Moving home sucks. Even the good moves: out of your childhood home! To a new city! In with a loved one! Are frayed by expense and uncertainty; the bad ones are even worse. Even so, there are moments in the process that can be unexpectedly joyful: the feeling of a soft reset, the cathartic charity shop drop off and (whisper it) the packing.
Packing to move home means stock checking your life to date and while the broader task can be intimidating, moment to moment we stumble across those possessions we never did get rid of, the ones we definitely should have, and the ones we’re glad we didn’t. The developers of Unpacking at Witch Beam know this, and harness our tendency to imbue objects with emotional significance to inject a tender humanity into a game which crucially never puts a single human on screen.
Unpacking is a gentle puzzle game. Each level presents a new lovingly rendered isometric property, filled with tidily taped and stacked cardboard boxes to empty, and asks the player to find appropriate storage solutions for the items they unearth in opening them (note to devs: boxes and tape OP, game unrealistic). Solutions are flexible and allow for some creativity, meaning one player’s unpacked household is likely to look quite different from another. Some items also stack, for example coat hangers can be hung in wardrobes and subsequently have clothes hung from them, it’s always worth experimenting as in many instances Witch Beam have anticipated your personal storage quirks and have got your back, meaning the truly sociopathic can hang up their pyjamas, or stack their books vertically.
If right now your mind is saying ‘isometric emo Tetris’ then we’re getting there, but how does Witch Beam manage to build a strong emotional component into what is essentially a game about putting things in things on things in rooms? First come the objects themselves, zoomable and rotatable and with just enough detail in their chosen pixel art aesthetic to really embed themselves in the world. They come in a fantastic variety too, illustrating the wonderful mish mash of selves that make up the typical person: occupations, hobbies, memories, obligations, friendships; all come to a head in the same environment and (in a brilliant nod to real packing fatigue) in many cases in the same box.
The second aspect of connection with the events of Unpacking comes from the fact that the player does not populate arbitrary rooms with randomised possessions, instead the game follows the life of a central protagonist as she moves forward in time and between rooms, apartments and houses as dictated by her circumstances. The devil is in the details of these remarkably relatable transitions. In young adulthood, for instance, our lead moves back into her childhood home following a break up. The room remains the same as the first time we occupied it, but the soft toys and board games that radiated from the shelves during childhood are now joined by the ephemera of adult life: thick textbooks, file holders, charging cables, post-its. As a consequence the room takes on a different identity, becoming physically claustrophobic and functionally a more confused and uncertain space in line with the events that brought us back here.
Brilliantly, these events change the context for the unpacked items themselves, though the items remain unchanged to the eye. Unpacking employs a helpful aid which shows the player when objects are in an unsuitable spot by highlighting them, but this only kicks in when every box has been emptied. In the same level, the move home following a break up, you find that a photograph pinned to your cork board is highlighted, despite previously having been scored correctly. Zoom into the scene and you’ll see that the photograph depicts the lead character and their former partner. The level can only be completed by placing it into a drawer.
Unpacking includes many further stories in this sense that don’t deserve to be spoiled for the player, each deployed with great care and as quietly impactful as the photograph. The fact that all we ever see are the homes and their contents gives the game a sedate vibe, and assuming the player takes some care in the placement of possessions each scenario can take a surprisingly hefty chunk of time to play out; as a result the game is suited to concentrated bursts of play, with the gaps in between acting as the ’kettle on’ pauses of a real moving day.
In spite of having a story it wants to tell, Unpacking’s solutions are generously free-form in many regards, it’s up to the player to determine whether anime posters and plastic collectibles get relegated to the study or stubbornly stay in the primary living space as time passes and adulthood looms large, or to decide whether a yoga mat gets fatally stuffed in the back of the wardrobe. The player makes these decisions unconsciously, creating a pocket mirror world of their own values and priorities, and only occasionally does the game kick in as an arbiter of decorative sense.
Witch Beam were recently the victim of an app store knock off, an ad-ridden clone of Unpacking was released lifting the design and look of the game entirely. It was eventually taken down but not before having been downloaded thousands of times. The idea of filling this meditative, reflective experience with behavioural nudges and in-app purchases is so antithetical to what the game is trying to achieve, in addition to being horrific creative theft, that it would be laughable if not for the harm and stress caused to the developers. In Unpacking, Witch Beam have created a shrine to our lives and the meaning we graft onto them, and it deserves to be consumed at a pace commensurate to a lifetime of trips to Wilkos for cardboard boxes, waiting for your internet provider to get their shit together, and getting your new postcode wrong. Crucially Witch Beam also deserves credit for acknowledging that cheese graters go in the cupboard under the sink with the pans. They just do.
Unpacking created by Witch Beam is available now on Switch, Xbox consoles, PC and Mac.
Words: Luke Jackson