Unpacking (Switch) Review
In Unpacking, you can’t complete a level unless your photo album is prominently on display.
It is often said that faced with an emergency where people are forced to quickly evacuate their home, the things they quickly grab as they scurry to safety are not the expensive items, nor the rare ones, but things with deep sentimental value. The truly irreplaceable things. In particular, people often rescue photo albums. An encapsulation in folder form of shared memories, experiences, and family legacies. A snapshot of feelings and moments in time preserved forever.
The need to always have your photo album in plain view is a small touch that signifies how this is a game about the importance of the sentimental objects that come and go from our lives, and the role they play as we grow up. It’s a dialogue-free story about how we imbue material things with meaning beyond their mere functionality, and how the assortment of things we choose to keep in our lives acts as a reflection of who we are.
Such a statement may seem hyperbolic, but it is difficult to argue. We humans like to accumulate stuff. It might be ingrained within us because of human nature, our collective culture, or just that we’re victims of capitalism and a free market that screams at us that we desperately need things. Some are necessary, some aren’t, but at some point in our lives, we gather a wealth of possessions, with every single object serving a purpose, even if that purpose may change from functional to emotional over time.
Unpacking tells the story of a young girl, beginning with her childhood years. In its first chapter, you’re limited to just her bedroom, a blank canvas awaiting boxes full of metaphorical crayons. Before you are several shelves, empty walls, a small cupboard, and a quaint desk nestled underneath a loft bed. One by one, you’ll unpack a series of boxes sitting at your feet and begin to learn a little bit about who will inhabit this room. There’s plenty of books and stuffed toys. There are pencils, paintbrushes, a Rubik’s cube, board games and a Gameboy. Another box reveals a soccer ball and a not-unimpressive gold soccer trophy. Confined to just one room and a handful of possessions, we begin to piece together who this person is as you sort through the array of belongings and put them on display.
In terms of how you do this, Unpacking is incredibly simple. Having just moved house, you click on the carboard boxes sprawled across your newly inhabited abode, remove each object one by one, and select a place for them to occupy inside the room. You can use an on-screen cursor with the control stick or utilise the touch screen in handheld mode to drag items to your destination (I recommend a stylus if you have one).
Items can be placed on or in just about everything in the room, from shelves to cupboards to drawers or medicine cabinets. Each object can be manually rotated to face the desired direction, and the game will cleverly adapt certain objects naturally based on where you try to place them. Pop a hoodie in a draw and it will fold up, but drag it over a coat hanger and it will unfurl to hang on full display. Posters automatically unravel when placed on a wall, and towels instantly drape over bathroom hooks. It all works exactly as you think it should, with the placing of a tiny perfume bottle alongside a hairbrush delicately poised on the bathroom sink feeling suitably precise.
There’s nothing inherently challenging about what you need to do, and there are no puzzles to solve beyond putting your latent Tetris abilities to the test to have every single item organised exactly to your liking within the confined space. Bonus stickers can be unlocked by placing and interacting with certain household objects in a particular way, and these can be utilised in the photo mode to create your own scrapbook of memories.
Outside of these, there are no extra layers to the package, but it doesn’t need them. The simple act of arranging a room to perfection is uniquely satisfying. Watching the sprawling mess of random bits and pieces scattered across the floor begin to coalesce into a unified vision has you slip into a strange zen-like state, aided by some lovely pixel art and meditative lo-fi chiptunes. I had a lot of fun emptying the contents of every box onto the floor before putting everything in the perfect spot, down to the finest detail to match my style and taste. I suspect the relaxed nature of proceedings will not provide the same fulfilment to those after something more exciting, but I felt the mechanics held up well enough over the few hours it took to beat the game, with the story wrapping up before the novelty of unboxing wears out its welcome.
But to reduce Unpacking down to its simplistic gameplay is to somewhat miss the point, as the game takes the concept of environmental storytelling and hops off to run a decades-spanning marathon. Every piece of clothing, every toy, every ornament, and even the contents of the bathroom cupboard is designed to tell you a tiny bit more about the person who owns them and their life. We learn of her interests, both emerging and subsiding, and what she deems important enough to survive the move from one house to the next.
It also makes deviously clever use of certain recurring items or restrictions to advance its narrative. Different houses have different freedoms on how much of the house you have free reign over. That university share house may be bigger than your childhood home, but you’re not going to be able to move your roommate’s stuff out of the way to suit your feng shui. The game is sneaky about often giving not quite enough space to have everything exactly how you like it, forcing you to prioritise what goes where. A particular moment halfway through the game utilises this to powerful effect, landing a serious emotional beat without ever deliberately saying a word.
Utilising an experience through which we’ve likely all been through is an effective means through which we are invited to not only learn more about this character but also reflect on our own journeys. Moving house is almost a life reset. A marking of the end of one chapter, and the beginning of another. I’m sure you can recall your last house move and remember the anguish you no doubt faced about whether one thing or another was going to be going with you or be making a remorseful trip to the donation bin. There’s a lot of memories we put into those boxes during the moving process, but there’s probably just as many that we leave out. The objects we keep in our lives, and how we choose to present them, become representative of who we are and our experiences.
As they say, you can learn a lot about someone by looking at their room.
If I have one major gripe with the game, it’s that the story ends too soon. Without getting into specifics, only a relatively small period of the character’s life is covered. The game was made as a reflection of the life experience of one of its creators, and they likely chose to end the story where they did as almost a retelling of their own life story thus far, and it’s largely one of joy and optimism. However, I think the mechanics here could have been used incredibly effectively to tell stories of tougher times and major emotional life events. All the tools are there, but it stops short of throwing any truly emotional gut punches at the player. It seems like a slightly missed opportunity, though an argument could be made that the act of unpacking may not have remained fresh over a longer playtime.
What you’re left with is a game that offers a unique experience that doesn’t outstay its welcome. It eliminates any tedious part of the moving process and allows you to simply sit and soak in the fruitful result. There’s no need to cut up the boxes and squish them into the overflowing recycling bin. No need to clean up the mess from the packing foam. It all just vanishes. All that is left is the satisfaction that comes from organising a life down to the finest detail.
If this review has sounded a little contemplative, it’s a testament to some clever design that invites you into that headspace. Arranging the protagonist’s collection of belongings is a subtle but thoughtful way of telling a person’s life story without saying a word, and the act of doing so, as well as how you choose to do it, might just end up saying a bit about yourself. Unpacking is a calming, enjoyable journey through time that is as satisfying as it is self-reflective. Much like every object you unpack, this game itself is simple and unassuming at face value. The sentimentality you choose to attach to it, however, is up to you.
+ Simple yet satisfying
+ Looks and sounds gorgeous
+ Encourages some thoughtful introspection
- Likely too lacking in challenge and variety for some
- Story could have covered more life stages