Unpacking is better than it has any right to be. Not the act, I mean: the game. Well, thanks to the game, I might be rethinking the act, as well.
Unpacking bills itself as a “zen puzzle game about unpacking a life.” The core gameplay is exactly what it says on the box. Each of the game’s levels is a different location (a room, an apartment, or a house) into which the story’s central character has moved, starting with the first room she had all to herself as a kid. In each level, you have to unpack—each time you click a box, you get a new item (with only the box’s size and location as an indicator of what it might be) and have to find somewhere to put it. The rooms are laid out in invisible grids, with some intriguing places to put stuff like racks and coffee mugs, and a few hidden locations.
The challenge comes from the fact that items must go in an appropriate place. The first hint of the game’s subtlety is that you’re given little indication of what that might be, beyond the room the box was in (and even then, there are intentional cross-ups). You have to think about where these items go—should a doll go on a shelf? On the bed? Once you’ve unpacked everything, any items in the “wrong” spot will be highlighted red, and any rooms with misplaced items will blink red on the UI.
Here’s where the gameplay gets intriguing. First off, you have quite a bit of freedom regarding where to put these items. Rarely is there any one place to put them. A crockpot can be placed by the outlet, or in a cabinet. And the invisible grid is quite flexible. If something goes on a shelf, it can be put anywhere on the shelf, in any configuration, leaving players a lot of freedom, while still giving them a direction. The feeling is somewhat like being told to sketch a circle in any way you want. There’s enough of a goal to keep you interested, but enough freedom to keep it relaxing.
But the second, and more important part, is that there are a few items that wind up needing to be put somewhere notable. In the first level, the character’s journal goes under her pillow. Nowhere else. In the apartment she has with a boyfriend, it becomes clear this guy has made no room for her stuff, and you need to put your diploma under the bed.
And this is where the true beauty of the game comes in. Until the end credits, the game is almost entirely devoid of words. You have the year of each level’s unpacking, and then a short, under-ten-word sentence that the character writes under the picture taken when you beat the level.
Yet, the game tells a complete, moving, and idiosyncratic story, almost completely through the items you keep, gain, and lose, and where you must place them. I already mentioned the diploma put under the bed of her boyfriend, but there’s also the rock-climbing equipment that comes in on one level and never makes another appearance; the art materials that only grow in use; the few things she keeps from her boyfriend’s apartment, like his fancy coffee maker.
In other words: the game follows through on its promise. In unpacking this person’s possessions and figuring out where to put them, you unpack the story of her life, told in a way that’s open to wonderful interpretation while still having enough structure to provide the core beats.
Avant-garde stories, like this that try to bend or break traditional narratives are, when well-done, quite popular. But I believe that Unpacking succeeds where many fail: in also delineating a likeable, well-rounded character.
Plot is easy enough to make. Making a character is much, much harder. And that’s doubly true when you lack any scenes with the character. All you have are what she owns, and where she is. Yet, the folks at Witchbeam (which, I’d like to say, is a fantastic name) knew exactly what to give us to tell who this character is, and who the people around her are. That’s right—they accomplish it not just with her, but with other recurring characters, as well.
Part of this is through an understanding of what some items mean to people, and the implications they carry. Rock climbing is an exciting sport. That the character tried it shows she’s open not only to nerdy activities, but to athletics as well. But, she ditches the rock climbing gear and keeps her free weights and yoga mat, meaning that the rock climbing gear was just a phase… but staying healthy wasn’t (an idea that carries a lot of impact, later). Witchbeam understands the emotive implications and preconceptions their players have surrounding certain objects and uses them to their advantage.
The game, then, winds up open to many, many interpretations. It can be dissected like a good poem or book, as we look at the meaning of this item and that, and talk to friends about who this character might be. We’ll all pick up on different things, after all, and we’ll gain a more complete understanding of the story by sharing… a funny thought, given that the sharing of items and space seems to be a recurrent theme in Unpacking.
And despite all this high-minded talk, Unpacking is incredibly unpretentious. It’s simple, approachable, and above all… fun. This game about unpacking, through its simple but refined puzzle mechanic and its gradual difficulty slope (adding, first, new rooms, then items from other people, then space restrictions) is genuinely fun to play, even if you ignore the story. The cute pixel graphics meld approachable cartoonishness with an eye for detail, and the music? Sweet Christ, you could pull up that soundtrack any time you’re having a bad day and feel the tension melt away. Or, just listen to it while you study.
Melding grounded approachability and fun with this level of artistic storytelling is no easy task. Often, the two are considered mutually exclusive. Yet, Witchbeam has proven that they don’t have to be. Perhaps it’s because of the unique qualities and mass audience of gaming, but Unpacking sets a great example for those who want a foot in both worlds. And, on top of everything, it’s a cute game with a heartwarming story that doesn’t overstay its welcome.
Whether you’re looking for a puzzle game, a good story, innovative narrative design, or something to relax to, Unpacking offers something you’ll love.