Developer: Witch Beam
Publisher: Humble Games
Release Date: 02/11/21
Platform: Reviewed on Xbox One (also available on Nintendo Switch and PC)
Time Played: 3 Hours
Video games have this bizarre quirk to turn the most mundane aspects of real life into an enjoyable experience in-game. There’s a long list of examples. From the managing a farm in Stardew Valley, to the many simulators around, including Lawn Mowing Simulator as a most recent example. Things that are monotonous chores normally, become addictive scenarios as a video game. It’s something I still don’t fully understand, but it’s a brilliant example of just how great and transformative video games can be. But now we have a new game that draws on this very idea, and that’s Unpacking
Developed by Witch Beam, Unpacking is game all about, you guessed it, unpacking. Set across eight levels that span decades, you’re tasked with emptying the countless boxes strewn across the different rooms and neatly arranging the unladen objects around. That’s it really…but it’s just so fun, despite sounding dull at first.
It’s hard to explain just why Unpacking’s gameplay is so addictive without experiencing it for yourself. Starting out simple to give you an idea of how the game works, you’ll have a few boxes of things to put away. Objects can be placed pretty much anywhere in the rooms, including the floor, but you’ll need to ultimately arrange them in places that make sense. For example, you can’t just leave a glass on the floor, likewise, socks need to be put away in bedroom draws. Everything has its appropriate place, and there’s often a fair amount of leeway for variation.
Each room allows for a nice level of interaction to engage the player more in the tasks before you. Draws and cupboards can be opened to put things inside, but if you try opening a door when a draw is left out, it will smack into it and close again. It’s the little things like that which helps make you feel like you’re in the rooms and putting things away like you normally would. This manipulation also extends to the objects you unpack. They can be rotated as well as change form depending on where you place them. Shirts will automatically fold up when put on a flat surface, but they can also be hung up on a hanger in the closet. Glasses and plates can be stacked like you’d think, while books can be piled up on their sides or vertical on shelves. It’s all so snappy and automatic, and this makes it so much more enjoyable to play through.
Like I mentioned earlier, there’s a good amount of variation in how you approach each level and its myriad of objects. For the most part, it’s fairly obvious where objects need to go, purely based on where it realistically goes. You might be able to fit most clothes in draws, but you might also need to put some up on hangers. There’s always just a bit more than enough room to fit everything where it needs to go.
Once all boxes are unpacked and gone, the game will highlight the objects that aren’t in their appropriate place. You’ll usually have, at most, ten that need to be rearranged. I will say that there can be obtuse required locations for some objects. For example, I put a cup in the cupboard (as you normally would) and it highlighted it as the wrong location. I spent quite a few minutes just placing it everywhere I could, until finally, I found the correct placement next to the sink in the bathroom. It was meant to be a cup where a toothbrush and toothpaste could be put inside. It’s such a specific requirement, where my original spot for it also seemed right. However, moments like these aren’t often and don’t take away from the experience.
There’s something so calming and therapeutic about methodically arranging all the countless items in a proper way. Watching as the rooms slowly build up with clutter, filling empty bookshelves, etc, it all works to provide a relaxing experience like few others. Although, it’s not just the gameplay in itself that makes Unpacking so satisfying. The excellent audio and sweet visual style is also key in bringing everything together.
Seriously, the audio design in this game is brilliant, and it genuinely surprised me with just how much attention to detail there is. When you’re objects around the rooms, they make the types of sounds you’d think they’d make. Plates have that characteristic clatter, emphasised when you stack them together. Bottles and jars make a believable thump, doors and draws open and close with the desired noise. But what’s more, is that this also changes depending on what surface you place them on. It’s such a great attention to detail and it has a very ASMR quality to it.
Similarly, the music uses simplicity and subdued tones to provide an incredibly zen score that easily blends into the background. It really helps to add to that calming premise of the game, making it a perfect way to unwind after a stressful day. The charming visuals are another highlight. Despite some detail being lost within the pixilated aesthetic, you can still easily tell what things are (with a few exceptions). The presentation, both visual and audio, is a real treat.
When I started this game, I was anticipating it to be a very gameplay-focused experience. What I wasn’t expecting was for Unpacking to have a surprisingly sweet and relatable narrative as well. It’s not a story in the traditional sense, it’s very subtle, but I also think it’s perfect for this type of game. You’re essentially following a good portion of this woman’s life over the years (including issues with a partner), but through the lens of their possessions as well as the rooms.
As you progress through the levels, you’ll see plenty of new items, but also the same ones that she’s had since she was younger. From things like posters they keep, to soft toys, etc. You’ll get a sense of what she’s like, as well as her hobbies/job. You’ll put out art supplies, then later a small easel, and even a digital art surface. From the new items you have to organise, as well as the very rooms themselves, you’re on this journey with them. It’s a message all about the sentimental value of the everyday objects we have and keep, alongside the memories that accompany that. I love it when a developer really meshes the story and gameplay together like this. It’s simple but oh so effective.
On the surface, the simple premise behind Unpacking might seem utterly random and seemingly mundane, but it’s something you can’t appreciate and really understand until you play it. The therapeutic nature of the gameplay loop is surprisingly addictive and fun when you get into the zone. Yes, it can verge on repetitive at times, however, the music, visuals, audio, and gameplay will leave you wanting more. Even when I completed each level, I still wanted to continue and make my arrangement of the objects in the rooms even better.
I didn’t even know this game existed until I saw it arrive on Xbox Game Pass. It’s for this very reason why I love the service so much, as it brings attention to projects like this and gives me the chance to experience things I wouldn’t have found otherwise. Unpacking is pure cathartic bliss that’ll also make you more aware and appreciative of the sentimental value of things around you.
You play Unpacking via Xbox Game Pass or buy from the Xbox Store here.