In Unpacking, I once again take a stuffed toy of a pig out of a box and place it down on a bed. Me and this softie swine are old friends now, and thanks to the passage of time, it’s developed a little patch on its belly to cover signs of wear and tear. It reminds me of the cuddly toy of Eeyore from Winnie the Pooh that I’ve had since I was eight years old, and the many times I’ve unpacked it from my bag and placed it on a new bed; surrounded by walls that will become more familiar to me with time. There are some possessions that stay with us, that we can’t bear to part with; no matter where life takes us or how worn out they become.
Developer Witch Beam captures this idea so beautifully in its delightfully pixelated puzzler. By getting you to empty boxes and organize belongings in a series of homes, you steadily learn more about the life you’re unboxing as you move from place to place. Unpacking offers a calming and relaxing puzzle experience that slowly but evocatively builds up a picture of someone’s life through objects and places.
The very first space you’re presented with is a childhood bedroom, with plenty of nostalgia-inducing items to tidy away. With Unpacking’s wonderfully detailed art style, I get a rush of joy from seeing a little Tamagotchi I just unpacked, and the cassette player and Rubix cube. With items like sports trophies, a football, and a sketchbook, I get a sense of the owner’s interests and start to learn more about them. It’s not long before I fall into a relaxing rhythm, tucking items away and organizing everything just so to really bring the room together.
You’re free to place belongings anywhere you like – on shelves, in cupboards, or even underneath a pillow – to decorate the room. Sometimes you might have placed an object where it doesn’t really fit or belong. Once everything is unpacked, an item that’s not in quite the right place will flash with a red outline, so you’ll know it needs to be placed elsewhere. The puzzle element comes into play as you try to make sure you can accommodate all of the items in the right room. When all of it is put away, a star will appear that allows you to progress to the next stage.
From a childhood bedroom to student digs and beyond, you begin to see a person’s life unfold. After organizing just the one room to start with off, you move on to bigger places with more boxes and multiple rooms to fit your belongings into. Not unlike reality, it becomes even more of a puzzle in some stages when you move in with someone and have to merge your stuff with theirs. It captures that awkward muddle of trying to make two people’s lives fit together. The design of one of the places I move into is so modern and muted, that it really contrasts with the colorful possessions you’re unpacking away and it makes for an odd fit. Through this clash, I start to think about the kind of lives that are coming together and the relationship they have.
Delight in the details
What grips me the most is the slow building of the story of someone’s life through only the possessions they interact with and the places they move into. Like when, suddenly, I’m having to unpack belongings back in the childhood bedroom. After successfully organizing all of my things to fit in with someone else’s, the realization of what the shift back to this colorful, childlike room means hits me hard and I take a moment to soak in what must have happened.
This bedroom is too small to really allow for all of the objects I need to place, and that detail alone speaks volumes. Our main character has outgrown this old room, but circumstances have made it necessary for them to return anyway. I think back on the previous place I moved into, and the way nothing really seemed to fit too well together. It felt like I was intruding on a space that couldn’t quite support everything I had… just like a bad relationship. The signs were all there in the way that the rooms didn’t really come together, but you keep trying to make it work anyway. It immediately dawns on me that they’ve been through a breakup when it transitions back to that bright room where it all began, and I can’t stop thinking about just how well it portrays this through the act of moving.
There are lots of little touches and details to appreciate in Unpacking. Sometimes, for example, you’ll come across something in a box that belongs in another room entirely, like finding a kettle in the boxes for the bathroom. With all of the stresses that come with moving and trying to get everything together, I’ve lost count of the number of times over the years that I’ve just chucked any old thing in a box just to get everything ready in time for the moving day. Thanks to the way it delivers such an effective narrative experience through its detailed objects and puzzles, WitchBeam’s wonderful indie will stay on my mind for a long time to come
Unpacking is out now on PC, Nintendo Switch, and Xbox One.