Unpacking review – moving house has never been so moving

PC, Xbox (version tested), Nintendo Switch; Witch Beam
Two decades of house moves are condensed into one relaxing puzzle as you help the narrator to unpack – and unpick her life in the process

Moving home is such an intense and often melancholic experience. Nothing forces you to assess the events of your life, and the effects they’ve had on you, more than packing everything you own into boxes and then trying to find new places for them on the other side. Often there are difficult choices about what to leave behind. Sometimes you find things you thought were long lost, sometimes painful memories are exhumed in the process. All of these emotions are beautifully and wordlessly explored in Unpacking.

The set-up is perfectly simple. Between 1995 and 2015 our unnamed narrator makes a number of house moves, and the player has to help her unpack in each new location. We begin with her first solo bedroom as a child, cramming cardboard boxes full of toys and books, and we follow her from there, through her college years and into adulthood. At each stage, we’re given an isometric view of each room in her home and the piles of boxes waiting there. You simply click on one to open it, then click on each object inside, choosing a suitable place to put it.

Spatial awareness ... a living room in Unpacking.
Spatial awareness ... a living room in Unpacking. Photograph: Witch Beam

You can place things where you choose, but certain objects have specific homes. You have to put your cutlery in the cutlery drawer; you have to put your laptop somewhere accessible. You learn as you go. The pixel art is simple but brilliantly designed so you’re rarely stumped on what an item is. However, getting everything to fit is an engrossing challenge, especially when she begins to live with other people and there is someone else’s life to squeeze in. There are items she keeps for the long run – cuddly toys, D&D figures, books – but others fall away, and yet more crop up as she matures. It’s always a relief when you pull her cuddly plush pig from a box to see that she still has it.

There is no dialogue and very little text, yet through the objects our character brings through her life, we’re able to piece together her story – although it remains wonderfully open to interpretation. From all the coloured pens she keeps, and her numerous sketchbooks, we know she loves art – and it’s wonderful to see how this shapes her life. But we also see moments of darkness. For a couple of years, she lives with a man, and somehow that whole period is permeated with sadness – his flat is cramped, city traffic roars past outside, and he has left very little room for her things. There is no space on the grey-painted walls for the high-school diploma she’s proudly displayed in every place she’s lived: you end up having to store it under a bed. This apparent examination of a personality being crushed and constrained is truly poignant. Her next move is back home with her parents, and you wonder what they have had to help her recover from.

Throughout the game, players are also rewarded with stickers for experimenting with object placement in interesting ways. I got a reward for putting the cookie jar on the top shelf in the kitchen, keeping it out of habitual snacking range. There was also a love-heart sticker for seating two cuddly toys on an armchair together. These little moments of player recognition have so much more value in these constrained and emotional domestic interiors.

You can finish Unpacking in four hours or so, but there’s scope to come back and do things again to complete those sticker sheets. There’s also a photo mode to take pictures of your houses, and a replay mode, which players are already using to make funny little animated films. Even without these extensions, Unpacking is easily worth the entry money, for the relaxation and pleasure it provides, and the interesting, innovative ways it imparts narrative and meaning. For a single-player game, it has also proved highly social. I’ve played with my son, comparing our interior design choices, and I’ve messaged friends about favourite objects, and theories on the life and relationships being portrayed.

This is a small game, but its meaning and intent are large. Like any domestic drama, it tells us as much about our own lives, tastes and experiences as it does about the characters we are bonding with. One thing is certain: learning about the relationships this protagonist has with her possessions, her lovers and her family, and how they affect her, is one of the most profound and touching experiences I’ve ever had playing a video game.

Contributor

Keith Stuart

The GuardianTramp

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