Developer: Witch Beam
Release Date: 11/02/2021
Reviewed On: PC
Publisher: Humble Games
After playing a brief demo of the Witch Beam-developed Unpacking, I couldn’t really find much to say about the short but relaxing slice of a broader game, but I enjoyed its presentation. So, now that I have the whole picture from playing the full game, I can confidently say that it provides an experience, unlike anything I’ve played this year.
On the surface, there’s not much Unpacking. There are six chapters, each one a different location in which you will have to unpack boxes of very nice-looking pixel items and place them in a suitable area. It’s a relaxing, satisfying little puzzle game with a chilled-out soundtrack and moody vibes.
But Unpacking gets better the more you…well, unpack it. What the player gets out of this brief title will depend on their eye for detail, but there are just so many of them. What starts as a simple puzzle of a little girl getting her own bedroom and figuring out where everything goes, escalates and shifts for the following two or three hours. While I can’t say too much without spoiling how the narrative develops, one of the biggest hits comes in the third chapter.
While placing objects in a space occupied by only one person is a simple task, the protagonist suddenly moves in with several rather messy roommates. You can’t move any of their stuff because it doesn’t belong to you, so it now falls upon you to figure out how to fit into their lives and dynamics properly.
As you progress, you’ll notice the main character picking up hobbies that evolve as time passes. What starts as colored pencil doodles in a sketchbook becomes a growing collection of artist equipment. In addition, you’ll see boxes of recognizable video games and Dungeons and Dragons paraphernalia.
The ways these passions and hobbies fit into the environment deepens the narrative and raises questions. For example, when the main character moves into an apartment with no space for her artist supplies, it might raise some alarm bells. Since we can only infer what happens between each chapter, the story and gameplay end up inextricably tied in a way I’ve never seen in a game before.
‘Minimalism” gets thrown around often with positive and negative connotations. Still, art that expertly takes advantage of the concept will typically use it to deepen its message, creating deceptive simplicity. Unpacking uses few words to tell its story, requiring the player to infer the entire narrative by seeing what comes out of all the boxes. Items will change across each chapter, and you’ll start to notice that some objects get dropped while others get replaced. What does it mean? You’ll have to sit with these questions and see if they get discreetly answered later.
Earlier this year, I reviewed The Artful Escape, a title I heavily criticized because its “video game” aspects felt superfluous to its front and center story. With Unpacking, I was struck several times by the seamless dovetailing of the two concepts. Developer Witch Beam has done something I’ve never really seen in the medium when it would likely have been easier to just make a game about taking things out of boxes and sorting them.
This could have been uploaded as “Unboxing Simulator” and taken the heavy popularity of “chill vibes” content right to the bank. But instead, it does everything it can with “Unpacking a Life,” or, well, almost everything. Here’s where it gets tricky to discuss without spoilers.
Unpacking is very brief, with a completion time of roughly three hours. They are three excellent hours. Still, by the end, I found myself wishing that there had been just one more epilogue chapter to cleanly wrap events up because once you finish chapter seven (by far the longest one), it just ends. It honestly happens so jarringly quickly, bringing a sharp conclusion to an engrossing experience that had left me lost in thought.
Unpacking has a simple presentation with some thought-provoking moments for players who are willing to immerse themselves in the experience. The story is straightforward, yet the method by which the player engages with it is so novel that it feels grander than it truly is. It’s a shame the abrupt ending left a bittersweet taste in my mouth. However, for a title designed to be played in one sitting, it manages to pack many different emotions into its short runtime, and utilize its medium so creatively that it has become one of my favorite games of the year.
This post may contain Amazon affiliate links. As an Amazon Associate Noisy Pixel earns from qualifying purchases.