Unwording is a puzzle game about overcoming negative self-talk, following a character’s journey through a flat 2D world into a vibrant 3D one as they learn how to better talk about themselves to themself.
Game Developer sat down with Armaan Sandhu, the game’s developer, to talk about the personal reflections that lead to the creation of the game, how they turned the process of improving self-talk into puzzles when they had little experience with puzzle games themselves, and how they reflected an increasing beauty and appreciation for life through the progressing, changing visuals of the game.
Unwording is a game about overcoming negative self-talk. What interested you in exploring this subject with a game?
A few months after moving to my new place in Mumbai and living alone for the first time, I noticed my thoughts growing louder and my mood dipping. It happened so gradually that I almost didn’t notice it. This started affecting my productivity, and it took me a while to realize that my negative judgment of my life situations was creating self-defeating thoughts.
These thoughts and messages then began to shape my reality. Although nothing was wrong in my life, I nitpicked and labeled everything as not good enough. The brain always agrees with your perception and gives you appropriately colored glasses to view life through. It’s like the famous saying about the two wolves— the one that wins is the one you feed.
At this time, I was in the early stages of a big horror project. As my negativity affected my productivity, I felt the need to switch to something quicker and easier. By this point, I had become aware of my negative thoughts, and during a good day out with a friend in December 2021, I imagined a scene where a character broke free from negativity and the world around them turned from 2D to 3D. As a game developer, everything that inspires me turns into an idea for a game, so this was the beginning of Unwording.
You created a variety of word puzzles for this experience. What thoughts went into the various styles of word puzzles in the games?
To be honest, I don’t have much experience with puzzle games, whether that’s playing them or creating them. Narrative games are more my thing. Coming up with puzzle ideas was quite a challenge, and executing them was even more so.
The puzzles on the first day were relatively straightforward. I had become acutely aware of my own recent tendency to interpret neutral, normal things as negative. Labeling my mundane but normal life as "not special enough" made me feel bad. This turned into the first puzzle—a neutral message like "no messages" (on the main character Tom’s phone) turns into "no one cares," for example.
As I explored this and made progress by reading, watching videos, and challenging my thoughts, I began to realize that I was the only one defining everything. The second phase of the puzzles had to reflect that. I went through a few iterations, but decided it was important to reuse the same words from before and add perspective to them. The puzzles had to "break" into the third dimension, just like the exploration sections did. It was important that these puzzles looked at the same defeating messages but interpreted them differently, which is the main method of recovery and improvement that I went through.
I wasn’t aware of this while making the puzzles, but it turns out this is what Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) also does—unproductive thoughts are challenged and replaced. This is great as, in my opinion, this makes the puzzles even more useful and helpful as an introductory tool.
It took me a long time to figure out the third puzzle. It had to be something that reflected breaking free from the words and the mental games. I spent a lot of time creating iterations of the previous puzzles until the idea to just type things to interact with the world came up. It was cleaner, easier, and gave a feeling of control and confidence. You could go out and interact with the world in your way. At this stage, the words don’t rule over you. Instead, you use the words as a completely new tool to define how you live your life—the same world, street, and office as before, and the same alphabet that was always in front of you—on your keyboard—but used in a completely different way.
You also connected negative and positive talk to these puzzles. What challenges did you face in tying the theme of overcoming negativity into the puzzle design?
The main difficulty was finding the right balance between making the puzzles challenging but not frustrating or discouraging. I wanted the puzzles to convey the message that negative thoughts can be challenged and replaced with positive ones, but I also didn’t want them to be so difficult that they discouraged the player or made them feel like they were failing. This could, then, become additional ammo for their own negative thoughts, which would beat the whole point of the game. To help with this, I added multiple types of hints for each puzzle, clear tutorials, and also an "easy" mode for players that just want to focus on the story.
The game goes through a variety of different visual styles. What appealed to you about doing this? What challenges did it create in development?
The way we feel almost directly affects how we see the world and how vibrant or dull it feels, and I wanted to convey this with the visuals. I also wanted the gameplay and exploration to reflect how we may overlook mundane but beautiful things that are already in our life because we haven’t "assigned value" to them. The transformation of the color palette took care of the first objective, and the freedom (or lack) of movement and camera control in 2D compared to that in 3D addressed the latter.
On the first day, the character passes through the same locations as on day two and three, but because he lives in his head and isn’t able to appreciate things around him, he—and the player—literally can’t see anything interesting outside his narrow everyday schedule—bed, commute, office, commute, bed. Once Tom starts to see things differently, and the player is equipped with the ability to turn the camera and walk into previously inaccessible areas, Tom and the player are able to explore new, hidden areas. This is the most obvious on day three – there is a pleasant terrace behind the wall in his office where he can take a break and drink his coffee. There is a music shop on the street that he previously couldn’t walk into, and so on.
