Electronic Arts doesn’t have the best reputation. The company has been criticized for hamfisted DRM, an overabundance of DLC, and premature launches of buggy games. Yet, it is debatably the biggest name in the video game industry. It has built franchises up to reputations that have become household names. If there’s any company that I feel represents the highs and lows of triple-A publishers, it’s Electronic Arts.
Considering EA’s reputation and position in the industry, the company’s reveal of Unravel at E3 sticks out like a little indie apple in a pile of action-packed oranges. Sandwiched between Plants vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare 2 (complemented with Kenny Loggins’s “Danger Zone”) and Mass Effect: Andromeda (complemented by Johnny Cash’s “(Ghost) Riders in the Sky”), a nervous man took the stage to talk about his studio’s physics-based sidescroller. The juxtaposition is almost laughable in retrospect. Unravel didn’t quite fit in with Electronic Arts’ line-up. It shouldn’t though, as it is something completely new for the publisher. Unravel represents an expansion into smaller, quieter games for Electronic Arts. That’s worth welcoming.
As I wandered the South Hall of the E3 show floor, I noticed a two-hour line for Mirror’s Edge Catalyst twisting around the corner of EA’s booth. Checking the other side, I found an even longer wait for Star Wars Battlefront. Dubstep blared over the speakers. Giant televisions proudly displayed the latest Madden and FIFA games. Against the wall, a logo for Unravel could be seen with a handful of people forming a line in front. The wait for every other EA game dwarfed this one. I had to kill some time, so I hopped in the line. Thank goodness I did, because Unravel is magnificent.
The game’s plot revolves around a grandmother connecting with her family over a long distance. What better way to symbolize this link than through yarn, a material that provides warmth and that can literally tie two things together? Contradicting the safety of the yarn was the environment. The serenity of the constant raindrops and moonlit trees gave a melancholic air to the gameplay. The creeping isolation of the level didn’t only invade my disposition though; the friendly appearance of the protagonist Yarny is juxtaposed with sadness and fear in his (her? its?) face. The atmosphere complements the family connection that Yarny ties together, showing that love can overcome the adversity of the harsh world.
Alright, I may be reading a little too much into the game. However, no Electronic Arts title has ever moved me enough to ponder on its themes and storytelling on a critical level.
Unravel’s artistry, modesty, and simplicity strongly contradict recent titles from Electronic Arts. This is a new frontier for the publisher, and I hope EA’s first foray into this kind of game is successful. If Unravel sees a healthy return, I wouldn’t doubt that Electronic Arts would seek to fund more games made by itty-bitty studios. I love Mass Effect and Mirror’s Edge, but the company’s massive funds could be poured into more creative, unassuming titles.
Unravel can be seen as EA’s UbiArt Framework title. Much like Child of Light and Valiant Hearts, it’s a game that bears very little semblance to its publisher’s other output. Considering the high quality that both of those two Ubisoft games have achieved, I hope more companies begin to fund smaller games that they believe in. Unravel‘s placement in EA’s press conference is a telling sign that the company has big plans for the title. If a trendsetter like Electronic Arts publishes more games along the lines of Unravel, I may see that hope become a reality.
Going onto the E3 stage, Martin Sahlin was visibly shaking when he was talking about his studio’s work on Unravel. While some may say the developer wasn’t fit for E3, I disagree completely. Sahlin’s labor of love was finally being revealed to a desired audience. His nervousness and shakiness are what I love about this medium. The man was tremendously happy, so happy he was nervous. And I’m happy that he’s happy. That sort of developer excitement really shows how much of a personal investment Unravel is. The demo that I played gives me the hope that the final product will see that investment pay off for both developer and publisher.