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'Unravel' captures the cyber heart
A promotional image for the game "Unravel." - photo by Nancy Roche
E3, the digital gaming world's annual conference held in Los Angeles, introduced Martin Sahlin and his doll Yarny to gamers during an EA press conference on June 15, and digital gaming communities immediately gushed over the emotional and vulnerable presentation, sending thousands of gamers to YouTube to see for themselves the source of the commotion. Sahlin's indie game, "Unravel," inspired by nature and family, is only part of the attraction. The other part is Sahlin and his ideals.

The game is a graphically breathtaking physics-based puzzle platformer, and the avatar is Yarny, a little doll made out of wire and red yarn representing "love" that strings yarn behind it as it goes, sometimes using it to overcome obstacles but always needing to have enough of itself left to complete the game.

Most endearing in the presentation was Sahlin himself, who, after all the flashy and confident presenters, stuttered a little and shook with stage fright when he brought out his Yarny doll for all the hardcore gamers to gawk at. But he believes in his ideas and the principles behind them, and that came through clearly despite the nervous laugh.

In an industry overshadowed by violence, exploitation, hypermasculine posing and "Gamergate" the harassment campaign against feminists in the gaming industry the creative director of the Swedish developer Coldwood Interactive introduced his new video game with the observation, "I feel that games are really powerful things."

That's a risky admission to an audience under pressure to downplay gaming's impact. Developers frequently push boundaries with graphic details and edgier themes, citing evidence that they are "harmless."

Sahlin instead expressed a responsibility to create games that "do more than entertain." Sahlin believes that it's not enough to not do harm because of the way they capture a player's mind, games have a potential to do great good.

The Internet, always ready for a fight, responded with emotional support for their shuddering and stuttering new hero and his red yarn doll. On Tumblr, Sahlin was identified with the cinnamon roll meme "too good for this world" and the user boyoshock-infinite blogged, "'not all men', you're right. the nervous yarn man would never do this." The user lolafsvoice also noticed the drastic difference between Sahlin's vision and that of many of his colleagues, saying: "Protect (him) from the game industry."

Bloggers fed their followers Sahlin's Tumblr and Twitter handles (macopaco and monkeybeach, respectively), impressed with his history of caring and conscience. Twitter users described their tears in live tweets.

Many people look on video gaming disparagingly and consider it a juvenile waste of time. Yet Sahlin's vulnerable presentation and the subsequent adoration showered on him offer hope that this underexplored storytelling medium can sustain an audience receptive to the powerful good it offers.