. It’s summer by the sea and you’re running by the shore and trying to get to the other side without getting washed away by the waves. That to me is exactly what a puzzle should be like, something you can easily sum up and tell to someone.

Or there’s the one where you’re trying to cross the frozen field without being picked off by the crows who are swooping down and attacking you. So things like that is what we’re going for.

TSA: There’s often a tension between being able to tell a story in a game and the gameplay itself, where you see games where the gameplay has to take the fore or a game where it can feel too much like a cinematic. Has that been difficult to blend those two together?

Martin: Not really, because the gameplay is the story. We don’t do cutscenes or things like that. We have an introductory cutscene, just to set the tone, but beyond that, it’s all about what you do and what you experience. So essentially, we tell the story through gameplay, through Yarny and through all these moods and reactions.

We worked really hard on making Yarny come alive, because that was really key for us to create empathy for the character. We want to make you sympathise and to make you want to complete this quest. So that’s basically where the story begins, and once you have that connection and you’re playing it… it’s like when we were playing it on stage and you could hear the people gasping when the next wave rolled in? That’s the perfect point to tell the story, because you know that the audience is hooked and they want the character to make it over to the other side.

That’s basically how we do it, and pepper the world with these little details that you can then piece together and make your own thing up. So yeah, we never take it away from you, we keep you in the experience the whole time.

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TSA: Finally, he’s such an adorable character, so I’m sure a lot of people are wondering if your Yarny will stay the only Yarny in existence, or if people will be able to buy a Yarny of their own?

Martin: There are a lot of people asking for it, trust me!

TSA: Oh, I can believe it!

Martin: So, what we’re going to do, I think, is we’re going to make some kind of guide so people can make their own.

TSA: That actually makes a lot of sense, but you almost want a 15 minute long installation progress screen, like we had in Metal Gear Solid 4, so you could have the guide as the game installs.

Martin: [laughs] That’s actually a pretty good idea!


Thanks to Martin for taking the time to talk to us about Unravel, Yarny and more at Gamescom. Unravel is set of release some time in Q1 2016.

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4 Comments

  1. Nice interview, fell in love with this game at the E3 reveal and i’m looking forward to playing it, and possibly allowing my jaw to drop a little as i take in the photo-real environments.

  2. Lovely interview. Lovely bloke. Lovely game. Sold. :D On the game, that is.

  3. I hope this is the start of a new beginning for EA. It looks like a great game, and one that EA can take a chance on, knowing that the likes of Battlefield/FIFA etc will keep their bank balance healthy even if this doesn’t sell well – which I can’t see it doing!

  4. The loading screen from Heavy Rain had you making your own origami while it installed :)
    This will definitely be part of my collection once it’s out; I’m hoping there’s a cat to run away from somewhere along the line.

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