Media trained men in suits. Towering LCDs and blaring bass. Post-apocalyptic wastelands. Super soldiers and zombies. Space suits and sequels.
Technology wars. Dollar figures and casual boasts. Executives with white smiles and well-tailored jackets. Sports games and hired crowds that holler and whoop. Hype trains. Derailed. Back on track. Derailed.
Musicians and celebrities. Tweets in the thousand. All-caps hyperbole and cold-eyed cynicism. Shame culture. The race for the perfect GIF. Who fucked up the most? Who fucked up the least?
Who won E3?
Martin Sahlin, Creative Director of Unravel, laughs when I tell him that he ‘won’ E3; when I speak in the language we all use when discussing a trade show like E3. A language I suspect he doesn’t speak.
He won it in a single moment. In a five-minute demo sandwiched between guns and Star Wars. Martin walked on-stage and reached into his pocket. He pulled out a red doll he made with his own hands. Hands that shivered nervously as he let out a little squeak of a voice. He waved the arm of the doll he had made with his own shaking hands and he said:
Martin Sahlin holds up his left hand. The familiar tattooed hand that shook — seemingly nervously – as he showed off Unravel for the first time at EA’s E3 press conference.
“See,” he says, “I just have these really shaky hands.”
The story of Sahlin, and Unravel, is special. After Sahlin’s studio released a poorly received fighting game for the launch of Kinect he retired, with his family, to a camping trip that would transform him. In the solitude of the forest, with no access to game development tools, he came up with the concept for Unravel, the video game that would change his life.
It was the result of soul searching and providence. Sahlin asked himself a series of important questions. What video games did he really want to make? Did he really want to spend time away from his family, crunching endlessly on products he didn’t believe in, didn’t value? What messages did he want to communicate? What was important to him as a creator?
Then later, during a hike in the forest, Sahlin stumbled across up a loose piece of wire. He began contorting it, bending it into shape. Eventually he created something that resembled a frame — a character almost. Humanoid. Interesting.
As he wandered through the forest he found another group of campers; among them, a person knitting with a thick ball of red yarn. Could he borrow some of that yarn, he asked politely. Of course, came the reply.
With that wire framework and that borrowed wool, Sahlin created ‘Yarnie’, the handmade doll that would become the protagonist of Unravel. Was Sahlin onto something? He wasn’t sure. He explored the forest, experimenting with the doll. How could he use that borrowed red yarn to navigate the forest environment? How did this process tie into the questions Sahlin was asking himself? What was important to him?
His family. Remaining connected to them. Creating something he was proud of. Making something honest. Something real.
“What was I feeling? I was feeling everything. It was one of the most emotional moments of my life.”
Sahlin waits for his cue to go on-stage. If you asked him then, he would tell you he wasn’t scared. Any nerves he might have felt were the result of a botched stage rehearsal where his microphone wasn’t working.
Sahlin wasn’t scared. The word he uses is “overflowing”
“When you have a game,” he explains, “it’s your precious little secret. You carry it close to your heart but you’re also just dying to share it.”
When he walked on-stage at EA’s E3 press conference, the reception was muted. Unravel wasn’t a heavily anticipated sequel to Mirror’s Edge, it wasn’t Madden. It wasn’t a video game based on a license like Star Wars. Sahlin wasn’t Cliff Bleszinski.
Polite applause is generous. You might describe the applause as “smattering”.
“I walked out on stage and I looked at the people sitting there,” remembers Sahlin. “They looked up at me like… who the hell are you?”
Then Sahlin spoke. He spoke quietly and deliberately. He spoke sincerely about his reasons for making Unravel. He remembers distinctly: a shift in the crowd.
“It was intense. Then I brought out the Yarnie doll and made the stupid voice. That wasn’t really planned.”
During the dress rehearsal for EA’s E3 conference, Sahlin only had one minor request: “don’t zoom in on my hands”. Martin Sahlin has really shaky hands.
But they zoomed in anyway, towards one of the defining moments of E3 2015. A game developer so passionate about the video game he was creating that his hands were literally shaking as he showed it to a room full of strangers
“I was just full of adrenaline. I was just full of heart, like I was going to overflow. And because of that I couldn’t keep my hands still.”
Then, an applause you might describe as “rapturous”.
Sahlin was supposed to jump into a cab and immediately race towards an IGN livestream to demo his game all over again, but he waited. He stood by the side of the stage. They were about to play a full-length trailer for Unravel and he wanted to see the reaction of the crowd.
“It was just the most incredible moment of my life.”
Almost instantly, Sahlin’s phone began rattling with notification after notification. “It was possessed,” laughs Sahlin.
It was almost impossible to do anything. Sahlin remembers sitting down and trying to write an email to his studio in Sweden, who back home working fervently on the game — but every single second he was interrupted by a tweet, a text, a phone call. Sahlin turned off all notifications on his phone, leaned back in his seat and exhaled.
Later that evening, alongside members of his team, Sahlin made Yarnie dolls long into the night, for a photo opportunity the following day. He sat glassy-eyed and shell-shocked, staring into the distance.
“I spoke maybe ten full sentences the whole night,” he says. “I was floored.”
“It was something profoundly strange, unlike anything I’d ever felt before. I remember I was sitting there making the Yarnie dolls saying, ‘they’re making fan art of me!’ What is this?
“I was in awe.”
It was a feeling Sahlin was completely unprepared for.
“I had a feeling people would like it,” explains Sahlin, “but unless you are the most arrogant person in the world there’s no way you can prepare for a reception like that. There’s no way you can expect that people would be so incredibly kind. It was overwhelming. It was shocking, but in a really positive way.”
Sahlin speaks quietly, precisely. He uses words that sound strange in print, but apt in conversation: words like “overflowing”, “intense”, “full of heart”. It’s a different language, a language that normally inspires cynicism in the listener, but with Sahlin it’s difficult to doubt the sincerity.
Sahlin makes himself vulnerable. You can sense that. He appears nervous, but speaks with confidence. There’s a power in that. It's impossible to deny; easy to get drawn into.
“I do that on purpose,” he admits, “because that’s what Unravel is. It’s about heart. It’s about putting that effort in and trying to create that bond.
“When you’re on stage like that you’re making that bond with people. That is a vulnerable position. But I’d rather be that guy than the cocky guy. That’s just not who I am, that’s not what Unravel is about. It’s about being honest and being real.
“What a journey I’ve had making this game. That moment was the culmination of all that. It was super super intense.”
Our time is up. The interview is over. This presentation doesn't end with applause. We say our polite goodbyes. He offers up his hand. It’s still shaking.`