The game that proves unpacking can be a moving experience.
There’s no doubt that at some point in our lives we all have to move house. Although this is often an effort-filled and arduous task, it can represent key turning points and progression throughout life. Sometimes moving can be a regretful or stressful experience, and other times it can be exciting and full of potential. Whether it’s moving into a new home, moving out of home and into college, or finally settling down into a home of your own, this is always a momentous occasion. But with moving comes packing – needing to condense your entire life into the contents of a few boxes. It’s quite surreal really that all our worldly possessions are often brought along with us, or left behind in storage, forever suspended in time until the box is once again opened.
Unpacking, on the other hand, is a completely different experience. Taking those few boxes and recreating your life in a brand new location, making it yours and turning an otherwise lifeless house into a colourful environment full of personality. This charming thrill is exactly what to expect in Unpacking, a short and thoughtful videogame about an activity that is undeniably human. Crafted by Witch Beam, a small Australian indie team based in my hometown of Brisbane, and published by Humble Games, Unpacking offers zen gameplay, a charming pixel art aesthetic, and a deeply fascinating depiction of emotion. It’s time to unpack this truly beautiful indie videogame in our review.
So what’s there to do in Unpacking? Unpack. Simple as that. Each level tasks the player with taking a series of boxes and emptying their contents, positioning them one-by-one in appropriate places around each room. These tasks start out simple, with the player needing to unpack only an individual room, and slowly progress into larger areas spanning an entire household. This is simple and flawless gameplay at its finest, one that developer self-describes as “zen block-fitting puzzle”. But it’s so much more than that.
The key gameplay concept of Unpacking is one that is innately human: moving house. Each room is initially bare, devoid of any sort of homeliness. Piece by piece, the player removes an item at a time from each box and can position them in any spot around each room. Although it might be entertaining to put a stuffed toy on the toilet (toylet?) or hide a Gameboy under your pillow, every item has its appropriate place to call home. During the level you’ll be given the freedom to place items wherever you wish, but upon unpacking all the items the player may be prompted that some don’t quite align with the room’s aesthetic. So you’d better put that toilet roll where it belongs, and make sure to move all those dirty cups out of your bedroom while you’re at it.
Zen is exactly the perfect descriptor for this style of gameplay. There is no time limit, no pressure, and really very little element of stress or challenge. Players may proceed at their own pace, taking time to appreciate their surroundings, slotting each new item into their new home. This slow-paced gameplay becomes especially important when admiring the game’s stunning visuals, which hold an impressive amount of detail and are full of clever references and nods to pop culture.
Taking a back seat in Unpacking, much of the story is left up to the interpretation of the player. Cleverly presented across a series of levels, the player experiences a lifetime of unpacking from childhood bedrooms through to independent adulthood. Each stage begins with the year in which it is occurs, setting the scene for the gameplay that follows. Once completed, a photograph of the completed room is taken and lovingly stuck into to a photo album with a short comment explaining the situation.
Although the presentation of Unpacking’s story is done in such a minimalist style, Witch Beam manage to expertly convey a convincing sense of raw human emotion. I can’t go into significant detail in discussing the story that unfolds, but there are moments where this game will make you feel deep sadness, conflicting regret, and an overwhelming sense of joy. There are many elements of the game that I’m sure that players will be able to relate to their own experiences of moving house, as there are many themes that resonate with what it means to be human.
Realism and pixel art harmoniously unite in Unpacking, which offers a detailed and vibrant pixel art aesthetic that is among some of the best to date. Don’t expect the blocky 8-bit or 16-bit pixel art that many other indie games lean towards; this is pixel art that imitates real life. From the designs of houses and rooms all the way down to its smallest contents, the visuals of Unpacking are not only highly-detailed and realistic, but carry an underlying charm to every item that is delicately moved out of its box.
If you consider yourself a geek, the art in Unpacking will appeal to you on so many levels. Rooms are crammed with electronics, Monster Manuals, lovingly-crafted miniatures, and even half-finished cosplay outfits that adorn mannequins. Throughout every minute of gameplay I found myself needing to stop and admire the intricate details, like deliberately-crafted videogame consoles, game and DVD cases that perfectly capture real-life cover art, adorable sets of plush toys, and even the beauty of the simplest day-to-day items like toiletries and stationary. Items may even change as they are brought along to several locations, becoming worn or weathered over time like an old mouse pad or a treasured stuffed toy.
In case you still need convincing, here’s a collection of some of the lovely pixel art you can encounter:
Pixel art calls for chiptunes, but just like Unpacking’s incorporation of realism in its visuals, so too does it add real life to its music through the use of many instruments. The core foundation of the soundtrack is a chill synth with chiptunes to carry the melody, harmoniously interwoven with a mix of acoustic guitar, funky bass, and even some solemn piano for the game’s more poignant moments. Here’s an example of a couple great tunes from Canadian-Australian composer, Jeff Van Dyck, that set the mood for the rest of the game:
But it’s not just the music of Unpacking that will delight your eardrums, there are minute details throughout to impress any audiophile. For example, picking up and placing every single item in the game is accompanied by a unique sound effect depending on the object and surface on which it is placed. There’s a great degree of detail to the sound design – even to the point of hearing game discs rattle in their case when placed on a shelf, or the satisfying thud of a book laid face down. Environmental cues too remind you clearly that the game is taking place in subtropical Australia, with background chattering of Rainbow Lorrikeets and whistling of Honey Eaters while leaves calmly rustle in the wind. So satisfying.
Outside of the main game, which will take approximately 4 hours to complete, the game has some extra content to keep players coming back for more. Each level has some hidden secrets when placing an item in a peculiar or perfect spot – doing so will reward the player with a sticker and an achievement. These stickers can be used in the game’s photo mode, where the player is given access to all sorts of filters and adjustments to showcase that game’s beautiful art. I spent quite a bit of time in the photo mode, which can produce some pictures that are truly wallpaper-worthy.
There are few games I’ve played that I can say are truly beautiful, heart-warming and touching, but Unpacking is all that and so much more. Such a simple gameplay concept not only manages in itself to be incredibly entertaining and strangely satisfying, but when combined with detailed pixel art and themes of human emotion, manages to become almost poetic. Even the simplest moments of the game have the ability overwhelm the player with joy and happiness. This gameplay is one that could have great impact – I’d personally love to see it applied to different situations, like those less fortunate who have been driven out of home for reasons beyond their control.
Witch Beam have created a game unlike any other I’ve played, and if you are a human with a heart, I implore you to experience it as well. Unpacking truly is a moving game in every sense of the word.
So, why should you play it?
- Simple, elegant, and satisfying gameplay.
- Stunning and detailed pixel art.
- Plenty of clever pop-culture references.
- Deeply emotional story despite minimal dialogue.
- Impressive attention-to-detail through audio design.
But why shouldn’t you play it?
- Players looking for a lengthy experience may be dissatisfied.
- You’ve only ever lived in one place and have never had to unpack.
A review code on PC was provided courtesy of the publisher.