Developer: Witch Beam
Publisher: Humble Bundle
Platform: Xbox Series X
I don’t know if two games constitutes a trend exactly when I see the great reviews, amazing word of mouth and terrific sales of Unpacking, I’m reminded of a couple years ago when Untitled Goose Game was tearing up the charts. The commonality the two games share is that they are both the products of Australia indie game studios who conceptually came up with a fun, novel concept and then went ahead and nailed the execution.
In Unpacking, players go on a ‘slice of life’ journey of a young woman from Queensland – and we see it all through the act of unpacking her belongings as she moves into new homes at various stages of her life. Witch Beam’s website describes this as a zen like puzzle game and it exactly that. There is no high score, no fail state, no pressures at all. Just the calming and surprisingly enjoyable act of unpacking boxes and decorating rooms, apartments and eventually houses.
There is a puzzle game built into the Unpacking experience. Although you’re generally given a pretty wide berth on how you might want to lay out your belongings in the bedroom, lounge, bathroom and so on, you can’t just leave a toilet brush on the coffee table or put the dining plates in the shower. And occasionally, the game will have a very particular idea in mind for where you place your graduation certificate or that photo of your ex.
Having said that, Unpacking is also a game designed with full accessibility options and its actually possible to completely disable the placement restrictions should you wish.
Honestly, if the game had been nothing more than what you see at face value, I think it still would have been warmly received thanks to its charming pixel art presentation and the chill beats on the soundtrack. For the two nights I played this game, I enjoyed zoning out and putting stuff away to the extent that I lost track of just how long I’d been playing. Where it really begins to shine and make you realise you’re playing something special, is the absolutely crazy amount of care and detail that is poured into Unpacking at almost every level of game design.
There was a tweet about this game that went viral drawing attention to the fact that there are literally thousands of wav files that have been made for this game. If you take a coffee cup and place it on a surface, it will make a different noise depending on whether that surface is tile, wood, marble or carpet. One of the more repetitive tasks you’re regularly performing is shelving DVDs and video games. And yet the designers have done such an amazing job recreating popular box art with only a handful of pixels that it doesn’t feel like a chore at all, because you’re constantly thinking “hey, that’s Animal Crossing on Gamecube” or “hey, thats Jaws on DVD”.
Moreover, the game does an incredible job of using environmental storytelling to paint the picture of the person whose life you’re unpacking over and over. Some of the belongings draw particular attention to the type of person she is – artistic, musical, sentimental – and some of the belongings are more generally relatable observations about various stages of your life – the difference between when you’re in the ‘every coat hanger is different’ phase of share-housing to ‘I’m a grown up and bought matching coat hangers’ in your first home. It’s amazing to me just how much of a detailed narrative Witch Beam have been able to weave. I won’t spoil the specifics but there is one move into a high rise apartment where you can’t help but sour on the character’s choice of romantic partner through some seemingly small but significant restrictions placed on where you can put your most important belongings.
Although its impressive that such a small studio in this corner of the world has been able to make such big waves with their debut game, at the same time it doesn’t feel surprising at all. There is so much quality in Unpacking that is immediately apparent and its themes and touchpoints are universal in their appeal. It’s one of the feel good stories of the year for the video games industry. This team deserves every success that comes their way.