Moving is one of those life experiences that everyone, sooner or later, is called to face. Despite this, however, everyone reacts to the move in a different way: doing it often could be a symptom of great instability, but it is a moment that often marks the end of an era and the beginning of a new phase of life. It is a theme that, curiously, is being addressed more and more often and in ever different ways through the videogame medium. Think for example of Moving Out, which fully embraces the chaotic aspect of moving and transmits it through a party game setup (in this regard, find the Moving Out review). Unpacking stands at the opposite end of the play spectrum, e uses the move to build a peaceful and relaxing experience.
Don’t make the mistake of considering it “just” a moving video game, because Unpacking is above all a small “masterclass” of environmental storytelling disguised as a puzzle game. A work capable, like few others, of telling a story without using words and without ever showing the faces of its protagonists on the screen. We are facing one of the best indie video games of the year, developed by the Witch Beam Games team which is only in its second (self) publication, but despite this it has proven to be gifted with great capabilities.
Unpacking transports the player into the life of his anonymous protagonist, tells about his growth and does so by selecting the moments
immediately following its relocations. Everything takes place inside the rooms inhabited from time to time by the protagonist, framed in an isometric perspective and made with a delightful and colorful pixel art. The game revolves around a single mechanic: you have to click on the boxes in each room, from which one object at a time will be extracted and positioned as you prefer within each room.
Do you want to display all the action figures on a single shelf or do you prefer to leave room for books? Do you want your Game Boy to always be reachable on your desk or do you prefer to hide it in a drawer? Does your OCD command you to organize clothes by color? Free to do as you prefer, obviously within certain limits.
Each scenario has its peculiarities but leaves extreme organizational freedom to the player, called to peek inside the various houses and rearrange them like a Marie Kondo novella, hired
to bring order to the protagonist’s life. Unpacking is an incredibly Zen and relaxing experience, perfect to disconnect from the frenzy of everyday life and from that of many video games. A small gift capable of warming the heart to be granted in difficult moments. Unpacking is therapy to be carried out at the tip of the mouse, a way to tidy up your thoughts and allow yourself some quality time at peace with yourself. Witch Beam Games has once again shown how to develop a perfectly successful video game very little is often enough, even a single mechanic.
The story told by the objects
The real great merit of Unpacking, however, lies in its ability to tell a story only and exclusively through the objects to be rearranged. Thanks to Unpacking, the player becomes a participant in the existence of his protagonist; he starts from his little room in 1997 and goes through the salient phases of his life experiencing his removals.
Without letting go of trivial “explanations”, Unpacking tells an exquisitely ordinary story whose strength lies in its simplicity, and in the fact that anyone could see it reflected inside. It is amazing how much one can discover about a person by knowing only the objects he possesses, and Witch Beam’s work focuses on exactly this very aspect in its environmental narrative.
The tumultuous years of the university are told to perfection by a move into an apartment shared with other people who have lived there since before our arrival, forcing the player to strive to find a space for all his possessions in an environment already occupied by other people’s objects.
Then there is the first love, a difficult relationship with a man that results in a separation that smacks of failure, and in the awareness of one’s sexual orientation. A story like many others about a person like many others, who turns into a narrative jewel precisely for how it is revealed to the player, for the delicacy with which it suggests certain sentimental dynamics and for the joy it is able to convey. Not to mention how every single object, by itself, tells a little story within history. From the Game Boy that first becomes a Game Cube, then a Wii and finally a Nintendo 3DS, to the souvenirs that tell of various trips around the world, finally passing through the protagonist’s soft toys that cycle back into her life, and they get a new place and a new meaning with every move.
The magic of Unpacking is all here, in its splendid dual nature of puzzle game and narrative experience that allows the player to peek almost secretly into a person’s life, while maintaining a respectful distance. Nothing that is told within Unpacking seems to be out of place: everything is perfectly focused and, to be fully appreciated, the game requires only the right amount of sensitivity and empathy, just enough to recognize the universality of the stories told from move to move.