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Interviews PAXAUS 2019

PAX AUS Indie Showcase 2019 – Unpacking

The Indie Showcase is a chance to see some of the best new and upcoming titles from the ANZ development scene with past winners including celebrated games including Hollow Knight, The Gardens Between, Hacknet, Objects in Space, Infliction and many more. This year will be no different and Player2 encourages anyone visiting PAX AUS  to make their way to the PAX Rising area and check out the following title as well as the many other excellent indies on display.

PAX AUS Indie Showcase 2019 – Unpacking

Witch Beam

PC/Mac – Steam

Witch Beam is a small indie studio based in Brisbane Australia that’s committed to creating polished experiences for PC and console. Witch Beam’s first release was the critically acclaimed arcade-style action game Assault Android Cactus. They are now developing the very non-arcade style non-action game Unpacking. Player2’s very own Sarah Ellen caught up with Witch Beam to discuss the development of Unpacking and it’s inclusion in the upcoming PAX AUS 2019 Indie Showcase.

My daughter has a sudden fascination with putting things away.

Let’s be clear – the child has been an itty bitty tornado committee for the last 3-4 months. She has delighted in the deconstruction of shelves stacked with DVDs, books, and ornaments. She still squeals as she knocks down her block tower and creates the perfect dissonance by smacking two blocks together right next to my ear.

But in the last week, she took things off of shelves, and tried her darndest to put those things back. And I am transfixed by it.

Unpacking Screen 1

It is the same element of awe that I have for Unpacking, one of the titles featured in the PAX Australia Indie Showcase for 2019. Created by Witch Beam (with the crew who worked on Assault Android Cactus), the team describe Unpacking as a personal side project. Wren Brier was taken aback by the community response to the game when it exploded into the Twitterverse on 21 August 2018: “It was entirely unexpected…But it was very exciting to see so many people take to it. A common response we get is ‘this game was made for me!’ If it’s a niche, turns out it’s a big and under-served one.”

Tim Dawson has been programming the game and sharing design roles with Wren (although he says that “much of the tone comes from Wren”), and he describes the collaborative aspect of this game as a great opportunity to stretch different design muscles. “…it’s a fusion that neither of us would have likely pursued on our own”, he remarked when I asked about the tonal differences between Unpacking and Assault Android Cactus, “[but] I like to think there’s a connecting thread of creating a quality and compelling experience, even if the experience is very different.”

Unpacking has continued to tease social media with delightful GIFs of kitchen crockery stacking, poster alignments, and bookshelf organisation strategies. The team refer to it as “item Tetris”, which is such a perfect pirouette between mindfulness and strategy hell that I don’t know how Witch Beam managed to come up with the idea. In spite of where the inspiration came from, their progress over the last twelve months has been immense – it was a featured game at Freeplay Parallels last year in Melbourne, and since then Tim and Wren have ten puzzle “rooms” in progress with a whole lot of new art created. Their tools have expanded during this time, and Tim describes the ability for the editor to “batch import spreadsheet data to handle all the audio data for the hundreds of items planned”. In addition there has been a lot of travelling for the team, who took part in “Day of the Devs, showcasing at GDC and receiving nominations in three award categories at BitSummit in Kyoto, Japan”.

Unpacking Screen 2

While Tim itemises out the improvements bringing the game closer to completion, their audio director Jeff Van Dyck recalls how excited he was to reunite with his colleagues from their days at SEGA in Brisbane, and how that reunion brought about his involvement in Assault Android Cactus. In the case of Unpacking, Wren and Tim approached Jeff again. After engaging with the “chilled vibe” of the game during a playthrough, he was on board and they talked through some of their ideas for the soundtrack: “We threw some ideas back and forth between stuff I had done in the past and various other games they liked the music from, which included Undertale. We settled on a sort of chilled out chiptunes meets acoustic guitar vibe for the gameplay music. This may evolve as the game development progresses.” In the meantime, Jeff may have his hands full creating additional tunes for the various cassette and CD items in the game that will play a variety of musical genres but he is certainly eager to see how their initial ideas will progress during further development.

In all of the questions that I posed to the team at Witch Beam, their answers showed a sense of eager joy, but also the level of personality that they are trying to achieve with Unpacking, with the additional task of giving the player a level of intimate curiosity in each setting. Each of the games that they cite as direct or indirect influences – Florence, Gone Home, and even The Sims – has different ways for the player to ignite their curiosity but endeavour to prioritise the personal experience at the forefront (yes, some people play The Sims that way and that’s awesome). I never thought I would be so interested in a little puzzle game about putting things away, but I have seen all of the joy as my daughter puts her unicorn duck in a laundry basket and looks up at me for a brief moment before taking it back out again and reliving the experience of putting things away. If she can find so much joy in giving items their own place in the world, then I want to share some of that joy with her and Unpacking is going to be a great game that I will play for myself now and hopefully share with her when she is old enough.

Unpacking Screen 1

PAX Australia will let punters have a go at two of the rooms in development – the childhood bedroom stage and the student accommodation stage. Wren highlighted the uniqueness of the student accommodation stage that we will see for the first time, as we will experience the first multi-room stage in the game. Wren said that players who give Unpacking a go at PAX Australia may just stop by to say hi and grab a badge or sticker in support, but she is excited that she will be able to show players at PAX Australia a little bit of the story’s flavour as “players will get to see some story progression in the game for the first time as our unseen protagonist grows up”.

The important question was saved for last, and while they have not confirmed a release for the Switch, Tim said that it was the kind of decision that will be on the teams’ mind closer to release. So I guess we have a little bit more time to twist their arms and hope for the best!

In the meantime, make sure that you take the time to see the Witch Beam team in the PAX Australia Indie Showcase and see if Unpacking is going to ignite your interest in finding a place for everything, because everything should have a place.