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2022 SXSW Festivals Gaming

‘Unpacking’ unboxes our definitions of home

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For us humans, movement is as necessary as air. We constantly have to reorient ourselves in the world and negotiate our lives in new homes. The things we bring with us tell a story of who we were, who we are, and who we are going to be. As a Filipino American “adult”–the transient feeling of home has meant living out of boxes and bags for the better part of the last five years. Oftentimes, the tangible items that make up our lives help us make sense of the intangible. This is exactly what happens in Unpacking, the newest game by Australian-based game studio Witch Beam.

Unpacking describes itself as “a zen puzzle game about unpacking a life” which is a neat and tidy indie game with a joyful amount of depth underneath. You play as an unnamed character at various stages of their life unpacking boxes full of clothes, toys, kitchenware, toiletries and a host of other objects that make a home a home. The game is presented in a pixelated isometric dollhouse perspective, where your disembodied hand clicks and drags items where they belong. You can sort your own way through everything–taking time to go by box, by section, or color code to your Marie Kondo heart’s content. Throughout, you won’t be able to shield your dopamine receptors from the bliss of emptying out a box or getting a room just as you want it.

GIF of Unpacking gameplay.

The standard mode features a puzzle aspect that asks you to place things within the rooms and locations of correct context. This supplies an extra challenge to players who want to see how the specific narrative plays out, but Witch Beam provides stellar accessibility options for players who need a bit more or less guard rails or want to try the game in a new way. You can get rid of the entire puzzle component and decorate as you wish. As each year provides rich and innovative experiences in video games, Witch Beam is proving that being inclusive about game design isn’t a side dish, but a feature that enhances everything else.

Without spoiling the details, the main narrative is surprisingly compelling despite the core gameplay remaining the same. Nostalgia, loss, improvement, and recovery are all words that I would point to that color the behind-the-scenes life of the main protagonist. I audibly gasped multiple times as I moved through familiar chapters of young adulthood and got emotional unpacking the things that were consistently the most important to me. I even formed parasocial relationships with objects of seemingly no consequence. When the game closed, I felt gratified about the journey and couldn’t help thinking about the parallels between my life and the character’s even as I write this.

Unpacking is fun by itself, but its impeccable soundtrack and sound design by Jeff van Dyck will likely keep you coming back just to vibe. For a game that is so laid back, a ridiculous amount of work has been devoted to the soundscape. Pencils rattle around inside boxes, porcelain clinks on hard surfaces and muffles on cloth, and stereos have their own in-universe jams that will compel you to add them to your playlists. In a game that has you reconfiguring nearly everything, the game’s openness to experiment leads to a bevy of tiny discoveries that are extremely satisfying.

GIF of Unpacking gameplay

It would be easy for a game such as this to be unfocused and dare I say, cluttered. But you can feel the team’s dedication into making sure the experience stays with you. Several rotations add mechanical twists and new rooms, and by the time you feel confident, the game is over. The short and sweetness of Unpacking led me to imagine what a sequel or a different narrative could be like here. Welcome bonus features such as saving hilariously addictive GIFs of your game and a photo taking mode can easily have you playing around for more hours. I would love to see these quality-of-life options explored a bit more. A sound test mode and a catalog of all the painstakingly adorable objects in the game would tie everything together even more wonderfully. In all, Unpacking does not rush you even slightly, but instead opens its door to generous play. Anyone can find their own fun.

When you play a game that knows what it is, it sticks in your head. It snuggles its way into the rest of your life comfortably. For me, I played during a time when I had to revamp my entire bedroom. While that experience was grueling, Unpacking unlocked an inner meditation of the things that I own, why I love them, and where they should be. Unpacking achieves the strong middle of being both niche and accessible. It is the product of wholesome sublime refinement–a home that invites you in and offers you to stay. So stay for a while.

This version of Unpacking was reviewed on Steam.

Unpacking recently won the Innovation Award at the 2022 edition of SXSW.

Unpacking is developed by Witch Beam and is available on Steam, Xbox One, Humble Games, GOG, and Nintendo Switch.

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