Additionally, this transformation is not just limited to the visuals, but also to the music. The music on day one is dreamlike and unobtrusive, blending into the background without standing out. As Tom becomes more aware of the world around him and the visuals become more detailed, so does the music, becoming more intricate, textured, and distinctive with each day.
Unwording doesn’t have any dialogue or words outside of the puzzles. Why did you choose to do this? What do you feel this added to the story?
Funnily, this was a very conscious decision that wasn’t even related to the game or its themes but had more to do with my previous game—Forgotten Fields. I realized that there were too many words and dialogues in that game and that the characters spoke endlessly. This started to bother me a few months after launch. To fix this, I even patched it a year later to condense some of the dialogue. I felt that I had been using dialogue as a crutch in my storytelling process, and I wanted to test myself by telling a story without using any words. The name "Unwording" came from my attempt to "unword" my storytelling process.
Fortunately, this decision fit perfectly with the themes and ideas of Unwording. It’s the words we tell ourselves repeatedly that have the power to shape our mood and our lives, and we need to deconstruct them and take power away from them to fix our issues. If negative words cause misery, then we need to learn to "unword." I felt that any dialogues apart from those seen in the puzzles and thoughts would dilute their impact. By having the only written words in the game be those from the thoughts and puzzles, the focus remains firmly fixed on their impact on our lives.
What thoughts went into your wordless narrative? What kind of story did you want to tell about this journey to more positive thinking?
I wanted the story to be an uplifting yet realistic one. Even on the second and third days, Tom continues to have moments of negativity, particularly when he’s alone at home. From my experience, negative thoughts don’t stop coming—instead, you get better and better at not engaging with them until it becomes a habit, which allows you to rewire your neural pathways. Each time you successfully dismiss an unproductive thought, you become more confident and better equipped to deal with the next one. Months down the line, you can quickly brush it off because you know you’ve handled it before. Over time, this ability to deflect negativity snowballs, and this is what I wanted to show through the condensed story in Unwording.
It was also important to show that no external situation in Tom’s life really changed except for his thoughts and, therefore, his perception, and on the third day, the actions that he took. He doesn’t get the things he felt he needed on day one. He does not win a lottery, doesn’t fall in love, and doesn’t become a celebrity or super popular in his office all of a sudden. At most, he gains a new friend in the form of the yellow bird and talks to the people around him, but his life essentially remains the same—normal and mundane. Even then, it feels different—it feels GOOD to him, and it was important to communicate that in the story.
Unwording has a great deal of visual and puzzle variety across a brief game. How did you feel about creating so many different elements throughout development? Do you feel it was worth it, and that it helped strengthen your theme, in the end?
The very inspiration that the game was born from was a scene where the world transformed from dull 2D to colorful 3D, so the game had to have multiple perspectives and visual styles. It wasn’t overly challenging—in fact, it was fun switching between different styles during development. And it made complete sense in multiple ways, so it was completely worth it.
After having developed the game with the above logic in mind, it’s been amazing looking back, comparing and realizing how true it actually is in my own life. I’m in the same places and living a similar "external" life as I was in those difficult days from 2021. 2 years on, having done the work, everything does seem different. The sun looks brighter, the music sounds better. They’re all the same situations, but earlier, the great didn’t feel good. Now, the average feels great. I feel the visual transformations accurately reflect this experience, and it would have been a disservice to the game if I had left variety out.
What do you hope players draw from this game? What do you hope the mechanics, story, and visuals evoke in the player?
I think when you’re at rock bottom and you’ve never been there before and you haven’t talked to anyone or aren’t exactly sure what’s going on, you begin to feel that this is it—that it’s never going to get better, that life going forward will remain stuck in monochromatic 2D. You almost don’t dare to hope that things will improve, as if you’re asking for too much and will be disappointed. It seems impossible.
My hope is that people in similar situations that come across this game will learn that things can get better—that life can in fact return to what it was before they slowly and unknowingly descended into the hole they’re in now, and that the color and the music can return. Of course, it won’t happen over three days like in the game, but it doesn’t need to take forever, either. That they have the power, and that it’s within them. The mechanics and the visuals on day three show what’s waiting for them when things get better. So, I just want to give hope.
Apart from that, it’s also a relief to know that you’re not alone in something like this. Seeing a relatable experience like this in a game takes some of the pressure off where you keep asking yourself ‘why’ all the time—"Why am I like this?", "Why do I keep thinking these things?", "It must be just me – something is wrong with me, specifically." It’s cathartic and reassuring because it shows that, while unpleasant, this is normal and other people go through it, too.