Unpacking: Meditative Monotomy
Picture this. You buy and play a video game in which you tidy up your home. Marie Kondo would be proud. In Unpacking, all you do is move from one place to the next, open the boxes after the move, and put stuff where it belongs: books in the bookcase, pots and pans in the kitchen sink cabinet, drawing material in the desk drawers, and so forth. This sounds very strange and perhaps even dull, and yet, Unpacking by Witchbeam won numerous awards. Why is this so appealing to gamers (and non-gamers)? Who on earth would want to move every two years, seven times in a row?
The story in Unpacking is implicitly told by leveraging the environment: we follow a young person by decorating her very first own room in 1997, including nineties toys such as Troll figurines, a huge stereo boom box, and of course a Game Boy. As the person matures and goes to college, the stuff there is to unpack slowly but surely changes: some dolls are left behind, others reappear a few stages later. New hobbies are picked up and other persons are introduced into the living world. You’re constantly wondering: what is this person like? What to they prefer? Which studies will get picked up and how will the hobbies evolve?
The first level or stage (or whatever you have to call it) only has you unpacking one tiny room. As the game progresses, bathrooms, separate toilets, hallways, kitchens, bedrooms, … are gradually introduced. Sometimes, a kitchen utensil is lost in the boxes full of clothes and you’ll have to switch rooms in-between putting stuff away.
After giving the last item a god spot, you can move on to the next house/level by clicking on a yellow star. Depending on which room you’re in right now, a photo will be taken as part of the photo book that tells the story of the person’s life—the life you helped put in order. In that sense, taking photos of your tidying work is a bigger part of the gameplay. Not like TOEM, where the gameplay is the photography, but there are definitely some similarities, as they’re both very relaxing games that invite slowing down and taking a good look.
That said, Unpacking is very beautiful to look at: the pixel art is on point, and zooming in unveils nicely jagged edges. There’s little animation present though, besides the flaps of the cardboard moving boxes zipping away when empty. Still three more to go! (If you think it’s a race, you’re better off playing something else.)
The game is quite short, but there is ample room for replayability. First, there are stickers to collect as achievements. For instance, putting two teddy bears next to each other or doing something silly with fridge magnets might unlock something. Next, the ending photo that changes reveals unique story text. And if you really want, you can go for book sorting from thick to thin in one run and by cover color in the next one. Not that the game cares, though.
What does the game care about? Simply tearing into that box and spreading everything on the floor won’t do: everything does have its place—more or less. If there are two bookcases in two different rooms, you have the freedom to choose which book to put where. But of course the cooking pot has to be place in the kitchen. The game allowed me to leave it on the stove, which to be honest I found a bit sloppy, but if you’re running into space problems (which is a thing in this game), this is an option.
Yet we did run into quite a bit of trouble here: some items are very small and hard to make out what exactly they are. After being puzzled for a while, we did identify a D20 die, but another small fidget, we still have no idea. The closet worked. In another room, we wanted to keep things clean and put one of those small metal ball metronome things away in the cabinet instead of putting it on the desk. The game refused to go on and marked it glowing red. I wonder, if you’re not familiar with some of these items, how would you know what to do with it? I guess then you’ll have to resort to trail-and-error, which is everything but fun.
After a few hours of Unpacking spread across multiple days, we started getting tired of the repetitive gameplay. I can definitely see the appeal here, but after doing the same again and again in every single room, re-encountering those same objects, one starts to wonder: is this play or is this work? This, hampered by the sometimes unclear purpose and identify of the objects that you unpack (golden tip: the small white thing turned out to be magnetic—to the fridge!), made us glad the game was finished.
If you’re looking for a meditative experience with a lovely but equally repetitive soundtrack, you can’t go wrong with Unpacking. However, if you like a bit more involved gameplay, perhaps this isn’t the droid you’re looking for.