What is a life?
How do we, as people, quantify the overall experience of our humble existences on this planet as we are hurtled through the void together?
Is it made from the connections we make? The achievements we have to our names? Or is it something more fundamental and primal?
Often so much emphasis is put on making something grand of ourselves, of big adventures taken, challenges overcome. This notion is somewhat reinforced by the media that we consume in the overwhelming. Action stars saving helpless victims of crime, and adventurers sailing to distant lands on journeys to the unknown.
Yet this isn’t what really makes a life. A life is constructed from the thousands of little things that build us up from childhood. Scratched in the door frame with a pencil at our childhood home, and in the edges of our most used notebooks.
It’s rare for video games to really convey the mundanity and joy of a life lived in its simple parts, even when that whole premise is about returning to a simple life, it’s still about putting you, the player, in a position of power and privilege, the Animal Crossings and Stardew Valleys that make your every action the crux of the local town’s success. Your island’s residents happiness is built around your plans.
Unpacking is a truer expression of relaxed, comforting mundanity. It’s the tiny joys and memories made manifest as a medium. What better way to experience long-form and yet minimalist storytelling than through the big turning points of a life. The simple act of making a new home.
Now, this isn’t the SIMs home-making, although you might be forgiven for having this scratch that itch on a small scale. Not this is simply making a new space yours, taking the objects of personal value in a young persons’ life, and making the space your representation of that humanity. The whole game is listening quietly to a gentle soundtrack while unpacking boxes of belongings and putting them where they belong. Toaster in the kitchen, Laptop in the office, Soft toy on the bed, and so forth.
Through a series of moves, from childhood bedroom to uni digs, to flatshare, to own home, and beyond, we experience the first parts of life through the cycle of learning, love, and loss. What makes Unpacking quite impressive is through its simplicity, flaws, and short length, it still manages to tell a complete and involved story via it’s protagonist’s personal effects.
Much in inferred of course, via some player’s personal bias, but there’s a clear sequence of events here told adeptly through relaxed minimalist gameplay. It’s an impressive feat.
You click on a box to open, again to pull out some lovingly realized and mostly universally recognizable object, and pop it into a cupboard with a satisfying clack.
For the most part, the whole experience is relaxed and satisfying, the game and its marketing, encouraging you to relax and just go at your own pace, But therein lay the game’s few flaws. It’s more like seams showing the edges than experience ruining problems.
Each space is experienced with a chill soundtrack that attempts to give a feel to the sensation of moving into a specific place. Optimistic and hopeful. Playing of the natural instinct we all have to enjoy organization. The music though doesn’t keep to the pace, or more in it is made up of a series of shortish tracks that always end long before you are done even emptying your boxes of possessions. You’ll be having a chill time, checking out a new thing to find and then… Silence — before the track you just heard starts anew. If the music was looping, you wouldn’t notice, but it’s stopping and you’re waiting for it to start again really makes it stand out. The other small irritant is around your creative freedom.
Multiple times over multiple spaces, you are prevented from progressing due to what often feels like logical inconsistency. Everything has to be in a specific set of spaces, or you cannot progress. The game will flash at you, highlighting incorrectly placed objects with a red hue like goofy after having been stung by a wasp flash flash, flash flash, NO! Put this where we want you to! It screams at you. Very quietly.
With things like toilet rolls, this makes some sense. Obviously, a toilet roll should be in the bathroom, but some objects insist on very specific placement. The most egregious example was a bathroom with a wash basket. In the space, there was a hidden washing machine and dryer, and naturally, I put the basket close to the machines. The object was out of the way, tucked next to the sink and not in an unreasonable place, but Unpacking was having none of it. This is just objects that are easily recognizable. Some things leave you baffled, or clueless. Others look alike or could reasonably be stored in a couple of rooms. More still might suffer from being culturally unrecognizable to people in other countries.
The game expects you to know still and the sting of the wasp will always get you, angry you don’t right away. This would be mitigated by the simple inclusion of a notification at the bottom of the screen with an object name as you selected it, and would go a long way to be more inclusive to people with some conditions or visual impairments. It’s a shame Unpacking doesn’t support this, it’s also a shame that it should be strict at all. In a game about chill times, putting your objects away as you’d like, the fact that it should chastise personal player creativity at all is a shame. Imagine being told off for putting a bra in a drawer, in a bedroom, because it’s not the drawer the developer would choose. Instead of creativity, it’s asking you to play “guess what the person who made this, and you’ve never met, thinks a house should look like”.
These personal issues didn’t deeply detract from my experience with the game and its unique narrative presentation as much as it makes it sound, but it’s when you see how well it does what it does do well, that these things stand out.
Unpacking is a charming and attractive, relaxing experience that finds inventive ways to express story and emotion in the player through shared experience, but it’s one that is less open to experimentation and creativity than you would hope from its initial presentation.