Moving is awful. Even when the circumstances are good—a new job, a new city, a new relationship—the process of condensing one’s life into a series of boxes, moving them, and fitting all those things into a new space is not what many of us would consider at all pleasant. Witch Beam Games, then, deserves a tremendous amount of credit for building a game centred entirely on the third of those steps that is clever, attractive, and engaging. Unpacking, a meditative puzzle game, tasks the player with pulling objects out of boxes and arranging them in a sensible manner in the new living space that the unseen main character is intending to occupy.
Each of these new spaces lines up with an event in the main character’s life—a new school, a new relationship, a new job—and much of the pleasure of playing Unpacking comes from the irresistible impulse to play the busybody. One might, for example, take interest in which childhood knick-knacks the main character brings to college and which she leaves at home. After devoting a tremendous amount of care to setting up the perfect workspace for her artistic pursuits, one may be a bit concerned that the new apartment (and the man who apparently lives there) seems to think that setting up a laptop and drawing tablet on the kitchen’s sole sitting area will be sufficient accommodation. While I don’t want to spoil the reader’s opportunity to play voyeur/detective on their own, the nature of the relocation that comes after this attempt at cohabitation is a bit heartbreaking even if it isn’t much of a surprise.
But, importantly, it isn’t the end, either. One’s path through life is not exactly a linear thing, and having to take a step back can be an opportunity to revisit, rediscover, and reinvent one’s self. (Or at least—spoiler—it is for Unpacking’s unseen main character.)
If Unpacking is something of a peanut butter sandwich of a game—that is, genuinely enjoyable comfort food rather than haute cuisine—it should still be recognised as good peanut butter on good bread. Telling a story in objects is a substantial accomplishment, and if Unpacking doesn’t quite reach the quirky, peculiar height of Gone Home or What Remains of Edith Finch, it still succeeds in being both particular and relatable. After arranging her objects seven or eight times (and dealing with her implied feedback when everything is unpacked but not quite yet in the “right” place), I feel like I have a sense of what the unnamed main character has been through. I know at least something about what she values, and what she has accomplished. I’m not entirely sure whether every single object is a souvenir of a dream accomplished or reflects an aspiration not yet realised, but I know at least that her degree now hangs proudly on the wall instead of having to be tucked away in someone else’s closet.
There’s a digression necessary here. I mentioned Gone Home and What Remains of Edith Finch and then just kept going, but while Unpacking falls into the same “story discovered by spending time in someone else’s domestic space” genre as those two games, there’s a fundamental difference. In both Gone Home and What Remains of Edith Finch, the player inhabits the role of a person whose condition mirrors the player’s inherent alienation from the space and objects being explored. Katie in Gone Home is returning after an absence to reconstruct her sister Samantha’s story, and Edith in What Remains of Edith Finch breaks into a house full of sealed rooms to uncover generations of tragedy in her family.
Unpacking, on the other hand, seems to want to encourage the player to identify with the unseen main character, which of course, is incompatible with a story that emerges through objects. While there’s always a bit of discovery in unpacking even a box one has packed one’s self—as I know all too well—every object is the result of events that the narrator already knows about, or choices she has already made. The player in effect plays the role of a domestic servant, intimately aware of a person’s objects and circumstances over time, but not reflected in them, and left to construct an understanding of someone else’s inner being over time. To my awareness, only Tale of Tales’ game Sunset has really played explicitly with this framing of a domestic employee in this genre.
This of course, isn’t really intended as a criticism of Unpacking. It’s just an incongruity. And incongruities can be really interesting.
Seeing yourself in objects
So where was I? Moving, in real life, is bad, or at least unpleasant. Unpacking, the game, is good, or at least very enjoyable. We carry ourselves in objects. They remain, even when we do not. We make them fit, even when we do not. I hate unpacking. I liked Unpacking very much. It’s complicated, but it’s as simple as a peanut butter sandwich, toasted in the sandwich press that you got three apartments ago.