Checking the Score is a feature about video game music, composers, musicians and tools of the trade.
Widely praised for its lovely and evocative visuals, Coldwood’s Unravel is also a game entirely without spoken dialogue. Consequently, the game’s music must do double duty, not only supplying a background soundscape but largely driving the emotional twists and turns of the story. As game creator Martin Sahlin has said, “In lieu of dialog or text, music becomes the voice of the game. It sets the tone and inspires you to think and feel. We leaned heavily on the soundtrack, and needed it to be able to carry the weight of some pretty big tasks. It needed to be capable of both breaking and mending your heart, all without spoken words.”
Developer Martin Sahlin and Coldwood is a Swedish developer and Unravel certainly reflects not just incredibly beautiful natural landscapes, but something of the “beautiful melancholy” of the country as well. This comes through dramatically in the game’s score, which uses local composers and is grounded in the warm tone of Swedish folk instruments. “
Composers Henrik Oja and Frida Johansson, whose studio is across the street from the game’s developers, worked closely with Sahlin during the game’s creation to create the evocative and constantly evolving music that underscores Yarny’s journey. Oja said, “All levels in Unravel have carefully selected Norrland environments, such as the Strömbäck-Kont nature reserve a few miles south of Umeå. We are talking about mountains, forests, peatlands and ice landscapes. So when Coldwood started to look for composers to create music for the game it seemed natural to go for someone with roots in this type of natural environment”
It’s an entirely acoustic score, focused on solo and ensemble strings — including gut-stringed folk fiddle– guitar and piano. Very much inspired by Austin Wintory’s score for Journey, the music of Unravel “changes dynamically to match the gameplay, really helping to tell the story of the world and to enhance the atmosphere.”
The “Yarny Theme” is very much characteristic of the entire score. The sound is modal and the strings are played in folk style, with minimal vibrato and lots of small ornaments, with guitar, piano and soft percussion adding a subtle rhythmic drive to the music. Being a slow waltz or dance in 3, it could easily be mistaken for Celtic or American roots music, but it’s clearly not simply a co-opted folk tune. Like most of Unravel’s score, “Yarny’s Theme” is understated, and perfectly on the cusp of sadness and joy. As Oja puts it, “the game music really covers every level of your soul and heart.”