Unpacking Review

I'm always on the lookout for games that offer new perspectives and new ways to play, especially ones that don't rely on constant violence as the main way to engage the player. Sure, I like the violent stuff too, but a healthy mix is a good thing to me. So I was excited to finally dig into Unpacking from indie developer Witch Beam and publisher Humble Games, a game that is about, simply, unpacking boxes. 

Well, it's actually not that simple. In this game you trace one young woman's life from childhood well into to adulthood over the course of about 25 years, unpacking the boxes she brings along as she moves into new rooms, apartments, and houses. As her life expands, the things she's collected or needs for daily life changes and expands, and it's through handling these things and finding places for them in each new location that the player starts to pick up on a story. 

The Style

Unpacking is full of wonderful pixel art that you see the moment the game starts up - and it fills every screen, at basically all times, right through to the end credits. Every room and item is meticulously and lovingly crafted in pure 2D pixel art delivered from a three-quarters perspective, and it really is the source of most of the charm. Combined with this is a lighthearted soundtrack that reinforces that mood, along with carefully sourced sound effects that accurately reflect the items you'll be placing as you move them around. So yes, the cup with pens and pencils it rattle around as you shake it or place it onto a desk, and the hot water bottle sloshes around as you figure out where in the bedroom the game wants you to put it. 

The Challenge

Unpacking presents you with a room, or for most of the game, a set of rooms in an apartment or house and a bunch of boxes. The player will have to open the boxes, pull out one item at a time - each click presents an item from that box as kind of a surprise - and then find places for all of the items that make some kind of sense. So that means the frying pan needs to go on the stovetop, in a cabinet, or on a shelf in the kitchen - it does not belong on the couch. And if you open a box in the living room and find a toaster inside it, you'll have to move over to the kitchen to place it appropriately.

Once you get all the boxes in all rooms unpacked, anything that the game decides is not placed in a sensible slot glows in a red outline, and you'll have to find the proper place for each of these items in order to be able to move on to the next chapter. Note that with only very few exceptions, there's a lot of freedom for where things go, although I did get frustrated at a few of the "rules" which are never written out but instead meant to be completely apparent based on context of Western-style urban and suburban living - for example, the game can be meticulous about what goes into a medicine cabinet versus the shelf on a shower, or what's allowed in the cabinet under a kitchen sink. There is an option to turn off this piece of the game's challenge, but then the guardrails come off entirely, meaning that everything can just basically be unpacked by dumping it on the floor if you really want to, which didn't seem appealing to me. I never got stuck for more than maybe a minute, so overall I didn't really see a need. For the most part I found the rules to be pretty relaxed, and disabling this option means that all challenge is removed (along with some of the subtlety of the story - more on that later). 

This does lead to my first real criticism for this game, which is that I found some items difficult to identify that the pixel art didn't necessarily help with on small items. Is that an egg timer or a short, round bottle? Is that a glove or a weird piece of art that goes on the wall? The developers do give you an option to zoom in, but it didn't always help for me. The items are small enough that details can't be made out, and players can't get a detailed view of the cover of a book or game, a closer look at a photo, or even get descriptions of items. It's too bad because this could have been used to optionally add a lot of interest and flavor. 

What Story are we Telling here? 

At one point there is an item that is obviously important to the main character, but can't be placed where you'd expect because there is simply no room to place it where it goes. This challenge and the solution that has to be found communicates subtly to the player that there's a problem happening that's bigger than the process of unpacking boxes. This was a fantastic way to do a bit of storytelling entirely without any words, and I loved that it was integrated into the game's challenge but I found there wasn't nearly enough of this, especially considering how these parts were the most memorable part of the game for me. That's a missed opportunity in my mind, and a big shame. 

And I don't necessarily mean that I want the player to keep winding up with items that can't be put where we'd normally want to place them, but instead I wish that the developers had implemented other ways to use the process of unpacking after a move to tell stories about real problems people often have in their lives. For example, what about a bedroom for two kids that shows how one kid bullies the other or that they fight over space? Or what if someone had to suddenly downsize the amount of stuff they own? What could we learn about someone if we see them having to move from a nice house to a dingy little apartment? How could a death in the family be represented? I get that these situations probably occurred to the developers and that they made the choice to instead mostly keep things happy and upbeat, but I would have liked to see a heavier mix of drama, as to me, the process of uprooting one's self, moving, and having to go through one's memorabilia and all of their things inherently brings a level of emotion and reflection on a person's life and the choices they made.

Following the Path

Still, it is intriguing to see at least this one person's journey through life by looking at their things, especially when one comes in as a sort of active voyeur who moves around this person's items yet doesn't actually see or meet that person. Many items move in and out of her possession throughout the time period this game covers, and that alone tells a story too. With that said, the entire game is wrapped up in a few hours and while there are some cute little achievements that are only accomplished by placing unpacked items into the environments in specific ways, there doesn't seem to be much replay value. To that end I do feel that the game is just a bit short for its normal $20 asking price and that it could have held on a while longer before it overstayed its welcome. The developers did include a photo mode, but I can't say I really enjoyed it or found it added much to the experience. Your mileage may vary, however.

Unwrapping it up

Unpacking certainly has a lot going for it - it's about as charming as you can get for a game of this caliber, especially with its presentation, and it has a gameplay loop that is both freeform and puzzle-lite, covering an activity that many of us are very familiar with yet that I've never seen in a game. 

The overall design here is ripe for expanded ideas and added emotional weight that I would've found to make for a more "complete" game if they had gone ahead with it this time. I imagine a sequel that tracks a person's whole life, from the decorating of their nursery before they were born all the way through to moving things into a room in a nursing home, with completely optional detailed views of items and text (or audio!) descriptions that add a richness to a person's life with tinges of both happiness and sadness. 

So the perspective is fresh, and yet I still feel like the picture is incomplete by not covering a full life or some of the more intense emotional experiences one has. With that said, I have to admit I didn't even know what I was missing until these developers brought it to light, so I present this not as a criticism, but instead as a request for more next time. Until that time comes, I can still recommend Unpacking for anyone looking for fantastic pixel art, as long as they're accepting of a quick, lighthearted, relaxed puzzle-ish experience.