I’ve moved five times over the last five years, and I’m sure there will be more in my future. Even if some were simple, some were with roommates, and some were all the way across an ocean they’ve all managed to share one core aspect – Me. Even if we don’t always know it at the time, moves are personal and in many ways formative. Boxing up your life and leaving something comforting behind is exciting and inherently unpredictable, and it’s these aspects that have been embraced by Witch Beam Games for Unpacking.
This cute and cozy game has gone all in on showing instead of telling, letting you piece together an unseen character’s life across about half a dozen moves and a multi-year portion of their life. It’s short, and runs the risks of repetition, but the highs absolutely beat the lows in this indie delight.
Unpacking Unpacking isn’t very difficult at all. Each “move” puts you in a living space with varying numbers of rooms with boxes just begging to be opened. Doing so will let you pull an item out one at a time, which you can then place somewhere in the room or residence. That’s what I did, at least. You could always lay all the contents of a box out before sorting and placing them, or go for a “wherever it’ll fit” kind of setup. Whatever your plan, it’s the act of going through these items one by one that tells Unpacking’s story.
As a concept it works well, but what sells the game is an adorable pixel art style. The visuals rest perfectly on simplicity for the sake of recognition, yet detailed in the interest of distinction. Best of all was seeing time and wear have their effect on certain, recurring items. It’s true to life and a visual treat, with lovely use of color to liven up a game that could’ve easily slid more into utilitarian style to reflect current furniture trends.
Pleasing as the game is aesthetically, conceptually, and narratively; the actual gameplay falls a bit short. There’s a true zen-state to be found in Unpacking whereupon you’re casually rifling through its cardboard containers and finding the perfect spot for knick knacks and knickers. The issue is when you find yourself sorting the same sorts of things again and again across its runtime. Stocking the same batch of toiletries and kitchenware over and over doesn’t carry the same resonance as finding familiar toys, or watching the character’s interests and aspirations grow.
That’s the real and relatable reward of this one. Not a single bit of dialogue or thought (save captions for photos taken at the end of a move) is found in this game. Instead you fill in the blanks based on the living situation you find this character in. The game starts with a childhood bedroom, but by the end you’ll have gone through all kinds of different living situations and an unseen personal journey. Yet some things are with you from start to finish, giving way to a degree of roleplay. After all, if the handheld game system went on the nightstand once, it stands to reason that’s its spot no matter where you end up, no?
While I’m unable to mention specific examples, I want to emphasize that the reveals that do come throughout the game are done exceptionally well within its parameters. What other stories need hours of character development for, Unpacking manages to weave into the gameplay and only asks that you have an eye for details and some imagination fueled by human experience.
While it’s a shame that it is quite short, Unpacking manages to do everything it sets out to by the end. In that way it’s complete, though still held back by its repetition. I played through in its entirety over just a couple hours, and that was while being methodical and with a decorative mindset. The tedium ensured I’d take a break after each portion of the game, but the undeniable appeal always brought me back soon enough. If you want a game that’s perfect to relax with and that occupies its own niche perfectly, Unpacking is here for you.
System: Nintendo Switch
Release Date: November 2nd, 2021
Publisher: Humble Games
Developer: Witch Beam