Unravel Developer Interview with Martin Sahlin

Few games use audio the way recent release Unravel does – helping to guide players through an emotional, as well as a physical, journey. We sat down with Martin Sahlin, the game’s creative director, to find out why what’s on offer for you ears is just as important to game as what you take in with your eyes…

Name: Martin Sahlin
Role: Creative Director, Coldwood Interactive
Twitter @monkeybeach

You’ve said that music is the voice of Unravel, can you elaborate on that for us?
Unravel doesn’t have a traditional linear story. Instead, we try to inspire players to come up with their own narratives. The game world is full of details and clues, and memorable moments, things that are meant to make players think. We establish an atmosphere, a mood, and leave the rest up to the players. Music plays a huge part in that, it sets the tone, and gets players in the right mindset. It’s one of the most direct ways we have of communicating emotion to players, so yes, I think it’s fair to call it the voice of Unravel.

UnravelWhat inspired you to create a game driven only by music/sound?
Unravel deals with themes like love, longing and loneliness. We can all relate to those things, but they’re still hard to put into words. But through music we can express what we feel, and players can interpret that message in any way they want. I like that freedom, that everybody “knows” the message, but we all know it in our own way. That’s why I wanted music to play such a big part in the game.

How was the music used to create a wide range of different emotions?
We worked really closely with two local composers, Henrik Oja and Frida Johansson. We gave them playthrough videos of the levels, along with descriptions of the main story beats and events, and the tone we wanted. Then we iterated on that. It was nice to be able to collaborate so closely, to go back and forth about every detail, and make sure that the music and the game fit each other, and that we were getting the right message across. The music components are all put together dynamically in the game, so the soundtrack really mirrors the mood of the gameplay.

Is sound design an under-appreciated element of games?
I’d say that it is. It’s actually interesting to listen when someone else plays a game, you hear things very differently then, compared to when you play yourself. You realize how annoying many games actually sound. I suppose it’s because games are usually focused primarily on providing information to the player, and just the player, not so much on the actual listening experience.

Unravel_20160205114952Other than Unravel which game/s do you think uses music and sound in a unique way?
I’m very fond of Red Dead Redemption’s soundtrack. It’s beautiful, and it perfectly fits the setting, and the way their dynamic score adapts to whatever is going on in that massive open world is really cool, and inspiring too. I love how they sometimes use “real” songs as well, like the José Gonzalez song that plays when you first ride into Mexico. That was a truly memorable moment.

Movie sound directors often use strange methods to achieve certain sound effects – was this the case with Unravel?
It certainly was. It’s actually kind of tricky trying to portray what a yarn character would sound like, but it was fun to experiment with. I think the relaxing recording methods are the best though, like when Håkan Dalsfelt, the audio programmer, spent a day at his cabin in the mountains to record ambient sounds. The soundtrack features lots of old traditional Scandinavian instruments, like the key harp, but there’s some slightly more odd stuff in there as well. Our percussionist, Petter Berndalen, plays a very unusual drum kit that he’s put together from all kinds of little bits and pieces, including a bird call and a crystal chandelier.

Was using local musicians important to achieving the right kind of atmosphere for the game?
It was hugely important. Partly because we could really involve them in the process, so they could get a deeper understanding of what the levels actually played like. But also because they know and understand the atmosphere that we wanted to portray. We wanted to capture what these environments feel like, what kind of moods they inspire, and I think they totally nailed it. They know these places just as well as we do, and care just as deeply about them. The music feels rooted, like it belongs right there where it is.

Do you think the success of Unravel will encourage more publishers to invest in indie games?
I certainly hope so. I think everyone that pushes a boundary helps to expand the space for everyone else, and I’m glad that we’re kind of doing that. I don’t think anyone expected EA to release a game like ours, but it’s nice to see that they did, and that it works.