Created by Australian developers Witch Beam and published by Humble Games, Unpacking is a chilled, zen-like puzzle game about … unpacking. With gorgeous pixel art, it’s a relaxing game with a surprisingly deep emotional impact.
Unpacking: a Simple Game with Surprising Depth
Developer: Witch Beam
Publisher: Humble Games
Genre: Puzzle, indie, simulation
Platforms: PC, Nintendo Switch, Xbox One
Release Date: 2nd November 2021
Once, my Mum called me and casually suggested she might throw out a terracotta wine cooler. It was a gift from my auntie, brought back from one of her holidays in Portugal. There it sat on our windowsill, unused, in whatever kitchen we lived in, from the nineties onwards. That is, until recently.
‘Mum! You can’t throw it away! I’ll take it.’
‘Alright. But why?’
‘Because,’ I said, stubbornly, ‘We’ve always had it.’
I couldn’t explain to her why I suddenly held such a fierce attachment to an item that a) has never been used for its intended purpose and b) is a souvenir from a country that neither of us has ever actually visited. And it’s only upon playing Unpacking that I’ve realised why.
Unpacking has minimal, relaxing gameplay
Unpacking is, in terms of gameplay, exactly as it sounds. It’s unpacking. You click to open a box and click again to remove an item, and then you put it somewhere. It’s like real-life unpacking, only much more bearable because it involves less physical effort.
It’s calming, and methodical, and allows you to arrange items exactly how you would like them to be, which is very pleasing if you like things to be neat and orderly. There’s a bit of a puzzle element involved. Once you’ve finished unpacking all the boxes, any items that have not been put away correctly will glow with a red outline until you’ve found the right area for them.
You can snap pictures of your finished rooms, decorating them with stickers that you unlock through completing the story, or by following clues (‘Game On’, ‘Tidy Whities’). There aren’t many of these, but it does help to elongate the game a little bit.
You, as the player, unpack the various houses you have lived in since childhood. The game opens in 1997, with you unpacking your bedroom. You’ll uncover a Tamagotchi, a tape player, a My Little Pony, a Rubik’s Cube. It’s a nostalgia hit for frazzled and overwhelmed millennials, but not in an in-your-face sort of way.
Once you’ve finished that room, you’ll move on to the next house. And the next. And the next. As you move on through time (all the way to 2018), you’ll start to notice patterns. Some objects (a soft toy, a sketchbook) go with you all the way from childhood to your university house to your first house share and beyond. Others shift and change (a new mug in 2004 becomes a chipped toothbrush holder in 2007).
It doesn’t sound like there’s much to figure out here in terms of the story. There are no viewable characters. There aren’t any characters to talk to, and there isn’t a script (apart from the quick captions under the snapshots of each completed house in your scrapbook, which incidentally, travels with you to every home you live in).
But despite the lack of obvious storytelling tools, Unpacking tells a story just the same. It is the story of a person through the objects that they own. Somehow, it manages to convey the main character’s life – their career pursuits, their passions from childhood, their relationships, their heartbreaks and disappointments, their interests, their successes – purely through the objects that they own. Even the placement of certain objects (the diploma stashed in the wardrobe of a boyfriends’ flat) paints more detail into the picture of the main characters’ state of mind.
Ultimately, it is a game about growing up. From childhood into the overwhelming moments of early adulthood. From the optimistic awkwardness of house sharing through to the discomfort that comes from living in someone else’s house. And then the eventual discovery of your own space and the freedom you have to move within it. You see the character evolve without ever meeting them face to face. It’s subtle and beautiful storytelling, and I’ve never played anything quite like it.
Also, the ending is just the most wholesome thing, although it seemed to come quickly. Then again, it was probably just the right length to stop the gameplay from becoming repetitive.
Unpacking’s Amazingly Beautiful Pixel Art
A quick note on the pixel art. It’s lush. There are thousands of items (and, apparently, thousands of audio files to match), each lovingly rendered in extremely pretty pixel art. I love a good pixel art game, and this is no exception.
It’s worth slowing down to appreciate how beautiful it looks. Even if just to give a psychic salute to the pixel artists involved in the development process.
Is Unpacking Worth Playing?
I don’t think I’ve ever spent more time thinking about the objects that I own (apart from that time I watched Tidying Up with Marie Kondo and accidentally got rid of half of our stuff). I come from a long line of renters and have moved around a decent amount of times. And yet, some things – a Beanie Baby named Freckles, a box of old photographs – have moved along with me, adding permanence to something transient.
Ultimately, Unpacking resonated so deeply with me, moreso than any narrative-heavy games I’ve played this year. Life is not about things. After all, we don’t take things with us in the end. But things do tell a story of who we were. Things take on a meaning that we perhaps don’t even realize they have. Things are an outward clue about the things that matter to us.
Unpacking shows this in a way I had never thought about before, just by forcing me to place each item one by one, and it reminds me of the unique power of videogames to tell a story in a way that cannot exist in any other medium.
I took the wine cooler. It lives on my windowsill. I use it to store kitchen utensils, and I don’t really notice it anymore. But every time I reach for a spatula, I see it. It reminds me, subtly, of my roots, of where I came from. And that’s no small thing.
Look, I’m getting emotional. Just play Unpacking, alright? It’s gorgeous. You won’t regret it.