Q: Has the reception to Unravel surprised you?
Martin Sahlin: Of course. Without sounding too full of myself, I sort of had the feeling that people might like it. But yes, it was a surprise, and I don’t think you can be fully prepare for something on this level. That’s why we thought it was important to put fan art in the presentation yesterday; because it’s such a tangible example of… I never imagined that people would do something like that. I must say, though, I feel slightly awkward that they showed so many pictures that I was in [laughs]. It’s something you can never fully prepare for, and it’s hard to describe, really. It’s also super, super cool. Really amazing.
Q: Unravel is quite a departure from the sports titles your studio has done in the past. Where did this game come from?
Martin Sahlin: It came out of that really. It’s a long story, but we did mostly sports games – these really minimal games with minimal budgets purely about the mechanics. The biggest one we made was a game called The Fight that we did with Sony. I dunno, I didn’t like that game too much. I didn’t like working on it too much either. It was just one of those projects. No shadow on Sony – they were good people, and I love a bunch of guys at XDev – it was just a terrible project, and it didn’t come out that great. But it still reached a pretty big audience, as in hundreds of thousands. It did really well. People who played it really enjoyed it and were quite vocal about it too.
At that point I had some kind of revelation, partly about what I wanted my role in the industry to be, but also what I wanted everything to be. I felt like with an audience that big, I had a certain responsibility to make a game that had more meaning and had something to say. I was saying before to someone: if you get up on your soapbox and you have an audience of half a million people clinging to your every word, it would be downright irresponsible to not say anything. You don’t have to change the world or anything, but you have to speak from the heart, and that’s what I wanted to do with Unravel. I think maybe that’s why it’s resonating so well.
There’s also the aspect that I so thoroughly didn’t enjoy working on The Fight, and I figured that there was something we were doing wrong, because making video games should be the best job in the world. So when you’re not having fun doing it, you’re not doing it right. There’s always going to be crunch and whatever – actually maybe not, we haven’t done any – but there’s a difference between pouring your heart into something because you’re super passionate about it, and just being like put through the wringer, you know? I wanted to make something that was personal, I wanted to make something that was from the heart, and I wanted to make something that felt good to be working on. So that’s where it was born from.
It was interesting because someone before was asking about the scary prospect of pitching games and how it’s really terrifying, but the thing is, it really wasn’t with Unravel because that whole sense of ‘if we go down doing this, I go down happy because I’m doing exactly what I want to be doing’. If it doesn’t work then screw it – I gave it my all. Luckily, it worked.
Q: You have managed to do something incredible in that you’ve introduced a mechanic into a side-scroller that I’ve not seen before. Did this all appear to you in a dream? Was it iteration? How did the thread mechanic come to you?
Martin Sahlin: It was a very physical experience. I guess you’ve heard the story from E3 of how I created most of this design when I was out in the woods. That was really where most of the gameplay was designed as well – just me fooling around with this doll in the woods, and playing with it and seeing what it could do. Basically looking for situations, a cool looking tree like, ‘That looks like a puzzle, I wanna do this. If I was made of yarn, how would I do it?’
So I came up with all these things – how you could attach to things and create bridges, how you could use the bridges as slingshots, all this swinging and climbing. It just came quite naturally. It didn’t feel like I was making it up, it felt like I was finding pieces. One thing that I’m really proud of is the simple act of moving through the world using the yarn. When you get really good at it, it can be a really satisfying experience if you get that flow going.
Q: Let’s talk about Yarny, who appears to have become an iconic character already. Who is this guy? What’s he up to? What’s going on?
Martin Sahlin: I don’t wanna say too much, because I think it’s for the players to decide, but Yarny is a messenger I guess. I don’t wanna steer people in any direction, I want to leave it open. I think it’s beautiful when you can take a story and make it your own, and interpret things the way you wanna do it. But the whole idea started with this mission of: when you love something you form bonds with it, and I just thought what would that be like if that was an actual physical thread connecting you to that thing.
What would it be like if you were a character made from that stuff? So it becomes very symbolic. Now your quest is basically about trying to reconnect something at the start of the game with something at the end of the game. That’s what Yarny is – kind of a helper. If you wanna get slightly philosophical about it, he’s a symbol for longing for someone, or reaching out to someone. But still I want players to be able to make what they want out of it.
Q: What sort of influence has Sweden had on the game? You talked about its creation being tied to the physical world – how did that shape things?
Martin Sahlin: It shaped things very much. It was one of the things that I realised when I was out there – I really wanted the game to look like that too. [Sweden] was such a big part of how it was created, so it deserved to be in the real game as well. It’s one of those things where you know you’re kind of on to something, because as I was looking at it and I realised there was something special there… it sounds a bit hippy-like, but it’s almost like the pieces are there waiting for you to find them. And I don’t wanna change much of that.
It’s not like, ‘I found this thing, I found this thing, but fuck that – I’m going to throw that thing away.’ It’s more like stuff is just coming to me right now, and I don’t wanna mess with it. So basically, when I was in the woods it was a gut feeling like, ‘This is right, this is what it’s supposed to be’. It’s supposed to be about our backyard, about environments that we care about. And it’s not just about environments that we love – it’s about environments that we hate too. But it’s about places that matter places that have a meaning for us. To quote Star Wars: “Once you start down that path…”. You’re staying on it ‘cos you don’t wanna mess with it.
Q: Has all this attention changed the game at all? Has the scope changed?
Martin Sahlin: We’re definitely trying to stay true to what the heart of the game is. We’re a small studio in a remote city in the far north of Sweden there’s little chance of… we’re a company of friends. We like hanging out, we like the vibe in the office. We’re really good friends, we don’t just work together. That’s a big part of why we can do something like this. We know each other so well, and we come from slightly similar background, but above all, we like each other, we like working together. We don’t wanna become this balloon, you know?
Q: What has partnering with EA meant for the game?
Martin Sahlin: It’s been great. People have been asking about that a lot, and I can say honestly it’s awesome. It’s very awesome they’re so passionate about it and genuinely into it. If you want a concrete example of what they’re doing: the music is something that I personally am wowed by. It’s one of those things when you get to watch people who are the best at what they do, when there’s the connection between the brain and the hand and there’s nothing in the way, they can do whatever they want.
This one guy was playing the keyharp and watching it was like, ‘This is magic’. We got to hire two local composers, and all the local musicians we wanted, and we had lots of studio time and could do this beautiful, beautiful score inspired by lots of local traditional music. It’s not folk music – it’s our own thing. But it’s got roots in our tradition, which I really like. And we could never ever have done something even remotely like that without the support of EA. So that’s one thing that’s just totally awesome. Sometimes you feel like a kid in a candy store.
Q: Anything else you’d like to add?
Martin Sahlin: It’s really great to be at a show like this where you get the chance to meet people and see them play the game, because at the end of the day that’s what it’s all about. It’s not all about the stuff I’m talking about because… I talk a lot. It’s what the game says that really matters. It’s not about ideas and lofty goals, it’s about what it is. And that’s why it’s really cool to see people playing it, and have so much fun with it.
Someone asked me the other day what my proudest moment was making the game, and that’s such a mean question because I have proud moments all the time! In the office, or when my kids talk about it, or when people tweet stuff at me, or when you see someone play it and then go back in line to play it again. There’s so many proud moments that are just like, “This is the best job in the world.”