Unpacking Review

Games have unique abilities to tell stories in ways that other mediums can’t. There are fascinating mechanical things that can explain a character’s mental process or physical disposition. There are simple things like vibration in controllers to mimic wheels hitting gravel, or awkward button pressing to give the player the impression of how difficult an action can be for a disabled person.

Unpacking did something more complicated to me, and it was fascinating in the way that they delivered this.

Unpacking is a pixel-art unpacking simulator that plays out over the course of impactful moves made during one girl/woman’s life. Levels start with individual rooms displayed in an isometric view and boxes in each. The player is required to unpack each of the boxes and arrange the items in the room. Misplaced items are highlighted in red, and it is down to the player to figure out where they are supposed to go. The items themselves are everyday items – toys, forks, shampoo etc – but due to the constraints of the space and the requirement of the individual it is not always clear where the player is supposed to place them.

The ‘story’ is delivered through this mechanic. The game starts in the girl’s childhood bedroom filled with items such as her collection of stuffed toys, a couple of miniatures (a double decker bus, and the Eiffel Tower), and art materials. As you unpack with each move you see her favourite stuffed toy age and get scuffed, her collection of miniatures grow, and her art supplies blossom.

At the same time, you see the protagonist’s environment have an impact on her. At one point she goes through a phase of rock-climbing, but this changes, and the act of unpacking hints at possible reasons for this.

This ends up being incredibly poignant. I found myself anxious at each new unpacking level to make sure that nothing had happened to her stuffed pig, delighted as a I found new hints at her progress in life, and comfort in her DVD collection.

There is one level, that I have been told I cannot spoil, that gave me a huge amount of guilt. As I spent time rearranging one apartment, trying to find a place for the protagonist’s stuff, and being irritated at the choice of space, it started to dawn on me that there were a few people I should probably contact and apologise to.

Another moment involves a photograph, and what the game urged me to do was something I related to deeply. This is done without cutscenes, without much explicit writing and no visible characters for almost the entire run time.

Unpacking is not a long game, and it is not a particularly complicated game. However, the way that it communicates its story is deeper and more entwined with the fundamental mechanics of being a game than a lot of other big franchises that are lauded for their story telling.

Conclusion

Unpacking has found a unique voice in how it has chosen to tell a story and for that deserves to be on everyone’s play list.

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This game was reviewed based on Xbox One review code, using an Xbox Series S|X console. All of the opinions and insights here are subject to that version. Game provided by publisher.

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Good
  • Gorgeous art
  • Interesting mechanism for storytelling
  • Made me feel bad about being a terrible housemate
Bad
  • Controller might not be the preferred device to use
8.3
Great
Gameplay - 9
Graphics - 10
Audio - 8
Longevity - 6
Written by
AJ Small is a games industry veteran, starting in QA back in 2004. He currently walks the earth in search of the tastiest/seediest drinking holes as part of his attempt to tell every single person on the planet that Speedball 2 and The Chaos Engine are the greatest games ever made. He can be found on twitter (@badgercommander), where he welcomes screenshots of Dreamcast games and talk about Mindjack, just don’t mention that one time he was in Canada.

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