Unpacking is an interesting game that does a great job of evoking the experience of the ever-changing flow of life; from childhood to adulthood, you get to experience it all. Were you one of those kids that moved around the country for one reason or another? Did you fully embrace adulthood and just wander around, moving from place to place? Do you like Tetris? If any of the above appeals to you, then maybe Unpacking might be the game for you. It’s quieter than the usual fare in the gaming industry today, as there’s not a single demon, alien, soldier, martial arts master, or dabbing cartoon character in sight. The folks at Witch Beam made sure that Unpacking was an experience that had only one goal in mind:
To make moving into a home the most zen experience you’ll ever have.
Unpacking is beautiful. It’s easy to write off the art style as overdone because of the pixel aesthetic being a common choice for indie games, but this game shows why it’s still being used today. Every new level has its own unique setting that borrows elements from preceding levels to give a great sense of the passage of time. You start in a child’s room and eventually transition all the way to your own apartment to arrange on your own. The changes in props, colors, and environments are equal parts drastic and subtle; little touches like stuffed animals returning in later levels remind you that your character has a life of their own that is ever-changing.
Every object that you have to pick up and arrange accordingly has been painstakingly handcrafted, with just enough detail being withheld to maintain the pixel aesthetic. There isn’t a single part of the game that ever looks out of place and every single object feels like an integral part of the environment and the player character’s identity. To top it all off, the music is serene and generally, as the kids would call it, “a vibe.” You’ll feel right at home with some of the tracks that play during the chill act of rearranging objects in an appealing and logical way. Even the main menu music is great to listen to. I caught myself more than once just spacing out to the gentle track that plays right before you start the game.
If there was one complaint I have about the music, it’s that the way the tracks loop during a level feels awkward at times. There’s a noticeable silence when the track is over, then when some seconds pass, it starts up again all of a sudden. It’s not smooth and can take you out of the experience, but generally is the only real stain on this otherwise pristine presentation.
Boxes, boxes, boxes
Unpacking‘s gameplay is akin to trimming a bonsai tree or putting together a jigsaw puzzle. You won’t ever be pressed to finish right away or to complete things in a particular manner. There’s no ranking system, no sort of grading, or anything that’s obliging you to play the game perfectly. It’s just you and the rooms you visit that need to be filled with the stuff you’re moving in. The different environments present unique challenges that make the act of just dragging and dropping different even as you continue into the mid and late game. Small additions like closets, smaller bedrooms, and other miscellaneous rooms all have you reconsider how you arrange items and where they should go.
When you think you’re done, the game will outright tell you if you actually are; if items aren’t placed in the proper spaces/rooms they belong in, they’ll be outlined with a red glow to signify as such. You’ll still have to figure out where things go on your own but the game won’t shame you or anything for not knowing better and instead unsubtly nudge you into figuring it out for yourself. This might be a bit of a turn-off for some as it can feel a bit patronizing to have your hand held by the game a little, but it definitely suits the game’s laid-back attitude towards the act of moving from place to place.
If you’re feeling particularly spicy, there are unique challenges that award you with stickers for putting objects in specific spaces or specific objects in a certain arrangement. Maybe you have to place a bunch of plants in front of a windowsill or place your stuffed doll you’ve had since childhood on your bed in every level. You aren’t given any direct hints as to what these challenges are but Unpacking does a great job of cluing you in by making clear that some objects would look better in other rooms. Those plants you need to arrange would probably look best under that window where the sun is flowing in and those twenty-sided dice are definitely part of the D&D room, so you should probably put them in the dice tray you pulled out of a box.
If you’ve ever moved out of your parents’ house and have had to make a new life on your own, then Unpacking will make you revisit those memories on its own terms. There is a story here about a woman’s life from childhood all the way to adulthood and it’s handled very subtly throughout the course of the game. It’s nothing groundbreaking and some might even think of it as flat but there’s something to be admired about a game that decides to take a fairly easy-going story and convey it through a zen-like lens.
Unpacking isn’t trying to shake the foundations of gaming but it definitely doesn’t have to; for all the grandiose spectacles of your showstopping, graphically intensive, in-your-face games of the past couple of years, it’s nice to have such a simple and relaxing game. There’s plenty to pick apart in the story, as it is told quietly through the various environments you arrange personal items in, leaving you with plenty of pieces that you have to put together yourself. The year being displayed to you before each new level is as straightforward as the game gets about its story and it works fine for giving context to the new room you’re arranging.
You almost feel attached to the unnamed character by the end, as you’ve sorted their underwear, books, video games, and art supplies multiple times by the end. There’s a sense that you’ve shared this life together and you’re both going through the motions of adulthood and all of its chaotic changes. There’s no goal or ultimate conflict to resolve here, nothing to grant any sense of urgency while opening boxes and pulling things out of them, it’s just how life usually is, and Unpacking conveys that aspect of reality very well.
It might make the game seem boring for some, but I find it to be a nice respite from the day-to-day work grind and even the loudness of gaming’s current landscape. This game won’t appeal to everyone but I feel that there’s absolutely no shame in that. Much like Dark Souls is fun for a very specific group of gamers, Unpacking is for a special subset of people that just want something to make them feel cozy and calm for a couple of hours.
There really is no place like home, but you might need to cultivate a new home more than once in your life. You have to pick up your roots and plant them somewhere new, not knowing if you’ll have to do so again sometime soon. But that sense of change, while uncertain, is filled with endless possibilities. Unpacking grants the player character the privilege of changing and learning the whole while, despite having to create “home” several times over the course of the game. You’ll appreciate that feeling of change much more if you’ve walked this path before, but even if you haven’t, consider giving this one a try.
It might game kind of samey towards the end, but the soothing atmosphere and fun little challenges that the arranging puzzles present to you are interesting enough to see it through to the end. You can stop playing at any time if you really get bored, as the game does autosave your game often. The low-stakes design of the game really makes this perfect to just pick up and play whenever you’ve got some free time. If you’re tired of pointing a gun, sword, mallet, or pickaxe at something all the time, then maybe think about picking up a box instead.
Sometimes, all we need is just some peace and quiet, and Unpacking reminds us that life is filled with those moments. So we should appreciate them whenever we can, even when just opening boxes all day.