Bjork lyric be­gat game

Swedish de­signer spins a good yarn about his in­spi­ra­tion to cre­ate ‘Un­ravel.’

Los Angeles Times - - CALENDAR - By Todd Martens

It all started with a Bjork lyric.

Martin Sahlin, cre­ative di­rec­tor of small Swedish game maker Cold­wood In­ter­ac­tive, couldn’t get some of Bjork’s words out of his head.

“While you were away, my heart comes un­done,” Bjork sings in “Un­ravel,” a slow­build­ing melan­cholic mix of or­ches­tral and dig­i­tal sounds. “Slowly un­rav­els,” Bjork con­tin­ues as the song gets more ab­stract, “in a ball of yarn.”

Bjork’s “Un­ravel” ul­ti­mately be­came the spark for Sahlin’s “Un­ravel,” an in-de­vel­op­ment game to be pub­lished by Elec­tronic Arts for the PlayS­ta­tion 4, Xbox One and PCs. The ti­tle was un­veiled this week at the video game trade show Elec­tronic En­ter­tain­ment Expo (E3) in Los An­ge­les, shar­ing the stage with big­ger games such as “Star Wars: Bat­tle­front” and “Mass Ef­fect An­dromeda.”

The game stars Yarny, an in­dex-fin­ger sized char­ac­ter made from a sin­gle thread of red yarn. Yarny can un­ravel him­self, us­ing his threads as a lasso as he ex­plores an au­tum­nal gar­den world and foggy Scan­di­na­vian land­scapes, but he’s a frag­ile crit­ter and, if one isn’t care­ful, Yarny can quickly un­wind him­self out of ex­is­tence.

“It put an im­age in my head,” Sahlin says of the Bjork lyric. “I had the im­age of what the char­ac­ter would be from the start, this lit­tle thing made of yarn. That’s kind of how in­spi­ra­tion works for me. I didn’t re­ally know what it was but I knew it was some­thing. Be­cause it’s some­thing, you keep pulling at it and push­ing at it and prod­ding it un­til you find out what it is.”

Ul­ti­mately, what Sahlin ar­rived at was a plat­form­er­style game in which the player moves Yarny from left to right — and up a few trees and over some small gar­den ponds. Oc­ca­sion­ally, Yarny

may find him­self on the road, with a speed­ing car send­ing Yarny cow­er­ing in fear. By ty­ing string from one lo­cale to the next, Yarny can swing or crawl above ground.

Us­ing yarn, the char­ac­ter can be be­come an ex­plorer, a moun­taineer or an ac­ro­bat, need­ing only to tether the yarn to some­thing fixed in the game world.

Play­ing the game dur­ing an E3 preview, Yarny solved puzzles by rolling ap­ples into a gar­den pond, fright­fully avoided a dan­ger­ous crow and re­acted with won­der at the sight of a but­ter­fly. There’s a mag­i­cal qual­ity to the yarn, as if it of­ten pos­sessed a soft fuzzy glow.

The look is ap­proach­able and the set­ting is fa­mil­iar — a chipped picket fence is spot­ted in a backyard, for in­stance, and col­ors in the world have their con­trast turned up to en­sure this uni­verse is more vivid than the real one.

Yarny is also in­cred­i­bly ex­pres­sive. As the char­ac­ter thins out, dur­ing some es­pe­cially tricky puzzles in which Yarny must swing from branch to branch and then avoid per­ilous, rolling rocks, the char­ac­ter starts to look rather frail.

In a short playthrough prior to E3, Yarny never re­ally felt like a stand-in for the player. In­stead, the player was in a sort of cus­to­dial role, want­ing to keep Yarny safe, first and fore­most.

Not yet know­ing Yarny’s full re­la­tion­ship with the uni­verse, “Un­ravel” hints at a larger world that will be spooled out slowly, and with some trick­ier ref lex tests than its child­like look im­plies.

The game puts a large em­pha­sis on tone. In just a short in­ter­view, Sahlin spoke of­ten of the mood he wanted to strike for the game. Though a game star­ring a char­ac­ter made of yarn could def­i­nitely trend to­ward the silly side of the spec­trum, Sahlin wants “Un­ravel” to be a more se­ri­ous ex­pe­ri­ence.

“It’s kind of like a beau­ti­ful melan­choly, I guess,” Sahlin said. “That’s kind of what we’re go­ing for, a beau­ti­ful melan­choly with a slight sen­ti­men­tal­ity. We’re try­ing to make it at­mo­spheric. We want it to be nice, but not too sweet. We want to make some­thing that feels friendly, that feels invit­ing, that feels mag­i­cal and ex­cit­ing, but with­out mak­ing it cute and bub­bly. We want it to be a more serene ex­pe­ri­ence.”

Story-wise, Yarny is born from the hands of an el­derly woman. As Yarny moves through the world, Yarny can col­lect mem­o­ries of her life.

Sahlin said that now that he has two kids, he’s been think­ing of cre­at­ing more thought­ful game ex­pe­ri­ences

“The game starts in the house of an old woman,” Sahlin said. “She sits alone, she’s left be­hind, and she’s sur­rounded by mem­o­ries, not fam­ily any­more. For dif­fer­ent rea­sons. Peo­ple grow apart. I was think­ing about the story and was think­ing about what are my own fears in life, and there are ac­tu­ally lots of scary things out there.” Such as? “What if my kids grow up and don’t like me? I have a lot of peo­ple in my own fam­ily who don’t put the ef­fort in to keep in touch. This is sym­bolic of the op­po­site of that. It’s about try­ing to ac­tu­ally reach out, to mend things, and tie them back to­gether.”

The game boasts a rel­a­tively re­al­is­tic look, inspired by a camp­ing trip Sahlin took with a hand­made Yarny. He took pic­tures of the char­ac­ter amid the Swedish forests — Yarny next to a stream, Yarny sit­ting in a tree, Yarny hik­ing up a hill. He wanted the game to have a nat­u­ral look, hop­ing that it would in­spire play­ers to take a closer work at the odd­i­ties of the world around them.

“We want to ap­pre­ci­ate the beauty that’s out there, that’s around,” Sahlin said. “You don’t have to be fan­tas­ti­cal. You don’t have to go to space. It doesn’t have to be a fairy tale. Just step out­side your door and you’ll find beau­ti­ful things.

“Ev­ery­one’s try­ing to be loud and stand out from the noise,” he con­tin­ued. “But when ev­ery­one is loud, that be­comes the noise. So you stand out by not be­ing loud.”

“Un­ravel” is not just a de­par­ture for Sahlin but a change of pace for the stu­dio as well. The 14-per­son Cold-wood In­ter­ac­tive has largely cre­ated skiing and sports games.

“We’ve gone from sports games to more sports games and then more sports games,” Sahlin says. “Per­son­ally, I wanted to do some­thing that felt like it was from the heart. Noth­ing wrong with sports games, but once you’ve done like 10 of them you want to do some­thing new.”

todd.martens@latimes.com

Allen J. Schaben Los An­ge­les Times

GAMES IN DE­VEL­OP­MENT are be­ing un­veiled at the Elec­tronic En­ter­tain­ment Expo (E3) in L.A.

Chris­tian Petersen Getty Im­ages

MARTIN SAHLIN ties a lot of el­e­ments to­gether with a char­ac­ter made of yarn in “Un­ravel.”

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