I played the first handful of levels from Unpacking, a game about unpacking a character’s household items after a series of moves over the course of their life, while my own life sat wrapped in cardboard boxes in stacks behind me.
Now, as I write this weeks later, I’m unpacked in real life half a continent away. After days and days of wearing down box cutters, shoving furniture around, and dragging empty cardboard to a growing monstrous pile in the garage, I’m full of appreciation for what Unpacking the game does to unpacking the activity. Developers Wren Brier and Tim Dawson have managed to filter out the most aggravating, tedious, and difficult bits of moving from Unpacking, leaving only the soothing bits where you put items in the exact right place, fold the empty box away, and move on.
Unpacking is something like an organizational sim, where you visit a series of moments in a life and unpack their items, setting each in a sensible spot in a room, apartment, or house, and move on until all boxes are done. You’ll recognize some items from move to move, as sentimental childhood toys or favorite decorations travel with the protagonist from place to place. And there’s a lot of clever storytelling to be found in Unpacking’s wordless narrative, as you examine the things someone felt important enough to bring with them from move to move, or make tough decisions about whose things to put where as two people move in together.
Appropriately, Unpacking was inspired by Dawson and Brier’s own experiences doing exactly that. The two met at a game developer event years back, got together at a later game developer event, and a year and a half later Dawson moved in with Brier — inadvertently sparking the project they’d be working on together for the next several years.
“We were just unpacking Tim’s stuff and I realized that there was something kind of game-like about this experience,” Brier says. “First of all, you can learn a lot about someone from the things that they own. So here’s a storytelling mechanism through a sort of environmental storytelling. Then whenever you finish unpacking everything in a box and empty it, you unlock the box underneath it.
“We were completing sets between boxes. Tim and I both have a bunch of collectibles and stuff, so you take out some toys and then in another box, you’ll find the rest of the collection. So, you complete a set. Unlocking things, completing sets, that all felt game-like.
“Also, I do enjoy organizing things. I do feel like there’s something very satisfying about it, and also something game-like about just creating order out of chaos. I feel like that’s what you do in a lot of games. Except this is taking it very literally.”
Dawson adds: “I feel like I contributed a crucial part in that. I didn’t really label any of my boxes, so everything was surprising when it came out of the box. It’s like, ‘What’s in this box?’ As I open it up, okay. I didn’t guess that.”
At the time, Dawson was working with Witch Beam on Assault Android Cactus, and Brier was taking a break from regular gigs to focus on freelance work. They used their first prototype of Unpacking to apply to non-profit gaming accelerator program Stugan, which supports indie developers to go work on their games out in the woods in Sweden for two months alongside others also working on their games with the advice and support of more experienced developers. When they finished the program and returned to Brisbane, a rapidfire confluence of local events, funding opportunities, and their game’s soothing unpacking gifs going viral on Twitter suddenly gave their game unexpected support, both financially and from an interested audience. By 2019, they were both working full-time on Unpacking with Witch Beam’s support.
What was it about Unpacking that caught people’s attention so? Brier suspects part of it had something to do with removing the tedious parts of the act of unpacking boxes. There’s no tape to rip up, nothing heavy to lift. Every item slots neatly into place, and the game offers multiple sensible, acceptable options for each object’s placement. Most satisfyingly to me, when a box is empty, clicking on it once folds it up automatically and it vanishes in a pleasant animation.
“I think packing is really stressful and moving is really stressful,” Brier says. “Unpacking, I think is not as bad. There are obviously elements of it that are tedious and at some point you just want to be done and want to just unwind and watch some TV or something. But the nice part of unpacking is you get to rediscover all your stuff, everything that matters to you.
“If you did a good job packing, then you hopefully got rid of a lot of things that don’t spark joy. A lot of things that you don’t need, or don’t feel very strongly about anymore. So, anything that comes out of the box is important and precious and you get to re-contextualize all of these items in your life now in this new environment, and you get to make this new environment your own, and there’s something really powerful and really cozy to me about that. That’s the kind of feeling we wanted to convey through the game.”
Dawson adds that he believes the storytelling element of Unpacking helps support this. Not only do the items you unpack tell a story, but because the items belong to a specific character, there’s no way to throw any away. Everything has a place somewhere — it’s just a matter of finding it and putting it there.
“That’s kind of an ideal way of moving, right? Where everything that comes out of the box is an item that you want to keep and you definitely want to put away somewhere…I think that automatically makes it more interesting and more puzzle-like than actually having to try to shove everything into a closet.”
Brier and Dawson have both gained an appreciation for the process of unpacking and organizing through the making of Unpacking, an appreciation they hope its players will gain as well. Brier adds that she also wants Unpacking to encourage thought and understanding of the ways in which a person’s belongings can tell their story.
“My grandmother passed away not long before we started working on the game,” Brier says. “And a little while before that she and I went through this box of old things that actually belonged to her mother. It was photos and old certificates and an old gold pocket watch. So, that was a family heirloom. It’s like this stuff tells me the story of the lives of people that I’ve never met or barely know anything about, but it’s all I have from them. So, I think it’s kind of nice to look at the items around us and see them as these mementos of yourself.”
Rebekah Valentine is a news reporter for IGN. You can find her on Twitter @duckvalentine.