At the start of November last year, indie studio Witch Beam released Unpacking to widespread critical acclaim and commercial success. It tells a story of one character over decades of their life through snapshots of various moments of moving to a new place and unpacking your belongings. You are placed in new environments with boxes full of stuff and are tasked with finding the right place for everything. It’s a game that uses mundane, everyday objects to tell a fairly emotional and fully-developed story through the simple act of constant recontextualization. It’s pretty fantastic.
There was also some minor controversy, mainly in the form of negative Steam reviews complaining about the game’s length:price ratio. I don’t want to dwell on this too much. What $20 is worth to any individual is their own business, and I’m not here to say that people are wrong to feel like Unpacking wasn’t worth it. Also, the game has a Very Positive overall and recent review rating on Steam, so I don’t feel like there’s some massive wave of negative reviews that needs to be pushed back against. The people leaving negative reviews are simply a minority that only got some attention because they have a view of games that promotes a form of open and proud commodification that some people (myself included) tend to chafe up against.
The reason I’m bringing all this up is because a common response I saw to this claim about the game’s length was people saying that the game actually isn’t that short: that beating Unpacking in 2 or 3 hours was in some way missing the point. And there is something to that. If you’re not taking the time to pay attention the the environmental storytelling going on or just admire the detail that went into things like the mini recreations of the different GameCube game boxarts, you’re missing out on some of the best stuff the game’s doing. But I beat the game in 3.5 hours, a little bit under what the creative director has said was the shortest playtest time, and I did stop and smell the roses a fair bit. I loved piecing together the narrative, taking stock of what items were and weren’t moving to new places, and trying to figure out what each book cover was supposed to be. What I didn’t do was take the time to meticulously decide upon the placement of every single object, and I want to briefly talk about how this reflects my own attitudes towards the process of unpacking and created an experience as resonant for me as it seemingly was for people who spent twice as long with the game.
Now, I’ll start by saying I didn’t just dump stuff on the floor without care. I played the game with all the pre-set restrictions on where things can be and wanted them in places that made relative sense, but I didn’t stress over whether the placement of any single object was perfect, and the reason for this I think speaks to how I approach real-life unpacking scenarios. I am a person who loves to organize and is always rearranging. I take books off a shelf and find new ways to organize them. I take items out of drawers and go through them. I take everything off a desk and rearrange it. I move furniture around. But for me, the work of finding the perfect living arrangement is an on-going process that is always changing based on my experience in the space. So when I’m playing Unpacking and am met with the decision of which item should go on the top shelf and which on the bottom shelf, my answer is “I don’t know and I really can’t know without actually living this person’s life”. My goal was simply to get everything in an acceptable place and let the character find the right place in the days, weeks, months, and years between these snapshots.
I find the prospect of unpacking to be a fairly stressful one. It can be overwhelming both as a task and as an emotional experience. It is something for me that needs to be pushed through rather than savored. I’ve seen people describe Unpacking as relaxing. For me it was a miniature horror game. I can’t start to be comfortable with the space I live in until I’m living in it and growing a sense of familiarity, and I can’t really live in it until everything is out of its box. My desire to have everything perfectly arranged means that if I were to aim for that perfection at the moment of unpacking, I would never get everything out of its box. My experience both in real-life and in the game would be one of making exhaustive lists, categorizing every object, and meticulously taking stock of how many items of various sizes could fit in each space. I can do that with one shelf three weeks after I’ve moved in and one cabinet two weeks later. But the prospect of doing that all at once is so daunting that I just need to push through and fix my mistakes as I come across them.
Unpacking as a game did a great job of capturing those stressful emotions for me. When I got to the last snapshot, which is the largest and has the most stuff to unpack, I flipped through all the rooms, got overwhelmed at the prospect of unpacking all of it, and quit out of the game. If I were to ever move with that amount of stuff in real life, I’m not sure how I’d manage. Last year I moved with a suitcase and three smaller bags worth of things, and I found the prospect of unpacking that overwhelming. When I finally got back to the game a few days later, I went in with a plan. I went to the room with the fewest amount of boxes, took everything out, and put it on the floor. Stuff that could go in that room went up in the first place I could find for it, and everything else just stayed on the floor. Then I did this with every room afterwards and then went back and moved all the floor items to their correct rooms. Was it pretty? No. Was it efficient? Yes. Everything got to a place that might not have been perfect but was good enough as a holding spot while waiting for the perfect place to reveal itself through use. I still took time to appreciate the details of the objects and the storytelling done through them. That part was often touching and often fun. Looking back on memories and tracking the progression of our lives is great and one thing I do enjoy about the real-life process of unpacking as well. But the unpacking itself was simply a job that needed doing.
I mean this all as praise for the game. While for some people it captures a sense of zen that comes with the act of unpacking and filling out a new space, to me it captured the anxiety of pushing through a roadblock standing between you and the rest of your life. I don’t think this is the intended reaction, and from the response I’ve seen it doesn’t seem like most of the game’s audience reacted to it in this way. But I think it’s pretty special that the game has built a scenario and set of mechanics so simple and evocative that it is able to be relatable and poignant to people who approach those scenarios with such vastly different states of mind.