Review: Unpacking

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How is it that games can be so effective at making menial tasks fun? It will never cease to astound me that there’s an entire flourishing genre of basic labor simulators, where people will pay money for the privilege of driving a bus or chopping down trees. It’s a testament to the developers, I suppose, that they can so effectively gamify work that most people desperately avoid in their everyday lives. That mastery is nowhere more apparent than in the gentle visuals and tactile joys of Unpacking, a lovely little title that simulates the absolute worst parts of moving. The fact that I can even load this game up a few months after unpacking my own new place is evidence of that.

Unpacking takes you on a journey through eight residences as the subject of the story first moves into them. In each locale, you’ll have a selection of rooms rendered in absolutely gorgeous pixel art, blighted by moving boxes that must be, well, unpacked. A whole host of items will come spewing forth from these boxes, from clothes to cutlery, plushies to pills. It’s your job to find a place for each of these, such that the rooms may become a home of at least controlled chaos. Once everything is suitably put away, the game awards you fanfare to let you know your task is done, and that you might move on to the next milestone in this person’s life.

It’s a simple premise with equally simple mechanics. Clicking on a box retrieves an item from it, right-clicking rotates it, and moving it around the room affords you a wide array of context-sensitive locations to place it. The first hint of real genius here is how clever that context sensitivity is. You’re not limited to lining up postcards in a drawer or books on a shelf. As you sweep items around the room, you’ll find you can fold and stack clothes, pin up or roll up posters, keep toothbrushes in cups, and so much more. This is key because it turns what would be a charming task simulator into a journey of discovery to see how few limits you have on where you can place things.

Once you realize how open the game is in this sense, that’s when the real brilliance shines through. The eight scenes that you are tasked with unpacking are not all the same, and some play with those placement mechanics in interesting and logical ways. This all serves the story, which you might have been surprised at me mentioning earlier, given that this is a game exclusively about taking things out of things and putting them on or inside things. Unpacking tells a moving, nuanced story without need of a single word of text, because it does it entirely through context and the environment. You’re sure to notice the items that keep showing up as you move from place to place, as well as conspicuous absences from your belongings. New items can tell stories all on their own, simply from the point in the game where they first appear.

The real wow moment for me was about halfway through the game, where there was a story beat told not by an item, but by the space I had in which to place it. That might sound odd but when I realized what was happening, it hit me harder than so many RPGs or text-heavy adventures ever have. You’ve surely heard the old aphorism “show, don’t tell”, and to me this is the absolute pinnacle of that guidance being heeded. Unpacking does so, so much with just a collection of rooms and items, supported expertly by lush graphics and a moving soundtrack. It’s warm and inviting and meaningful, and so many games with so much loftier ambitions have missed that mark that this game nails.

If it seems like I’m gushing too much over a 3-hour game, that’s because I don’t remember the last time a 3-hour game brought me so much joy. It’s the day after and I’m still running through all the things I did in my head, wondering if I missed any additional significance in a mug or hand towel. There’s a collection of hidden achievements (they exist as adorable stickers in-game) that are awarded for doing specific things while unpacking, and I only got about half of them on a single playthrough, so I’m definitely thinking about going back for those. But even without that extra incentive, I wouldn’t trade my time in Unpacking for anything.

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