Unpacking is a cosy puzzle game with a subtle but rich story developed by Witch Beam and published by Humble Games. It’s available to play on Nintendo Switch, PC, Xbox One, Xbox Series X and S, and the PS4 and 5. Overall, it takes about 4 to 5 hours to complete, so it’s relatively short, but this zen game really sticks with you after finishing.
There are 8 levels of the game, each of which is a room, or usually multiple rooms, where you’re given boxes of the protagonist’s things to unpack and organise how you like. Some items must be put in certain places, such as room-specific items, but you can change up the order and really give it that personal touch. Each level represents a stage in the protagonist’s life, and the game ends up spanning a total of 21 years, from child to adult, and the story of their life, personality, values and milestones, is told through the items that do or don’t come along with them.
The mechanics and gameplay are incredibly simple, you drag and drop an item to place it and that’s really all you need. Once you’re satisfied with the way you’ve organised a room, and all the items have been placed, you can choose which room to press complete on. The game will take a snapshot and place it in your photo album, which is actually your safe file for the game, and a caption will appear underneath. The caption is something small, like ‘Finally, my own room!’, but from this we get a lot of information about who the main character is. What’s a really nice touch is that the photo album you save your game in is actually an item you have to place at each level of the game, so you really do feel like you’re following this character throughout their life’s journey.
Sometimes an object will be in the wrong room at first, like a bra gets packed in the bathroom boxes, and you have to move it back to the wardrobe before you can move on. It’s not exactly a big challenge for the game to have this in, but it does reflect the humanity of the game really well. It’s very human to misplace something, or maybe shove it in the first box you find amongst the stress of moving house.
What really stands out in Unpacking is the environmental storytelling and narrative design. It’s gentle and passive, but it really packs a punch if you notice an item is missing or something similar. You watch as they go from a notebook and colouring pens in their childhood bedroom, to a home office with a bug fancy drawing tablet. You see their university degree proudly framed and displayed, only to be tucked away temporarily when they move back home. A great level is after your wife moves in with you and you go through the house you’d unpacked into previously and unpack your wife’s things alongside yours, learning to compromise and prioritise. And there’s a stuffed toy pig, (the one on the game’s logo!), that follows you to every new place, and during the final level, you’re unpacking your things for a nursery room in your new home, and you place the pig there alongside your wife’s stuffed toy. You really do get to understand the character’s whole selves just by moving with them and looking at what’s important to them. You watch them grow and change.
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There are up to 25 “stickers”, or rather achievements, which are hidden at each level of the game. I got a few of these mostly by accident, one where I clicked on a drawing mannequin and it dabbed, and another where I put what I thought was a fryer in the shower, frustrated the game wouldn’t accept it in the kitchen, and ended up with an ‘Electrical Hazard’ sticker, which really lightened the mood, if nothing else. That fryer turned out to be something I still couldn’t name, but it belongs in the living room, specifically by the TV set. As I mentioned, this was particularly frustrating, and there were a few items that I couldn’t quite figure out, whether by their size, or perhaps it was a gap in culture, but either way a type of object focus or zoom would have been great to see. It would also just be fun to really explore each object and appreciate its design as the game has such a warm and homely aesthetic to it. The music is similar, feeling very comforting and relaxing, but there were moments of silence where the song would come to an end and the gap between that and the next were quite long and frankly a little unnerving. The sound effects are also great, they’re very smooth and don’t get annoying even if you’re moving an item back and forth and back and forth to check where it looks best. What was really fun, was that as the end credits fell there was an actual Unpacking song! It was a beautiful acoustic cover and a really nice surprise to hear. It plays alongside the photos you took of your rooms and ties the whole game together nicely.
Coming in at just over 4 hours of gameplay, perhaps 5 or even 6 if you really take your time with things, it’s definitely the perfect length. Anything shorter wouldn’t have felt complete enough, but anything longer would have begun to feel tedious or repetitive. Overall Unpacking is a really beautiful story told through well designed environmental storytelling and some very satisfying gameplay. The concept is simple, and I never would have considered a game entirely based around moving objects could be so gripping.