Unpacking inspires the melancholic nostalgia of sorting your life out of boxes

Hey Kweens and Kings. Today I’m doing a video game review of Unpacking. This game was developed by Witch Beam, an Australian developer made up of roughly 6 people. I haven’t done a video game review in forever, so I thought it’d be good to start with this simple indie game.

There are two things I want to talk about with this game

  1. Distinguishing what it is
  2. Accepting its concept, flaws in execution

Premise

Unpacking is described as a “zen puzzle game” about unpacking various household items in different living spaces. Each level is a different living space in a different year in the main character’s life. You start in a single room that’s clearly meant to be for a child and you’ll progress to larger spaces as your character grows up.

The gameplay is very straight-forward. Each room has a series of cardboard boxes you can click on and open. Whenever you click on an opened cardboard box, a new item will appear in your selection and you are tasked with placing it somewhere in the room. You can move objects that are already in the room if you want to do a little redesigning. You can also set down any item you pick out of the box so you don’t have to place everything in its final position once you have it selected. That’s the extent of the game mechanics. There is nothing else beyond picking things out of boxes and placing them somewhere.

The game follows the same character over the course of their life. You’ll unpack a little over a half-a-dozen locations as you go through the years. The game is unsurprisingly short. I finished it in maybe 2 and a half hours. I wasn’t speed running it but I could’ve taken more interest in the layout of my rooms. Unpacking is available for $20 on Steam, Xbox, and the Nintendo Switch.

Distinguishing what it is

I would describe Unpacking as an interactive narrative rather than a game. There are no fail states or ratings. Unpacking is also not like those other chore simulator games that have become popular in recent years. Games like House Flipper, Cooking Simulator, Car Mechanic Simulator, etc. Those games have a similar “zen” appeal, but they had definable objectives. I wouldn’t compare Unpacking to any of those games.

This game is much more about inspiring a sense of nostalgia for the past. I would say it is far closer to being “art.” It wants to elicit an emotion from you through your experience with the game. It is not a simulator about relishing the activity you’re doing, it’s about the whole package.

I would say Unpacking is successful at creating the atmosphere its going for and that’s a combination of the presentation and specific creative choices. The graphics use a high-quality pixel art style. I think footage of this game speaks for itself, it has great art design. The pixelated look inspires nostalgia for anyone playing games since that style is so intertwined with the history of the medium. I thought the music was very appropriate. I can’t say I noticed it specifically, but I did find myself getting into a flow state and connecting what I was doing in the game with memories I had of the past. I think a lot of that was assisted by the soundtrack.

Presentation is great but really it was the creative choices from the developer that packed the most punch. It’s funny because I was worried this game would have a handful of novelty items that every player would pick up on and that would be it. Often times these narrative games have one or two tricks up their sleeve and if you hear about one of them then the experience is ruined for you. Unpacking has more than just a handful. I’ve looked at coverage of this game and each review picks up on a different item of significance. For me, I noticed there was this series of three books that were always unpacked one after the other and I believed they were a trilogy of fantasy novels the main character took with them throughout their entire life. Each book has a distinct color, but they look very similar so I thought my interpretation was accurate. I definitely relate to holding onto a book of significance even many years later.

There are a lot of examples of items telling a story just by being there. This is basically a game designed around the technique known as “environmental storytelling.” You learn a lot about this main character’s passions and career obligations just by seeing what’s in their room. If you’ve never considered how much the stuff you own reflects on who you are, this game will illuminate that to you.

It’s worth noting the main character is clearly a woman. You’re putting away bras and tampons and stuff. It didn’t affect my experience because I could still relate to most of it, but just something to know.

Flaws in the execution

You may have already decided if you think this is a game you’re interested in or if it’s totally not your thing. I will say, I think I bought into the concept of Unpacking but even with that buy-in there were some flaws working against the game.

First, it’s described as a zen puzzle game but there is no tangible difficulty so you can’t call it a puzzle game. I would be happy with a zen no-fail-state experience if they leaned into it, but instead they add some inconveniences as a kind of “difficulty” that don’t add anything to the game.

Each box will have a random item that doesn’t belong in the room you’re in, so you’ll either have to set it aside or search for the other room and put it somewhere temporarily. The game does this all the time and it is always annoying. If you’re trying to achieve a zen nostalgia trip, I don’t want to break that for no reason. If you’re playing with a controller cycling through rooms is particularly annoying and it just doesn’t add anything to the game.

Closely related to that problem is the game’s nit-picking of how you place certain items. Sometimes at the end of a level you’ll get an item outlined in red indicating it can’t be placed where it is. It’s not every item, but it is very frequent. This can be a problem because sometimes you don’t know what the item is. I had an experience where I had these three magnets that I didn’t know were magnets. I tried putting them everywhere in the house and could not find the answer. I never thought maybe this small knick-knack should go in the kitchen in the fridge, so I ended up having to look it up online and I wasn’t the only one.

This made one of the core moments of the game not work for me at all. There is one particular living space where the nature of the situation is meant to convey to the player you don’t feel accommodated in the space you’re in. There is one item that doesn’t have a spot anywhere in the house. The location where this item can be placed is a location that if you attempted to place it there in previous levels, you would have gotten a red outline. So in my playthrough, I never considered that location. I spent a few frustrating minutes trying to click everywhere before looking it up online again. I didn’t connect with the game thinking “wow, I’m frustrated just like the main character is right now,” because the red outlines were already annoying at that point. All I could think was “I really hate this mechanic.”

I think if you’re going to make a zen game, then make a zen game. These little annoyances took away from my experience. They not only didn’t need to be in there, but they literally made what is there not work as well for my experience.

Finally, I think the length is simply unacceptable. Mainly because it would not take much more effort to make the game more dynamic. For example, all the furniture in each living space is locked in place. I don’t know about you guys but transporting furniture has been at least half of the moving experience for me. I realize this means they couldn’t do one or two of the narrative beats they wanted to land, but I think they could’ve worked around it. I don’t want to do armchair game design, but I’ll say I felt the game was too restrictive and I thought it had potential to do more while staying faithful to its small scope and specific concept.

Closing Thoughts

I say all that as someone who really liked the concept of Unpacking. I honestly connected with much of what the game had to offer. I don’t think this studio has made much before and I am encouraged to see they wanted to make a game like this. I can appreciate a studio that uses mechanics to tell a story rather than a lot of writing or cut scenes or whatever. I hope they expand on this concept — maybe add another story of a different character as DLC? I’d be happy to give it another shot. That said, the length of the game, the feeling it’s too limited, and the occasional frustrations make it hard for me to give a full recommendation. I’d say it’s a 3/5, I think you’ll find ways to enjoy it if you get it but unless it’s really up your alley you might not want to.

3/5

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: