Unpacking Review: Making a House a Home
It's been said that moving from one home to another is among the most stressful events a person can experience in their life, even ranking ahead of things like divorce or having a child. Therefore, a game that is essentially just about moving shouldn't be as stress-reducing as Unpacking ultimately is.
With an intuitive and forgiving central mechanic that turns the stress of moving into a surprisingly immersive puzzle game with few wrong answers, Witch Beam's pixel-art indie is my new favorite game to turn to when all I want is to do unwind.
Unpacking Review: Making a House a Home
In Unpacking, you unpack. On the surface, it's that simple. In each level, you're given a room, or set of rooms, in a house full of cardboard boxes and most furnishings already in place. You open the boxes one by one, put away the contents in a way that makes sense, and move on to the next room.
The game begins in 1997 in a children's room, and in time, you'll come to understand you're following one character through their life. From adolescence through college, in and out of relationships, and eventually deep into adulthood, this unnamed, unseen, unvoiced character is a unique kind of protagonist, one whom you learn about entirely from environmental clues.
Unpacking their belongings thus tells an understated story, and I came to appreciate early and often how smartly Unpacking performs this feat. In the earliest level, the character has a stuffed pig among several other such toys. As they grow up, perhaps some toys don't make the trip to their dorm or their first apartment, but you come to understand the importance of the pig and why it survives every transition when little else does.
In its subtle delivery, the diorama-like levels become museum exhibits to a life you watch from the sidelines. You'll have a direct hand in how and where things are put away, and there aren't many wrong answers.
You can't stack the pots and pans in the home office, of course, but do you display your favorite books or stuff them away in a spacious cabinet? Do you neatly divide the GameCube games from the DVDs, or do you just shovel them onto a bookshelf with your leftover knick-knacks from childhood?
This process is remarkably meditative and allows for a real flow state to be achieved as you become more familiar with where things should be put away and how you'd like to present yourself to the world. It's seriously peaceful, aided by retro visuals and calming music on a long loop.
Admittedly, while Unpacking's pixel-ish style look is gorgeous (it reminds me greatly of the Backyard Sports series), I did have a hard time identifying a few items on occasion. Like the soft, static visuals, the original musical score invites quiet sessions where you can experiment to make the perfect house or just toy with the items like a modeling figure that can sit, stand, or dab.
In my favorite instance of the central mechanic, you'll come to better appreciate what it means to share a space with someone.
When we do it ourselves, we maybe can't see that transition happen so plainly, but as the unseen hand guiding the character in Unpacking, watching two worlds collide in a shared apartment becomes an infinitely fascinating look at what it means to give up some of yourself for another person.
You may have wanted to use a shelf for your books, but what if your partner had plans to keep their potted plants there? Will your colorful disarray of mugs and dishware ft in with the neat-freak set of perfectly placed and matching plates? How might you share a physical space without losing too much of yourself?
These are questions to ask and not answer, and I like it that way. It's interesting both in the moment and in between sessions with the roughly 4-5 hour play time. As a married father of two, I find myself looking around with new eyes at how we've all managed to allow others to reinterpret our living space in ways we'd not have thought of ourselves.
Things can lose their zen-like powers when later levels open up to large, two-story houses with six or more rooms, but even then, if you can focus on one room at a time, you'll get there. As a nod to reality, sometimes the boxes you'll have in a room will contain things for other rooms too. Emptied out a full bedroom and still missing a shoe? Check the bathroom.
These minor details make Unpacking so very charming that even the more complex houses don't ever scare me off entirely. It's just sometimes, as in real life, I can merely throw my hands up at a mess and say I'll get to it later.
Unpacking Review — The Bottom Line
- Unique and surprisingly tranquil central mechanic
- Lovely visuals and music set the mood
- A story told creatively through static environments
- Occasionally difficult to determine what some items are
Unpacking is something I play when other games are too stressful or busy to suit my mood. It's a concept I'd never have thought would make for such a rewarding experience, but beyond its simple premise is a story of interesting people and gameplay that inventively combines the homemaking of The Sims with the light-puzzling of a point-and-click.
It'll be most appreciated by players who already like that sort of stuff, but I believe its more relaxed tempo can be a brilliant way to unwind if real-world stressors can't be undone by more bombastic games.
[Note: Humble Games provided the copy of Unpacking used for this review.]