Unpacking: there is, indeed, a lot to unpack here

I am, I must confess, a little torn about my opinions regarding the latest indie darling, Unpacking from developer Witch Beam and publisher Humble Games.

On the one hand, it’s a masterful example of minimalist storytelling and how one can use a video game’s core mechanics to tell a meaningful story with substance in a way that only interactive media can.

On the other, I came away from my time with the game feeling a slight sense of dissatisfaction — both at the course the game took over its complete duration, and at the seeming abruptness of its conclusion.

Unpacking

On the whole, Unpacking is a game I would recommend experiencing on the understanding that it’s very much an experimental, artistic sort of game — and one whose experiment doesn’t quite go as far as it perhaps could have done. To explain the specifics of why I feel this way would constitute spoilers — and both the developers and publishers have specifically requested we avoid talking about story elements beyond a certain point to ensure everyone coming to the game for the first time has a chance to experience the full story for themselves — but suffice to say for now that I feel the whole thing could have just been… more.

But let’s back up a moment for those unfamiliar with Unpacking, or who didn’t check out our preview from the Steam Next Fest a while back. What is Unpacking?

Unpacking

Simply put, Unpacking is a game about, as the name suggests, unpacking. Over the course of eight levels, we take on the role of a nameless, faceless female protagonist as she moves house several times. In each level, there are a series of cardboard boxes to open up and pull items out of one by one, and it’s your job to find an appropriate place for everything to go.

Once you’ve unpacked everything, the game’s default settings will check where you put everything and highlight anything that is obviously out of place; for the most part, though, you’re given a reasonable amount of freedom and creativity to arrange things as you see fit, and to be as tidy or as messy as you want.

If you want complete freedom, an accessibility option in the game’s menu allows you to complete each stage by putting everything anywhere you want — though it’s worth noting that on several occasions, some key story information is subtly delivered by the “required” places you put certain items.

The game is presented beautifully, featuring some absolutely fantastic (and properly integer scaled) pixel art that is packed with plenty of nostalgic references. There’s also a few sly nods to Witch Beam’s previous game — the absolutely fabulous twin-stick masterpiece Assault Android Cactus — so watch out for those while you’re pulling things out of boxes.

The soundtrack by Witch Beam’s composer Jeff Van Dyck is also excellent, providing a non-obtrusive yet emotionally engaging accompaniment to the action, which at several points does a wonderful job of raising interesting questions in the player’s mind before anything has even happened on-screen!

Unpacking

The game’s story starts in the late ’90s as the protagonist, seemingly a child at the time, gets her own room for the first time. It then continues onwards as she grows into young adulthood, leaves home to go to university and from there begins to define her own life.

I’ll refrain from providing too many details for the sake of the aforementioned “spoiler embargo”, but I will say that some of the most interesting storytelling occurs once our heroine is into adulthood, since it’s at this point we find her, on several occasions and under several different distinct sets of circumstances, arriving in a situation where there are some things already in place in the property she’s moving into.

These moments are particularly emotionally engaging, because you have to decide how much you’re willing to “invade” the space of a setting that is clearly already established — and how much of your own sense of identity you’re willing to stamp on the place; someone else (also unseen) has clearly also had their own views on how things “should” be, and the big question is who are you to decide that they’re “wrong” in some way?

Unpacking

It’s this intermingling of objects in the later stages of Unpacking that makes it the most interesting. What can we understand from the way the objects are laid out at the start of the stage? What does it mean for us to bring our own objects into that situation? And should we mix in our own objects with the things that are already there, or keep things resolutely discrete so that if, for whatever reason, we do need to move on, we can easily retrieve our own stuff without disturbing someone else’s?

This is relevant to the overarching sense of the protagonist “growing up” over the course of the narrative, too. In her university house, for example, it’s clear that no-one present has any problem whatsoever with everyone mixing all their stuff up together. The house is already a bit of a mess when you move in to the situation, so adding to the clutter with your own bits and pieces you’ve been lugging around since childhood feels just right.

But do you feel the same when you find yourself in an environment that is obviously a bit “nicer”? And, if someone else were to enter the picture, how would you feel about their stuff intermingling with your things? On top of all that, you have to ask yourself: does the meaning of two or more people’s things mixing together change as you grow up?

Unpacking

I’m deliberately trying to be vague about all this for the aforementioned reasons — but to be honest, Unpacking itself keeps things deliberately vague. There are certain seemingly indisputable truths that we discover over the course of the narrative, but the exact circumstances which led our heroine to the discovery of those truths are left up to our own interpretation. This is a nice feeling, because it allows you to imagine a certain amount of narrative context in your own head — and while you’re doing this, Unpacking is, without a doubt, at its most effective and artistic.

My frustrations lie with the way in which things unfold in its latter hours and stages. Again without giving specific spoileriffic details, the way things proceed feels… I guess “clichéd” is perhaps the best way to describe it, but at the same time the game also shields itself against such criticisms with an admirably progressive and inclusive aspect.

Perhaps “predictable” is a better way to put it; the direction in which Unpacking goes in its latter hours is exactly what I’ve come to expect from smaller-scale artsy indie projects of this type, and while on the one hand the inclusive nature of what it does is admirable, on the other we’ve seen it all before — and you can see it coming a mile off.

Your mileage may, of course, vary on that note depending on how you feel about such things — but that’s certainly how I felt after experiencing it all.

Unpacking

Couple that with the fact that the narrative just sort of stops rather than reaching any real sense of closure and conclusion, and the whole thing is left feeling faintly unsatisfying. We could have followed our heroine’s story much further than it goes in the game as it exists right now, and the fact Unpacking doesn’t do that feels like something of a missed opportunity. Whether or not the game will be expanded in the future isn’t clear right now — it sounds like it probably won’t be — but there’s certainly scope for the story to continue.

All of the above might sound a bit harsh, and I’d like to reiterate that none of this in any way makes Unpacking a “bad” game. On the contrary, it’s a bold, effective and mostly successful experiment in telling a narrative entirely through game mechanics and a distinct visual style, plus the inherent creativity of the gameplay makes for a game in which the player is able to express themselves almost as much as the creators were. And with a robust photo mode and GIF maker that allows you to create animations of how your unpacking efforts went, you can share those expressions with others, too, which is really nice.

Replay value is fairly limited from a narrative perspective, since there are no alternative “routes” down which the story can proceed, though you can always, of course, play the game again and try to design your rooms with a different philosophy behind where you put things. There are also a number of “stickers” to earn over the course of the game by completing various optional objectives, so these provide an incentive to explore the settings a bit further.

Unpacking

Ultimately, though, the majority of the game’s value and impact comes from the three or so hours it will take you to play through for the first time, and for some people, what’s here is not going to be quite enough to leave you feeling completely satiated. For some, this will be a matter of the depressingly ever-present “monetary value versus amount of content on offer” question; for me, though, it was more about a sense of the game’s more artistic, narrative elements simply not quite feeling like they resolved in a completely satisfactory manner.

I was simply left wanting more — and not in the way that can sometimes be a good thing.

Unpacking is available now for Nintendo Switch, Xbox and PC via Steam. Thanks to Humble Games for the review code.

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Pete Davison
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