I hate moving house. I absolutely detest putting things in boxes, having to carry them around and then having to take all those things out of the boxes again in a new location. I especially hate having to find somewhere to put all those bloody things that I’ve accumulated over the years, and I really hate those last few bits that you can never find a good home for.
However, apparently if you give me a video game about this exact subject matter I’ll be as happy as an emphatically not blood-related stepsister stealing a first kiss from her beloved onii-chan. Yes, I absolutely adore Unpacking — or its Steam Next Fest demo, anyway, but if the full version offers more of what I’ve experienced here, I’m definitely completely on board.
Unpacking is the work of Witch Beam, the team who previously gave us the excellent twin-stick shooter Assault Android Cactus. It’s a very, very different sort of game — but at the same time it’s designed with the same sort of keen eye for nostalgia that Cactus was. This time around, though, the nostalgia is through its simple, effective pixel art and understated aesthetic references to specific time periods rather than mechanical homages to the classics of Sega and Treasure.
In Unpacking, your job is simply to unpack a bunch of boxes. Over the course of the whole game, it appears you will be following the life of the owner of these boxes: an unseen, unnamed protagonist. Said protagonist goes through several different house moves over the course of the whole game; in the demo, we have the opportunity to see what appears to be her childhood bedroom in the late ’90s, then what is presumably one of her first homes of her own in the mid 2000s. The full game promises eight different house moves, and judging by the demo, each one will get a little more complex.
Gameplay in Unpacking is very simple. Click a box to open it, then click to pull an item out of it. After that, it’s up to you; all you need to do is find a suitable home for everything in all the boxes. Objects can be laid flat on pretty much any level surface; alternatively, objects that have an obvious “home” will snap to that home when you hover over it. Books can be stood up on bookshelves, for example, and shirts and T-shirts can be hung from hangers.
Unpacking is not designed to be challenging, though that’s not to say the game won’t make you think. Our unseen protagonist has quite a lot in the way of possessions, and finding a suitable home for all of them without just dumping things on her floor and bed can be surprisingly tricky!
Once you’ve unpacked all the boxes, anything obviously “out of place” will be highlighted to invite you to find an alternative home for it; outside of that, however, the game encourages creative use of the space available to you, and provides an impressive amount of freedom and flexibility in terms of what you can put where. You can even turn on an “allow items anywhere” option for complete creative freedom if you so desire.
The intention behind Unpacking is for it to deliver an unspoken, wordless narrative as it progresses — and for that narrative to have a certain degree of individuality to each player. Even across the two stages of the demo, it’s clear that the folks at Witch Beam are onto something; it’s not long into the first level that you’ll find yourself starting to think about, say, whether or not the protagonist would want her board games proudly on display, or tucked away neatly in a cupboard — or if she’s the sort of person who would organise her books by colour, size or title.
There’s clearly some quiet, subtle narrative intended by the items that persist from level to level, too. Some items obviously have sentimental value for our protagonist despite her being “too old” for them in the later stages — but exactly what, we don’t know. What happened to the items that didn’t make the transition from one house to another? Did someone find her secret diary that I hid in her childhood drawer? Does that football she keeps around have some sort of special memory attached to it, or is she just a sporty type? Will she ever get anywhere with her art, or will it remain just a hobby?
It’s clear that Unpacking isn’t going to offer any completely concrete answers to any of these questions, and that’s what makes it interesting. It’s a game that makes you think, but not in the same way as most puzzle games. It’s not challenging you to find the optimal (or only) solution to a problem you have in front of you; it is, instead, encouraging you to use your imagination and sense of empathy to consider who this mysterious unseen protagonist is, along with what the meaning is behind her various possessions and where she puts them.
Whether there’ll be any sort of “replay value” beyond simply experiencing the game time after time in the full version remains to be seen — but to be honest, in some ways it doesn’t really matter all that much. As an interactive, wholesome and curiously intimate exploration of a character that we never see and will never speak to, it’s already doing its job very well in this demo form — and I look forward to finding out more about our protagonist in the full version when it releases later this year.
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