Unpacking is a game about moving home. It’s a game about growth and heartbreak, and the compartmentalisation of those feelings that occur after. A game about slowly figuring out who you are as life experience accrues and personal goals change, Unpacking’s guiding philosophy is “everything in its place”.
The mechanical hook at the heart of Unpacking is simple. Players sort through boxes on moving day and arrange the items found within onto shelves and into draws. Coats go on hangers, and then into the wardrobe. Books on the bookshelf. In a perfect reflection of real life, sometimes you’ll come across a random item in the wrong box. One time I found a whole ass boot in the kitchen boxes. How it got there is a mystery for the ages. You’ll then have to hunt through several rooms with an item looking for its place.
Upon filing every item away successfully, players will move to the next level. Each level is a new dwelling for the game’s protagonist to live in. Before you’ve even opened a single box, a cursory look around the new home tells the next part of the story. Things start small, with only a single childhood room to unpack. By the end of the game, you’re unloading an entire house and backtracking from room to room. Indeed, this environmental storytelling is the crutch on which Unpacking leans to get its narrative across. Before the main character can unpack, they have to find a place.
The game follows its main character from their childhood all the way into adulthood. The number of boxes changes home-to-home, as do their contents. This is perhaps the clearest window the player gets into the main character’s life-in-progress. Their possessions tell you as much about who they are as the place they’re moving into. Certain sentimental items remain across every move, some actually multiply. Others disappear or are replaced with newer or different things as tastes and interests grow and change. Across every home they move into is a growing sense of restlessness. The main character tries on a lot of different lives, but they haven’t yet found their place.
This will be a game used by game design students studying environmental storytelling. Unpacking never explicitly tells the player what is happening in the main character’s life. Instead, it hands you all the pieces, one by one, and waits for you to piece it all together.
And that, in a nutshell, is Unpacking. This is a short-and-sweet, meditative experience that allows the player to progress at their own speed. There are no timers, nor are you given a score for speed or performance. To have included either of these things would have been a mistake and all credit to Unpacking’s Brisbane-based developers Witch Beam for recognising that. Unpacking, like its real-world counterpart, lives in the process. Unpack at your own pace. Find a spot for everything in your own time. Take a moment to decorate with posters, or arrange things as you place them on shelves. Each of these spaces is your home. Make them your own.
Unpacking deploys a soft-edged pixel art style that doesn’t compromise on readability. Only once or twice did I pull something from a moving box and not know right away what it was. My only other complaint was that, in certain rooms, the number of boxes would occlude the level behind them, making it hard to place items until the boxes were unpacked and a sea of belongings lay strewn about the room (though this too may tally with your own lived experience of moving house).
Additionally, a few items in the late game felt like they required a bit of extra clicking around to place. Perhaps I’m reading into it too deeply, but this felt like a character choice more than a mechanical one. It was as though the main character had a spot they liked to keep certain items in. The coffee grinder is a good example of this — the grinder has its own spot, on the counter, roughly the same in every home. Once I started to key into this, the game never waved a red flag on my placement choices again.
Unpacking turns the mundanity of moving house into an extraordinary portrait of emotional vulnerability. It tackles heavy subject matter the same way it treats the player — with tenderness and respect. A remarkable achievement in understated storytelling and design, Unpacking exemplifies what makes Australian games so unique. The cozy game community will adore this one. We certainly do.
Unpacking is out now on Windows PC, Xbox One, and Nintendo Switch.