Unpacking follows a woman across 6 formative moves over a timespan of roughly twenty years, starting with her childhood bedroom. Each move starts with boxes, neatly stacked in a random room, inviting you to just pull things out and find a place for them. Where you place items is largely up to you – Unpacking has a few rules and is fairly strict about you just dumping things on the floor, but you’re given plenty of freedom, and if you don’t like that the magnetic whiteboard absolutely has to go on the fridge, you can even activate an accessibility setting that lets you put stuff wherever.
Witch Beam warns that this removes the puzzle element, but Unpacking is really just a puzzle in the way life’s limited spaces are, the way you tetris all of your pans into the cupboard just so and the sock drawer in real life likely has to hold more socks than it was designed to. You can open drawers, hang clothes hangers and stack some items, and it only ever gets fiddly if you’ve already stacked things close together and try to separate them again. On the Switch in handheld mode, the view is automatically zoomed in a bit, as things get too small for you to have the whole room on display and still effectively work, but that’s the only niggle with that particular version of Unpacking.
Unpacking’s admittedly few limits are in place in order to keep things neat, and the neatness is what makes it all so satisfying. Finding just the right spot for an item feels great, not only because everything you pick up looks beautiful thanks to Unpacking’s charming pixel art, but also because the foley design is spot on – the clanking of stacked dishes, the hollow sound of a ukulele’s body as you slot it into its holder. While the music is nice, I eventually turned it off, both because it loops several times before you’re likely to be done, and because I wanted to enjoy the noises of things finding their place, together with the sounds of the world around you, like the upstairs neighbour thumping across the floor above you, or a plane streaking across the sky above your roof.
Without wanting to be too materialistic about it, the items in Unpacking make a house a home. The continuity that comes from unpacking the same items, or seeing an item being replaced also adds a lot of charm – the first time you unearth a purple D20 from the woman’s moving boxes, you also eventually find a t-shirt with the die on it, clearly communicating this person’s newfound love for tabletop roleplaying. Across several moves, you unpack Nintendo consoles, and I cheered to see each of them appear without the previous console being abandoned. There are DVDs and eventually blu-rays, rendered distinctly enough to make it fun to recognise the film by the cover alone. Generally, there are a lot of films and books to stack, but some items are so distinct that they immediately denote a large life change – one item in particular hints at a possible disability, and I spent a good while wondering if I was simply reading the wrong thing into it.
Several moves concern not just your mystery woman’s stuff, but also the way she eventually slots into another life by moving in with other people. Without words, Unpacking managed to make one of her moves seem like a really bad idea, the furniture suggesting an inhabitant remarkably different in style from her, their furniture clearly not designed to accommodate more than one person’s belongings. As I agonised over putting a poster on the living room wall that clearly went against the décor of the whole place, I realised how much about a person, and the harmony of a household, Unpacking managed to visibly telegraph.
But in order to make unpacking a pleasant activity and not a chore, Unpacking mostly designs lives that go against the quirks capitalism instilled in us. Nothing is too much – your character has exactly as many pairs of underwear as fit the drawer, and she doesn’t lug around any awkward presents or empty cardboard boxes she needs to keep for the next move or until an item’s warranty expires. The only thing under her bed is a neatly rolled up yoga mat. The only sign of excess is a family of plush chickens that steadily grows year-on-year. In a time where we’re encouraged to buy first and think about where all that stuff is supposed to go later, the design of each virtual home fits your needs to a degree not many real-life Kallax shelves can replicate.
Unpacking has also shown me how much our status and our belongings, as well as how these belongings are designed, speak for us as people.
Unpacking is not just a game about tidying up, it’s also a fantasy, and maybe a sort of late wish fulfilment for some of us – a fantasy that adds a spacious bathroom to a dorm room that holds the exact kind of unappealing wooden furniture I remember so well. A dream where through steady work, an illustrator becomes more successful, their wealth expressed through increasingly expensive-looking work equipment and prizes on the shelves. There’s a throughline to this life many of us miss – following the pandemic, many people had to start over, likely by moving, or cutting off the continuity in their lives in another way, for example by changing their job. The protagonist in Unpacking is in many ways lucky and privileged enough to steadily keep going, to start over, to have something to fall back on. This game portrays the idealised idea of the job, the relationship, the house, that just isn’t true for many people anymore. I found myself jealous of a fictional character in a video game for maintaining all of her hobbies across years, and for ending up in a house with a separate dining room and a fancy loo roll holder.
I’m glad for this non-existent person, but Unpacking has also shown me, perhaps unwittingly so, how much our status and our belongings, as well as how these belongings are designed, speak for us as people, and that connotation isn’t always positive. But it’s also a game that allows for personal expression and finding fun in what’s literally just stuff – whether you proudly display the stuffed animals in an adult’s home or hide them away, whether you like to stack books according to matching spines. The resulting home is a small diorama of a life, ready to be treated almost like art thanks to Unpacking’s photo mode. This tidy exploration of a home had me yearning for a future I can’t see for myself, no matter how much I want it, but I do think a fancy loo roll holder is on the cards.