Unpacking Title

Unpacking Review : Effortlessly Economical Storytelling

Unpacking combines artfully simplistic puzzle gameplay with a narrative so confidently delivered that it accomplishes in four hours what some games can’t do with dozens.

Developed by Witch Beam and published by Humble Games, Unpacking is a low stakes point and click puzzle game about moving house. You’re presented with a 3/4 view of a room and a stack of moving boxes, then left to simply unpack everything to the right place. Part of this is straightforward decoration, making everything aesthetically pleasing. You open a box, remove all the objects, then open another. 

After you finish, the puzzle element kicks in. Certain objects don’t get to just sit where you left them. They have to be in a specific area. So as a general rule, you can’t just leave things on the floor. More specifically, objects have to be in a place that feel consistent. You can’t put dumbells under the pillows for an example.

Moving home provides a snapshot of the life of a person. Unpacking’s genius is that it guides you gently towards understanding that person through the things they choose to fill that life with. And then you follow them through their life, and their many homes. Watching them grow, and suffer and change. Each time just getting a glimpse into a single moment. 

Unpacking manages to fit the ups and downs of a whole life into four hours of serene puzzle game, without a single word of dialogue.

Where Unpacking starts developing and playing with the formula above is where the brilliance happens. 

After a while, you won’t be living alone. You start to be able to discern relationships purely through the limitations placed upon you. College roommates don’t want you moving their stuff, but they’ve made sure to leave you gaps to fill. Your new partner doesn’t mind if you move their stylish modern fixtures. But you’ve got to squeeze to fit into their lifestyle. 

More than that though, it’s fascinating to watch your life change and develop based purely on the locations and things that survive the moves.

Starting from 1997, you’ll unpack a bunch of new rooms as you grow up, go to uni, find roommates, find partners.

You watch as things develop. You see items get carried from place to place. Little moments that tell you about the room and person you’re unpacking. An apron with a name tag to put in the wardrobe showing you’ve gotten a job.

When you move in with someone and you find space for both your game consoles. 

There’s limitations that develop. You can’t move your roommates’ stuff around. You can move your partner’s. A kitchen cup cracks and moves to the bathroom for toothbrushes. 

You make sure the picture you can’t stand isn’t on display. But it still has to stay nearby.

A tattered stuffed animal becomes a patched stuffed animal, now you’re back on your feet.

All of this is conveyed in a deceptively simple 16 bit style, with chunky objects and gorgeous animation. There’s cute moments like the ability to hide a diary under your pillow, creasing the 16bit art to make it happen. On top of that, the wonderful animation when you empty a box which is deeply satisfying.

Even the art styles themselves tell a story, with one level featuring a beautiful clash between the black and white austere modernity of your partner and the haphazard mess of colourful objects you own.

Interacting with this world is a joy, in both animation and feel, supported heavily by the incredible sound design. 

Because the sound design in Unpacking is uncanny. You can place hundreds of objects on any one of dozens of surfaces. Each will have the object make a completely different foley sound. The fabric of the bed is not the fabric of the carpet. The cistern of the ceramic toilet sounds different than the tile floor. Placing a hot water bottle under a pillow is a different experience to storing it in a plastic container. Each combination feels correct to the ear, which means the player is easily drawn further into the world.

It’s a small detail, in a game full of them, but one which clearly had a great deal of time and effort spent to make it work as well as it does. It feels effortless, which is a sign of just how hard it is to make work. 

Because more than anything else, Unpacking is a triumph of storytelling through context and framing alone. Through nothing but the items themselves, and the rooms that you’re putting them in, there’s a beautiful story of growth being told. A biography across a life, told in snapshots. 

Moving leaves people vulnerable. It’s a new place, new life and the risk of things not going right. With only an exceptional understanding of environmental storytelling, Witch Beam have been able to capture that vulnerability and express it beautifully. 

Unpacking is available now on PC via Steam, Xbox Consoles and Gamepass for PC and Nintendo Switch

(images and trailer courtesy Witch Beam)

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