In real life, moving is the worst. In Unpacking, described by its creators as a “zen puzzle game,” settling into a new place is surprisingly comforting. Unpacking takes you through a series of homes representing an invisible protagonist’s life from 1997 to 2018, and as it turns out, you can tell a lot about a person by the things they take with them. Though the mechanics are simple and the campaign can be completed in a handful of hours, Unpacking is a memorable, delightful game that shows that there are still new ways to tell stories in video games out there.
You might not think stacking plates and organizing books is compelling, but strangely, it really is. Part of that might have to do with how often you’ve pulled up stakes. For me, it was a lot: between the ages of 18 and 26, I moved more than half a dozen times. Packing and unpacking became an almost annual ritual as I transitioned through a series of apartments in various neighborhoods throughout the Philadelphia area. None of these places ever felt like home until I started unpacking: taping the David Bowie poster with torn edges to the wall, finding a flat surface for my ancient record player, and lining up my Harry Potter books in chronological order on the shelves. Settling into the next place always felt like a new chapter of my life was starting, and that’s a feeling Unpacking captures well.
When you’re getting started, no time is wasted with explanations, tutorials, or cut scenes. You don’t even see the person whose boxes you’re unloading. Instead, we get to know them through the basic point-and-click mechanics that allow you to move belongings from boxes to their proper places in the home, beginning with a single childhood bedroom and eventually moving on to larger, multi-room spaces. There’s no inventory list so you never know what the next thing you’ll pull out of any given box will be, and that makes for a series of sweet surprises that reveals a little bit more about the character. There are also no timers or scores, allowing you to move at your own pace. Because of that, Unpacking is the kind of game in which it’s easy to lose a couple of hours in what feels like only minutes.
These environments represent different stages of the path to adulthood: the childhood bedroom, a college dorm, a shared apartment, and more. As you fill them with possessions, you’re really uncovering clues: art supplies indicate a creative type, while controllers and board games show what they like to do in their free time. Postcards, photos, and souvenirs hint at a love of travel and a close-knit group of friends.
Speaking of photos, unpacking a camera in the first stage unlocks the photo mode, which I was excited to use. Sadly, though it’s fun to add filters and stickers to certain scenes and capture your organizational brilliance, I was disappointed by how little is done with it. For instance, I thought my photos might show up in the literal photo album that serves as an interface that allows you to store and continue progress, but they did not. It’s a minor annoyance, but in a game that focuses so heavily on the memories we make and keep, being able to incorporate those photos elsewhere would have been a nice touch.
As it turns out, “zen” is a really accurate description of the Unpacking experience. Soothing background music and satisfying, clicky sound effects subtly and skillfully complement the retro-inspired whimsical art style. The only problem I had with the overall look and feel is that it was occasionally hard to identify small items, even when zooming all the way in. It took me several moves to figure out that the gray lump of pixels I kept unpacking in the kitchen was actually a refrigerator magnet.
There’s almost no wrong way to unpack, although you won’t be able to move onto the next stage if certain items aren’t put away properly. Most of the time that makes sense; toilet paper and toothbrushes belong in the bathroom, after all, and guests might find it a bit strange if you store your underwear in the living room. Other times, it’s not clear what’s wrong — is it really such a big deal if a toaster is kept on a counter instead of tucked away in a cabinet? You can actually disable this feature in the accessibility menu and let chaos reign, but it does have some storytelling benefits, like stashing a photo in a drawer instead of putting it on display. It’s not a particularly long game, but moments like that can leave a lasting impression.