Unpacking is a Zen Puzzle Game That Makes Order Out of Chaos
Do you ever find yourself stress-cleaning? It's that compulsion to tidy up when everything seems to be weighing you down. Maybe work is pouring in, the kids are bouncing off the walls, and the puppy is peeing on the carpet again. It can feel like your only options are to pull out your hair or, as a healthier alternative, clean your house.
It's a way to create some semblance of control. There's something soothing about reorganizing a bookshelf or dusting the entertainment center when you're having a bad day, isn't there?
The stressors of daily life have only become more burdensome for many folks during the pandemic. That's why, as we seem to finally be turning a corner in this whole mess, Unpacking has become the meditative timeout I wish I had a year ago — but it's one I'm thankful I have today.
As part of LudoNarraCon, this week's indie games festival focusing on story-based games, I was able to check out a few dozen demos of upcoming indie games, but Unpacking is my favorite of the whole event.
In Unpacking, players organize rooms as though they're just moving in. Without so much as a text-based intro or an opening cutscene, the first level drops you into a child's room fit with bunk beds in 1997. An empty shelf and a desk sit there, as do three taped-up cardboard boxes.
Instinctively, you know to open the boxes and start decorating the room, and the total lack of timers, score settings, or much of anything that would be considered gamification makes it so much more inviting. You're mostly free to organize and decorate the room as you see fit — there are nearly no wrong answers in Unpacking.
Maybe you want the stuffed animals to go on the shelf, the board games to go under the bed, and the soccer ball to sit in the corner beside the desk. Or maybe you want your soccer trophy on display prominently in the middle of your desk, but you're through with the stuffies, so you set them on the top bunk, generously donated vertically to your little brother.
Only a gentle guiding hand will let you know that some object or objects are not in one of their many "right" spots. You can't, for example, just leave the board games strewn about the bedroom floor, but what kind of ne'er-do-well would want to anyway?
All the while, lackadaisical music plays and the game moves only at a pace you choose. For the stress-cleaners, the serial organizers, or even the interior decorators of the world, Unpacking is a unique experience you probably didn't know you wanted.
Without any character models or dialogue, you're free to make up your own story as you move from room to room, year to year, house to house. Who is this person whose bedroom you've decorated? That stuffed pig toy that sat on their desk in 1997 is now beside their dorm room computer in 2004. Did they bring it to college? It's for you to decide.
Awkwardly, my inferred story even got a bit dark when I imagined the stuffed animals as belonging to the younger sibling in the game's first level, so I put them on their bed, but when I pulled the same pig out of the box in the subsequent level, I had to account for why the big brother brought their sibling's toy with them to college.
Was it a gift from a brother who would miss you? Was it a monument to a child taken too soon? No one knows for sure, but like the act of decorating the room, there seem to be few wrong answers.
Unpacking apparently provides for a vast blank slate for players to fill in their own stories this way, but even if you don't think too much about the details of what you're decorating with, there's a wonderful sense of tranquility in moving room to room, opening up the boxes, putting away their contents as you prefer, and admiring your finished work.
I'm the type of person who genuinely feels a bit of stress when a movie includes a scene with a messy space, like a child's toy room or a trashed post-rager kitchen. The simple act of cleaning a room in Unpacking feels like the cure for what so often ails me, now more than ever in a year where my eight-year-old son has been home-schooling for a year, my two-year-old daughter has never even seen a library or a toy store, and my wife and I work a combined three jobs, two at home and one in a city hit pretty hard by the pandemic.
One can start to feel overwhelmed, even in a family as loving and close-knit as ours. But playing Unpacking gives me the sort of respite I find so inviting and so effective. Best of all, it's so unexpected.
I wouldn't think this game's concept would work, but with soothing music, a nostalgic visual style, and no-wrong-answers design, Unpacking has become the pause in the daily chaos I so appreciate. I can't wait to unpack the full game when it arrives on PC later in 2021.