Unraveling Martin Sahlin: An Interview with Coldwood’s Creative Director

...more than just a spool of yarn.

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A doll made out of yarn can be viewed as a simple plaything for kids. But in the hands of Martin Sahlin, Coldwood’s Creative Director, it’s much more, bringing with it broken bonds, missed connections, and forgotten times.

The story of Unravel is a journey powered by love and appreciation. And while it doesn’t have action sequences, gunplay, or even much dialogue, it’s a sight to behold.

Recently, The Koalition had a chance to speak with Sahlin about bringing Yarny and Unravel to life.

Who would have thought a piece of yarn would come to mean so much to the gaming community. Created years ago, Sahlin was inspired by items that were around him, and while many other characters usually go through hundreds of designs, Yarny was different. When you create something that speaks to you deeply, there’s no need for the design to undergo multiple transformations. Fortunately for Sahlin, this was the case when creating Yarny.

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“I only made two versions. The first one I made was when I was out in the woods; I basically made it out of material I scavenged. When I got home, I made a slightly more refined version that was built from better wire because on the wire skeleton of the first one, I pulled some wire off an anchor table from a boat which worked at the time but really wasn’t optimal for trying to take a good picture. So I made a second one that was based out of proper wire so that you can bend it and move it more. I really didn’t want to change much of the design, because I felt at the time really inspired and it was one of those times where everything feels kind of right.”

When you sit down to play Unravel, you are quickly immersed in its vibrant colors, crisp graphics, and precise sounds. A puddle reflects its surroundings, raindrops fall, winter is blistering, and Yarny, the ever present ball of red yarn, makes his journey. While the story itself is powerful, the graphics help to breathe life into the game. Sahlin, also a photographer, was inspired by his environment and felt compelled to bring his photographic euphoria and talents to Unravel.

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“When I was out that day, taking pictures, running around with the doll, I was just so happy with the results and how they turned out. So I thought, how can we just make the game look like this? We went for as much realism as we could. But then there are also two more reasons for it, the second one was a very important one.

“We based all the stuff on our home environment. we wanted to show off all the stuff that we like and all the stuff we care about and obviously we wanted it to look as nice as possible. So we really just tried to highlight the beauty in the ordinary. when you get down to Yarny’s level you really get to see just how nice stuff that you might not even notice is. So that was like a big part. And also, I think, one of the major reasons why we did this, we just wanted to create a world where you would feel at home, a world where you would want to lose yourself in, and you would stay in it and feel welcomed in it.

“When you’re trying to make a game that makes people emotionally involved and also a slower paced game like this, I think one of the easiest, and best ways to grab people’s attention is with visuals because they notice it and they kind of get a sense of what it is. They immediately get a feeling, they immediately get drawn into it. And then we have all these other ways of holding your attention, but I think the visuals really are the first thing that grabs you which is why the game looks as good as it does.”

One of the unique characteristics of Unravel’s Yarny is how captivated by life he is. Every moment and movement is into the journey of the unknown. Yarny is expressive, inquisitive, and always interactive; even when the game is paused, something is holding his attention. Taking in the sights and sounds of the world. Yarny is more than a doll, he is alive.

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“Basically, the idea was there right from the start. I just made it kind of like my mission to make sure that this character has to feel alive, it has to be something that reacts to what’s happening. It can’t be like you’re driving a car through the environment, it has to feel like a living breathing thing that reacts to what’s going on and that he’s aware and constantly talking.

“He’s giving you feedback about what the character is feeling, about what the character is experiencing through body language, gestures, actions, and stuff like that. That’s why we have tons and tons of different animations going on. We have different systems with layered animation; we have it where you can basically swap out moods of the character to be more appropriate within that context. So when you walk into a dark attic or something like that, the character might be tiptoeing like it’s sneaky, or if it’s cold outside, it might be bundled up and shivering.

“We also have tons of context touch-based stuff, like if Yarny gets wet for instance, Yarny will shake the water off with a shake or when you’re standing close to the ledge, you’re kind of like tiptoeing and peeking out over the ledge. At every moment we’re always trying to make the character more alive and more aware. And I think it really does pay off, it’s so much easier to care about something when you care.”

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Like with many game designers, life often imitates art. Creators are inspired by their own experiences and the life around them. For Sahlin, family bought the story of Unravel to life. However, family is universal and can be applied to anyone’s life.

“Of course I based it on things I’ve seen. It’s not the story of my life, but you take some pieces there and some pieces there and they have something bigger to say. The foundation of the story was based on fears. Something that scared me as a parent is what if when my kids grew up, we were no longer close? What if our bond weakens over time? What that would be like? What if you’re old, alone, and left behind? So that’s kind of like where I started writing the story from, just to try to fix that. Someone who has been left behind, someone who is just trying to tie it all together and make it right again.

“Then I realized that this connection can be seen in many different ways, it could be saying other things as well. And then I just started to, really on purpose, to make it as emotional as possible so that people could bring their own thing into it. It is based on me and my family, but at the end I hope people will bring themselves into it.”

Unravel is available now for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC.

About The Author
Dana Abercrombie Content Writer
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