Martin Sahlin, the mind behind Unravel, hoped before the release that his game would make us call our mothers. A lovely message that is being created in front of our own eyes in this very sentimental game taking place in the memories of an old woman. This seemingly simple story is about Yarnie, a tiny guy made out of yarn, who is rediscovering the memories that defined the woman’s life, for better or worse. The game wakes up longing in you — for going back to childhood, for better times, for going back to past, utilising all of this tools to make you feel like going back in time and staying there.
To make someone feel sentimental from scratch is no easy task. Few can manage the melancholy and pour it into music with excellence like my favourite maestro, Gustavo Santaolalla, who is the living the proof that less is more and to speak volumes you don’t need an orchestra. Unravel’s soundtrack by Frida Johannson and Henrik Oja (a composer and pop musician respectively) seems to be going with a similar vibe, focusing on a handful of instruments, simple melodies and shiny, ambient backgrounds. In the end, Unravel needs nothing more as we are only living through blurry memories, not the events themselves. With this fact goes the story design — an archetypal old woman left alone, widowed and looking into the world of memories. That world is what the game shows us.
Unravel’s music is a mixture of ambient, instruments such as violin, accordion, harmonica, guitar, all used in different ways accordingly to what the level is about. Surprisingly, a lot of them received their own themes while also oscillating around the same, sentimental mood which remains throughout the score despite many, many melodies we hear. The composers prepared a lot of material never allowing the player to detach themselves from the story and be bored, constantly throwing new themes, variations and instruments at us. The entirety of the score, despite indeed being sentimental, is submerged in nordic folk sounds and styles, especially in the action pieces for violin, making Unravel’s story even more local. The composers used that aesthetic to create a sense of being in a completely different world, making good use of their own music background.
Hearing it next to the moving ghosts of the past while traversing nature was one of the most subtle and intimate experiences I’ve had in videogaming.
Violin plays out an autumnal environments in First Steps, inviting us to Unravel’s world. Missing Piece follows up and adds accordion and harmonica to convey the sadness of the woman’s life. Summer Sky and New Snow illustrate natural landscapes we travel through. There is a lot of moods to experience here — things get darker as we explore a forest polluted by chemicals (Shut It Down and Scarred Earth), seeing all the broken images depicting the woman’s reality falling apart around her. The main theme of the game, The Red Thread, played on every instrument (including a trumpet) is a thematic highlight of the soundtrack, conveing every mood and instrument in one piece. It’s one of the tracks that stay for long with you.
Sentiments aside, Yarnie is endangered by many animals like the gopher or the crows that often chase us down. Murder of Crows includes a fast swirling violin that loops a simple theme and Halling efter per Loof does so similarly, sounding the most folk of the action tracks presented, but there are some more in this vein , all titled in Swedish language (homeland of the creators). The folk element really brings the player closer to nature which is one of the main characters of Unravel.
Its subtle beauty and carfeul manipulation of the player’s feelings is really something special.
Very expressive emotionality of the score makes it an excellent listen outside the game. Johannson and Oda wrote music that is light, very melodic and pleasant to listen. Its functionality is overgrown by the sheer honesty of every melody and piece and I was happy to find out the music is with you all the time. Hearing it next to the moving ghosts of the past while traversing nature was one of the most subtle and intimate experiences I’ve had in videogaming. It brings memories to life, it hooks the player to the important events and creates an entire new sense of reality with ambient design, a world seperate from ours, consisting of memories and blurry feelings.
That is why I think of this soundtrack as one of the highlights of the decade and one of the best in 2016. Its subtle beauty and careful manipulation of the player’s feelings is really something special, especially given the folk mood and dreamlike atmosphere. Oda and Johannson did prove that less is more and that big and complicated themes don’t need huge symphonies but a simple melody repeated a few times. That certain minimality working with the sentimental mood make up for one of the best experiences out there. It’s game music at its best and I can’t not recommend it.