Unpacking is the sort of game I need to hide from the eyes of my partner. Not for its graphic depictions of sex or violence, but for the tirade of abuse I would suffer should they gaze upon the latest game I was playing. “You’re never this tidy at home. Why don’t you treat our house with that much respect?” I’m not a tidy person to be honest. Tidying up is a bore, and you invariably end up losing something that you previously knew where it was in the process.
Unpacking is different though. I want to spend my time putting everything in its rightful place, and I take great pride in doing so. It’s calming, relaxing and a joy to play. Plus, it awards me gold stars for doing so. Real tidying up just gives me backache.
At its most insultingly basic, Unpacking is a game where you pull items out of cardboard boxes and store them away. More materialistic people will appreciate this gameplay cycle as the objects you reveal will – over time – have their own stories to tell. Levels are represented by various years; as the years progress the locations you need to unpack your belongings will increase in size, as you would expect. You start off with just your bedroom in the house you grow up in, but you will move out, get your own place and more as you chart the life of this unnamed protagonist.
The story is cleverly told through almost no words, purely through locations and the items within each room. It will likely be a story many have experienced in their lifetime so doesn’t necessarily break new grounds. Unpacking almost relies upon you having had these experiences yourselves, and then being able to immediately relate them to the situation unfolding in the game.
When playing Unpacking, it is amazing how quickly you gain an affiliation with objects that make repeat appearances. Cuddly toys for example make complete sense as an item you keep with you throughout. Unpacking though has you longing for other items as well. Your toothbrush holder, even when it reappears with a noticeable crack, or the cookie jar that follows you around. How quickly Unpacking makes you treasure these items is surprising, but there is a real joy when that is the next item you pull out of the box.
Certain items may also be recognisable to real-world ones too. Instantly recognisable are the various Nintendo consoles that follow you on your journey – GameCube, Wii and a 3DS – and true nerds may even recognise some of the games. When unpacking I definitely thought I saw Mario Kart: Double Dash and the original Animal Crossing games. The same goes for books and DVDs where you may be able to spot the likes of The Handmaid’s Tale and Donnie Darko hidden amongst various other mock-ups.
That’s high praise for the pixel art indeed where I can recognise a book I have never even read before. There is an attention to detail with absolutely everything you reveal from the boxes that means you instantly know what 99% of the items are. And for the odd ones you don’t, you can usually make an informed guess through simply which room the box is in. There are red herrings thrown in to the wrong room every now and again to make sure you don’t play too passively.
Also, the sound design is phenomenal for a game of this type. It won’t get the plaudits it deserves but you should really play around with it to see how special it is. Items, when placed on a surface will make a noise but depending on which surface they are dropped on will make a different sound. This doesn’t sound ground-breaking for a AAA game, but in Unpacking you really take notice of it.
Unfortunately, towards the end of the game, things do start to get a bit monotonous. One section will have you revealing clothes and their hangers for an extended period of time. The message this section is portraying can be grasped very quickly but to complete levels you must have everything unpacked and in some cohesive place. Unpacking is flexible enough to give you some leeway over item placement, but you won’t get the gold star if things aren’t in the room they should be. And things do start to get tiresome, almost like you are unpacking in real life.
Unpacking is a very original title, and one that is a lot more than virtually unpacking boxes. The ebbs and flows of the story will make you want to see it through to the end, even when the lines between unpacking items and Unpacking (the game) start to blur. But it is how it tells this story that deserves the biggest mention; through almost no words at all you understand what is unfolding in front of you. With an excellent zen-like soundtrack and sound design, Unpacking is worth a look inside the box.
Move house again and again in Unpacking on Xbox