Unpacking – Making Magic From The Mundane
Nintendo Switch, PC, Xbox
Packing and unpacking your belongings is one of the most stressful experiences that most people will endure. Rarely is the process smooth, and if you’re moving more than just your own possessions, then the stresses amplify further. SMG Studios’ Moving Out did a fantastic job of making light of the packing process, but unpacking and assembling your life in a new place of residence is not something that many forms of media, let alone gaming, attempt to replicate this experience. Enter Witch Beam and Unpacking. The title, a game where you parse through the life of a faceless, nameless occupant solely by unpacking their moving boxes, presents players with one of the most resonant character narratives that the industry has ever seen, in the subtlest of ways.
Players control an invisible hand, much like a god-game, and have the ability to empty the contents of the mysterious persons moving boxes and give everything a home. The premise is simple, but while execution from a mechanical perspective may be easy for players to capture in their mind’s-eye, in reality, the task will have been so much more difficult. You’re not simply dumping items on the shelves or in closets, shutting the doors, and progressing onto the next level, no most items you pull out unpack the life of the individual. The story begins in 1997, in this person’s childhood years, and it’s what you would expect of almost any child, some stuffed toys, books, a Gameboy, some board games, and coloured pens/pencils; assembling everything is fairly straightforward as well, but Unpacking takes you on a 21-year journey with this character, shifting between periods of time, highlighting key junctures for this person. As the clock winds forward from 1997 to 2004, many changes have occurred, as they do for many a child as they enter their teenage (or even early 20s) years. Many possessions have been replaced (though a few key ones remain), and what is new paints a picture of the life this person is now leading. You’ll find mundane, day-to-day items like toothpaste or books, but you’ll also find games, movies, or posters; items that tell us about what they’re into, what was popular, and who this person associated with through photos. The art deliberately obscures the cover-art, or the photos, hiding the finer details, but leaves enough for players to identify the basics. It draws a picture but leaves only the outline so that the player can colour between the lines.
Unpacking shows some restraint though. It would be easy for the team at Witch Beam to provide too much information, too much context, and in doing so deprive players of the intrigue that comes from exploring the life of this individual, and those that come into their orbit, but there has been a deft touch applied here that ensures players have a general direction to head in, but enough ability to glean slightly different meaning from the assortment of objects stored in the boxes. Though your hand of God never leaves the house that your character resides in, you will occasionally hear noises from the outside world, or see signs of the outside environment that contextualise where this person is at in their life even more. Subtlety is the key here, and everything has been assembled in just the right ways to maximise impact on the player.
As a playing experience, Unpacking is pretty basic, but not in a negative way. With either keyboard and mouse, dual analog sticks, or even the Switch’s touchscreen players can quickly scoot around the room, or even the whole house, bringing objects with them to place them where they like. You don’t have total freedom, it makes sense to put your toothbrush in the bathroom for example, and if you’re too careless about your belongings, the game will point out that changes are required once you’ve emptied out the last box. Overall the game is pretty generous, giving players the scope to assemble things how they like. Some of my own home practices were reflected in the way I assembled the person’s belongings, from the way that clothes were stacked, how games might be placed on a shelf, right down to the sequence that knives, forks, and spoons would be placed in kitchen drawers. Using sticks is certainly the lead intuitive of all control methods, but the game gives players a handy zoom feature that allows you to be more precise when necessary, either because of the lack of precision that stems from using the sticks or even because your fingers are a bit big for the small pair of underwear you’re trying to pick up and put away.
As well as being a clean playing experience, with a powerful, yet deceptively simple method of storytelling, Unpacking is also a beautiful title to behold. The pixel-art is exceptional, the detailing just right, while the musical accompaniment is fantastic, low-key, but soothing, perfect to ease the stresses of unpacking the life you’re learning about.
Though Unpacking is a very simple playing experience, at its core it is so much more. Witnessing the growth of the character, the changes they go through, the people that they meet, and the things they acquire paint an impactful picture that will keep you hooked through the 2-3 hour story. Few games tell so much, with so little.