Mending What Has Broken: Unravel and the Urgency of Our Lives

By Mark Delaney,
Like many people who first saw Coldwood Interactive's Unravel at E3 2015, I was immediately drawn to it. Even in just its few minutes of trailer footage, I saw in the game a tone and aesthetic I was really yearning to see in the medium. The way the red threaded hero of Unravel, Yarny, used threads to solve problems in a world of wilderness and home comforts was quite beautiful and looked to be a great mechanic for the puzzle-platformer too. I eagerly awaited an eventual release date.

Despite looking forward to the game during its run-up to release, Unravel has stuck with me in a way I didn't anticipate. It's become even more important to me than it would be simply as a game I like or love. Yes, its puzzles are satisfying and creative, and yes its world is beautiful and full of heart. Working with those things and rising to the top of the game's many credits, however, is its timeless message. Unravel is a story of bonds broken, repaired, and strengthened. It begs us not to take all of this for granted. With just a ball of yarn, anthropomorphized and handcrafted for adventure, Coldwood created a game that reminds us all of the brevity of our lives and the urgency to live in love.

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My partner, son, and I began to play Unravel as soon as it released. Just a few weeks after its release, a job opportunity was presented to me. The job required that I move across the country for six months, but the pay would reflect that gigantic hurdle. After some hesitation, we decided as a family I should take the offer to help our long-term financial gains, even at the expense of our short-term family unit being made incomplete. It was never an easy decision, and even as I got on the plane I wondered if it would all be worth it in the end. To step away from my loving partner was in itself nearly impossible to agree to.

It was made all the more difficult because of our son, who was just three and a half at the time when my work trip began. Leaving behind your child in such formative years could have unforeseen consequences about which I was wary. Still, we put on brave faces and made the best of it as the days approached. We didn't get to finish Unravel before I was on my way across the country, and though leaving the game unfinished wasn't nearly at the forefront of any of our minds at that time, it would later become a crucial part in the story.

I returned to Unravel sometime during my trip away in what little downtime I had during that hectic six months. The game captured me in a way few ever have. At first, that was because of the puzzles. I loved the mechanics and the physics of manipulating Yarny's world with string, swinging from trees, pulling them taut to scale houses, creating see-saws and ramps. I also loved the game's mood and audiovisual experience, using a charming original score that complemented the game perfectly.

As those who played it will remember, every level adds to a scrapbook of family memories in the game's interactive level select hub. I played the game through to the end during a period of my work trip where we were only halfway through the six-month venture. Thinking about having to duplicate all the hours and work I'd done to that point all over again was maddening, to say the least. It was also an especially straining period for my relationship, as neither I nor my partner was satisfied with the little bit of iPhone Facetime we got each night. Frustrations brought on by our situation manifested toward one another. She was essentially living as a single mother and I was hardly getting any days off. No one was feeling healthy.

Unravel intersperses its levels with scrapbook entries from the family serving as the focus of the game. Though it never seeks to fully explain what has gone on in the lives of this family, players have worked out much of it. Their story is poignant because it's familiar. They play together during a beautiful beach day, explore together on a mountain hike, hurt together when a loved one dies. They go through experiences that we'll all go through, ups and downs, together. The game relives these moments with Yarny in the game's symbolic levels. My time away from my family was more downs than ups when I yearned to live and love with my partner and our son, for whose formative third year of life I was in large part absent. Nothing reminds you of the brevity of our lives quite as starkly as watching your child grow up. It's a blink-and-you-miss-it experience every parent faces, so it was intensely saddening for me to watch him grow through pictures and videos for half a year.

On the night I beat Unravel, the final scrapbook entry in the game hit me like a piano falling from the sky. The game had already won me over for its puzzle design, soundtrack, and aesthetic, but it was this final journal page that seemed all too relevant.

Love forms bonds, like strands of yarn. Like yarn, those bonds can be fragile or get all tangled. But when they're kept and cared for, they can bridge any distance.
Overworked, overtired, frustrated, and now with tears swelling, I recognized Unravel as an all-time favorite game at that moment. It helped me put my situation in perspective. There was a literal geographic distance between us, an insurmountable distance at that moment. But there was also a figurative distance, one that was more readily traversed if we found the will, and Unravel certainly speaks to both. I needed to make amends with myself and my partner for feeling so unwell for so long in those months away. I've long felt like I keep things in good perspective and I don't stress what I can't change, but those six months were a challenge unlike any other for me emotionally and I had been losing my mind. Unravel gave me a renewed outlook on the situation. I would be okay. We would be okay. Yarny was right. Coldwood delivered their message when I needed it most.


It wasn't an instantaneous remedy, of course. I still needed to finish my trip which included more grueling days away from my loves, but it's also not overstating things to say I kept that message in mind for the remainder of those weeks. As we counted days until I flew home, Unravel's message became clearer and clearer and our bond regained its strength. Landing back in Portland with my partner and son waiting in the airport lobby was a moment I'll remember forever because it signified we had made it. We kept and cared for our bond even when it seemed fragile, and it bridged a distance of 3,000 miles for six months successfully. I proposed to her a few months after I got home and she said yes. We're getting married this fall.

I was feeling so down for so long, but thanks to Unravel I recognized that we could mend a bond made fragile. We needed to, as we each only get one short stay on this planet — 60 years together if we're pretty lucky — and I refused to spend any more of mine drowning in negativity. Instead, I became empowered. If I could do the trip all again, I wouldn't, but that's not the same as saying I regret it. It made our relationship, both mine with my fiancee and ours together as a family with our son, ultimately stronger and more durable. I got home more thankful for every day we get to spend together, due in part, rather astonishingly, to a ball of red thread. Since it released in February of 2016, I've gone on to play the game three times in full and many more times in part. Every time the message remains moving. Time is short for each and every one of us, and we can't lose sight of that. Mend your broken bonds and cherish those that are already strong, says Unravel. I'm forever grateful I received its message.
Mark Delaney
Written by Mark Delaney
Mark is a Boston native now living in Portland, Oregon. He has written for GameSkinny, Gamesradar and the Official Xbox Magazine. He runs the family-oriented gaming site Game Together.