How Unravel's memorable protagonist Yarny was woven together

"My design process became more about stopping iteration. It was about accepting Yarny was finished and resisting the urge to change it. It just felt wrong."

If you'd asked me if I believed in love at first sight this time last year, I'd have told you the idea of falling head over heels for someone at little more than a glance is preposterous.

Less than a year later, and I'm sat here wondering how I could've been so foolish, because I, like so many others, found love last year. And just like those people, my story involves E3 2015 and an anthropomorphic bundle of yarn called Yarny - the star of Swedish developer Coldwood's new platformer, Unravel.

It's rare a game makes such a profound first impression as Unravel did when it was unveiled at last year's EA presser, but when Yarny took his first tentative steps on stage it was impossible to shake the feeling that Coldwood had created something deeply special. 

Although it might be too early to call Yarny a video game icon, it's impossible to deny the character's innate appeal. Yet according to Coldwood's creative director, Martin Sahlin, he only succeeded in bringing Yarny to life by throwing out the creative rule book. 

Beauty in simplicity

"It was a little bit backwards in the sense that usually when you create characters you often do lots of iterations and testing," says Sahlin, explaining that Yarny was the product of a small, simplistic sketch, which he eventually turned into a real-life model.

"As soon as I’d done that, my design process became more about stopping iteration," he adds. "It was about accepting it was finished and resisting the urge to change it. Even though it’s probably always possible to make something better, it just felt wrong."

The one guiding principle Sahlin did adhere to was the notion of a strong, distinct silhouette. 

"That's why we gave Yarny the crescent shaped head," he says. "And I guess that was vaguely inspired by Moomins artist Tove Jansson's critters and creatures, which are basically just curious noise at the edges of an image."

Sahlin was convinced he was onto something when he showed those early concepts to some of his most honest critics: his children. "As soon as I saw their reaction, I knew it was going to work," he says. 

"My design process became more about stopping iteration. It was about accepting Yarny was finished and resisting the urge to change it."

Pulling on heartstrings

Sahlin says that people people tend to see Yarny differently depending on where they're coming from. "Some see it as a cat, some see it as a devil. It's cool that people can turn it into what they want."

In many ways, he continues, Yarny is a blank slate; an open book that fosters attachment. People are allowed to see in Yarny whatever they want. In order to create those connections, Sahlin reveals he designed the character around a simple core conceit.

"It works because of that very simple concept of unraveling. You can actually see the character getting thinner and weaker as you move further away from the things from you love," says Sahlin. 

"People latch onto that symbolism, and one of our main motivations for creating this small, fragile character was to inspire empathy in our players."

That core conceit didn't just impact Sahlin's original designs, but also the way the team chose to bring Yarny to life. 

"When we started animating we talked about inspiring empathy, but what we wanted to do was really focus on how fragile the character was. So, it started out a lot less agile than it turned out to be in the end," he recalls.

"At first, when Yarny was jumping over a ledge, we wanted it to look like it was struggling to get over it. Then when we started playing that turned into a frustration because he didn't feel capable. He felt sluggish. 

"We talked about inspiring empathy, but what we wanted to do was really focus on how fragile the character was."

"So, we made the character more agile so it's more satisfying for the player; they'll feel empowered, but still vulnerable."

Create with purpose

Latching onto that idea and using it to shape every aspect of Yarny's design is one of the key reasons Sahlin believes Unravel got the reaction it did. He'll admit, however, that just because it worked for him doesn't mean it should become a universal golden rule. 

Iterate if you feel the need, or hold back when you don't; for Sahlin, it isn't so much about how you create, but rather, what your creation represents.

"In this case, not doing iterations really worked out, but I wouldn't give that as general advice. I suppose it all boils down to what your character is really about. In the case of Yarny that's very clear, and its easy to attach to," he explains. 

Whenever you create you're always going to doubt yourself, admits the Unravel director. It's an unavoidable side-effect of the process. That, though, doesn't mean you should stop at the first sign of failure. So take a leap, learn to trust your own intuition, and don't be afraid to see how far the rabbit hole goes. 

"So much of it has to do with gut feeling, and just practicing and practicing," he says. "You have to do that to understand what works and what doesn't. But like I said before, figure out a character's purpose -what it's trying to say, what it's trying to do - and make that come across visually.

"That's something that should definitely be a bigger part of character design."

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