Unwording, from developer Frostwood Interactive, is a narrative puzzle game about undoing negative thought patterns. You play as Tom, a man living in a muted sketched world. Waking up begins your journey through a universe word puzzles and burgeoning colors. It’s the first step on the road to recovery.
The world that Tom inhabits is a hand-drawn, 2D world. The colors are a variety of white, muted greys, and purples. It’s pleasant, and the art style is cute. The simple lines allow focus on the story and Tom’s internal narrative. When you wake up, the first puzzle is introduced. The word puzzles in Unwording are simple and easy to execute. The idea is to change a neutral phrase to reflect Tom’s internal intrusive and negative thinking. For example, the first puzzle changes the phrase “Wake Up” to “Give Up.”
To change the phrases, you manipulate letter blocks and place them in the empty squares below the original phrase. Each block has a letter on each side and must be turned on the vertical and horizontal axis to create the correct word. When you are right, the letter turns white. It’s straightforward, even on higher difficulty settings, and highlights that the puzzles aren’t really the point of Unwording; Tom’s story is.
Unwording Is All About The Life of Tom
You play over three days in Tom’s life. He moves from his apartment to work and back again, never interacting with anyone and believing he has no worth. At the end of the first day, a small yellow bird appears and has made its nest on his windowsill. The bird then becomes an instigator in Tom’s recovery. The next day, it flies around his apartment, pooping on his bed and phone. Also, everything is now 3D and has slightly more color in it.
I understand the heavy-handed symbolism here. It isn’t particularly subtle. Over the three days, as Tom turns his negative thoughts into more positive ones, color seeps into the world, and he does more things. He begins to cook instead of ordering takeout, does laundry, stops doom-scrolling on his phone, and begins talking to his co-workers.
Once Tom starts turning things around inwardly, the third day consists of a new mechanic, which I have dubbed “Which random word will make the thing I know needs to happen actually happen?”
My favorite mechanic.
On the third day, everything is in technicolor. You can now type in a word to complete an action when you interact with people and objects. Which word will it be? Will it make sense, like interacting with the radio and typing play, on, off, music, or dance?
No. None of these things will work. Instead, I had to type “Do.” This made Tom move the radio to the open window.
Before this, I had to figure out what exactly Tom was trying to do. Clearly, he wanted to sit in front of the window and stare at everyone. So we made tea by typing the word “Make.
We had made food, not by typing “Cook” or “Food” or “Make” at the stove, but by typing “Food” at the refrigerator. Then the tea and food were set on the windowsill next to the bird’s nest.
Then the desk chair was moved in front of the window when I typed “Sit.” Nope, nothing changed. I tried sitting in the chair. I typed “Look” and “Watch” at the window. Tom did as instructed, but nothing happened. I walked around the apartment before finally noticing I could interact with the radio. Then the saga of “Do” happened. Typing in “Do” solves so many puzzles. Alas.
Where It All Falls Apart
When the style switches from 2D to 3D, it also becomes challenging to navigate. It’s not like Tom goes to many different places, but the places he does go to all have obstacles and depth perception issues that make it wonky to walk around in. Perspectives and camera placement are also frequently janky. For example, when talking to a co-worker, the camera would focus intently on the back of either Tom’s or his co-worker’s head, their hair filling the field of view.
There was also a point on the second day where after Tom got up and the bird was crapping upon his possessions with reckless abandon, I left the apartment and ended up in a black void of nothing. I initially thought this was part of the game. It would fit the narrative. Wandering around a black, empty void alone made sense, given the focus on mental health.
It was not part of the story. I wandered around for a long time, disappearing into the distance and gradually returning. Finally, I stopped, wondering if this was part of the game. Tom began to shake and lose form. Ok, this could still be part of the game. Nope. It was a bug. I reloaded and realized I shouldn’t have been able to leave the apartment because I could no longer.
The experience of Unwording is only around an hour and a half to two hours long. It feels longer. As someone who struggles with severe mental health issues, and has done for 20 years, I applaud the message behind Unwording. It promotes CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) techniques, encourages changing your perspective, and offers access to resources in its main menu.
However, as a game, it is lacking. I understand that the message is the point. However, I do wonder if it might not have been more effective as an animated short film. The puzzling aspect of the game is minimal, and the animation and stylizing of the game are far more interesting. As a narrative, Unwording is fantastic. But, as a game, it’s lacking.