Some recent backlash over Unravel‘s place in the gaming industry causes one staff member to wonder why some people are so hesitant to let games be entertainment.
One of my favorite games in recent memory is Telltale Games’ Tales From The Borderlands series. That is in spite of the fact that I’m one of the first who will admit that Telltale Games formula behind the way they design each of their titles is becoming, to me at least, a little stale as time goes on. I love point-and-click adventure games the same way a lot of people might love oxygen or a particularly incredible household pet, but every now and then it would be nice to solve a puzzle or jump onto three platforms over the course of a Telltale game.
That being said, however, Tales From The Borderlands has earned its spot on my list of must-play games through two things: the way it tells its story, and how fun it is to be a part of that narrative. These two things are intrinsically tied together, and it would be impossible for me to separate the two. Tales From The Borderlands takes one of the most brutal, ridiculous, and over-the-top universes in recent memory and manages to create upwards of ten characters that I care about in something like 10-20 hours of gameplay, tops. By making me care early, Telltale also adds my own personal stake into the way I navigate the game’s narrative, which makes it much more entertaining. I would jump on an Atlas grenade for Loaderbot, a common enemy mech seen in 2K’s Borderlands games that takes on one of the most endearing gaming personalities I’ve ever run across with just a few sentences in each Tales From The Borderlands episodes.
The actual gameplay within Tales From The Borderlands is unremarkable, at best. It doesn’t matter. The game is still a hilarious, emotional rollercoaster that is, at its heart, simply fun to play, and I’d recommend it to anyone. Yet time after time I see the video game community split on whether or not a game that wants to make its players feel something is a worthy addition to the industry. If a game is not innovative, if it rehashes a lot of our favorite mechanics from past well-received entries, or if it dares to be only five or six hours of quality content, it is questioned relentlessly. Why did the developers not push the game more? Why did the team working on the game recycle mechanics we’ve already seen in some other popular franchise? Why did a studio feel like its six hour game was worth my hard-earned money?
The answer, of course, is almost universally because the developer designed the game based around concepts that the people questioning it don’t believe to be important. That’s fine – not everyone is going to build a small Loaderbot shrine in their bedroom closet like I have – but it also isn’t an excuse to criticize a well-made game. Just because it didn’t push the envelope doesn’t mean it wasn’t worth a look, and some people are more than happy to pay between $20 and $40 for a short game that’s six hours of pure fun or entertainment. It depends on perspective, and while it is perfectly reasonable to dislike any game in existence, it is unfair to publicly shame it for simply not catering to a specific interest that the developers didn’t share.
The latest example of this disconnect between a game’s goals and the way the community has received those goals is the newly-released Unravel, a game by Coldwood Interactive that seeks to find a home in the niche that games like Ori and the Blind Forest and Child of Light have carved out before it. Coldwood’s IP sheds the bright colors and cartoony vibe present in games like Yoshi’s Wooly World and Kirby’s Epic Yarn, instead opting to place the game’s easy-to-look-at protagonist Yarny in a much more realistic setting. Unravel‘s E3 reveal displayed a game that was trying to do something new with a formula as old as storytelling, showing players how Yarny is exploring and literally stringing together the pieces of someone’s memories with the character’s own body.
And while most of the early feedback on Unravel is extremely positive, some voices in the community have criticized the game for exploiting childhood feelings and nostalgia in a way that is counter-intuitive to developing a good game. On the surface, perhaps, this argument looks somewhat valid – after all, nobody likes having their emotions preyed upon in the name of profit, and it’s a pretty cheap way of going about business. The difference between outright exploitation and simply choosing to evoke these feelings, however, is very different, and the fact that Unravel is being targeted for this kind of discussion at all goes back to the way in which some gamers take issue with the fact that a specific title like Unravel doesn’t cater to what they want out of a game.
Let’s get this out of the way now: it is perfectly fine for a developer to create a game that wants to be entertaining and emotional, much in the same way it is okay for a movie to feature the death of a side character in order to progress the plot and make viewers more emotionally invested in the downfall of the bad guy. As long as the game executes on those principles, it is unfair to accuse it of trying to ambush gamers with a bad case of the feels.
With that being said, however, the time to accept emotional content as a worthy ambition in video games is long overdue. Games like Unravel push the medium further because of its unique perspective on themes of love, loss, and sadness, and the fact that Unravel also happens to be a fun, interesting puzzle platformer helps it avoid being classified as some kind of inaccessible art. I think an apt comparison to Unravel might be Quantic Dream’s incredible Heavy Rain, another game that shook up traditional notions of gameplay in a minor but fascinating way while telling the kind of compelling story that is usually reserved for novels or art cinema. While I won’t claim that Unravel‘s narrative belongs in the upper echelons of story-telling achievement in gaming, it does manage to evoke intense feelings using a character who literally never speaks, which is no small feat.
Ultimately, the fact that some of the video game community is unwilling to embrace a title that just wants to be fun while making them feel something won’t matter. Heavy Rain, Child of Light, and Tales From The Borderlands are already critical and commercial successes, and developers have taken notice that the industry is becoming more open to games that want to leave players with a lasting, lingering sense of emotion. However, those who dismiss games because they are interested in such “trivial” pursuits should take notice of the trends within the industry as well, and perhaps give gaming just for the sake of enjoyment (rather than perfect gameplay mechanics or a story with a protagonist who feels about as much as the common cinder block) a fair shot.
Or not. Maybe I didn’t want to invite those people to my Loaderbot feels party anyways. Their loss.