‘Unpacking:’ The Surprising Game We Can All Relate To

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Birthdays are no longer birthdays. We “Level Up”. Various milestones in life are now ‘boss battles’, recovery rooms, and healing shrines. There are plenty of ways to gamify our lives but rarely do we find a game that really connects with the mundane and makes it … beautiful. Unpacking is exactly that. It is a simple click-and-drag puzzle game filled with clues to unfold into a mesmerising narrative. I have moved enough times in my life to hate the idea of unpacking, and yet Unpacking (the video game) has revealed a hidden pleasure. I’m not the only one to see it: many people considered it the best game demo at PAX Aust 2019 and a highlight for LudoNarraCon 2021, and it is now a finalist for four awards at the upcoming Australian Game Developer Awards 2021.

unpacking kids bedroom

Recently I spoke with Wren Brier and Tim Dawson from Witch Beam, the team behind Unpacking. They gave me some insight into how they developed it and why it helps to find the game in everyday life.

What is Unpacking?

Unpacking is a narrative/puzzle game based around unpacking. Each level is represented by a different location; the first level is a child’s bedroom, the next is a college dormitory or share-house apartment, and so on. With a simple point-and-click movement, you cut the tape on the box and unpack, one item at a time. You can move and place the item almost anywhere in the room, allowing a bit of freedom to dress it up as you like. Should the tape deck go on the shelf or the floor? Do you sort your books by color or height? And which favorite toy takes prize position on the bed? Unpacking is slow and contemplative, yet deeply enchanting to the point of wanting to play over and over again.

Brier: “You can tell a lot about a person through the items they own. We really wanted to represent the character through more than just a snapshot. Each item has a value to the player and to the character’s story. It’s fascinating to watch so many people play the game and they all play in their own individual way–all because of what value they put on an item.”

Dawson: “It’s also fun watching where people place items. Earlier on, I shared a gif of Unpacking in the kitchen. It kind of went nuts on Twitter, in part because of the microwave! Some people were commenting, ‘What kind of monster would put the microwave there?’ and that was when we realised how personal unpacking is. How personal Unpacking could be.”

unpacking the kitchen

How do you gamify ‘unpacking’?

The idea for Unpacking came from the real-life experience when Brier and Dawson moved in together. Brier was unpacking the gazillionth box and noticed the game-like elements in unpacking: unlocking the next box after emptying the one on top. Unpacking can be game-like? Sounds all very Mary Poppins-esque, with a teaspoon of sugar to make the unpacking less painful. But Wren was on to something.

Mary Poppins cleans up

The task of unpacking is something we can all relate to. It can be boring and monotonous but it needs to be done (or you will never find that favorite mug for your next cup of coffee). Gamification is the process where you turn a task into a game as motivation to complete. Unpacking has done this both literally and figuratively. After playing the video game, my entire view of ‘unpacking’ was changed. I started to think more about the things we collect, protect, and even the stuff we throw away.

The smartest element of Unpacking is the mechanics: each item must be taken out of the box one at a time. You can’t look ahead or choose something different. In fact, you start to see a personality unfold from the layers in the box. You think you have unpacked all the books, and then one more turns up in the last box. Why was this book separate? There are certain toys packed more carefully than others. Clothes are thrown in random boxes at the last minute. This is where the narrative unfolds gently, drawing you into the game. Each item is revealing something about the character, and each placement is revealing something about you.

unpacking with cosplay in loungeroom
If this isn’t a geek’s home, I will eat my Sailor Venus skirt.

The game works brilliantly as a complete package. Each of the items is easily recognizable and relatable. This is not an easy task when you consider there are over 1000 unique items with 35 separate rooms to consider.

Brier: We always imagined it being pixel art. Essentially I asked, what is the smallest item I can make in pixel art that is still recognizable? The first item I made was a mug and moved it down in size until it felt right. The art has continued as a team effort, with Angus, Michele, and Joe.

Dawson: The Kitchen was the first room we created because we thought it was the easiest to test out the mechanical nature of the game. You have lots of repeated items and a structured approach to where things go. The original idea was very procedural, which can be therapeutic. As we collected more items, we started to see the story unfold. Items came with their own identity and purpose. But we always kept it relatable. Keep it specific to the character and relatable to the player.

Australian Game Developer Awards

Beautiful artwork and easy playability are part of the reason for Unpacking’s nomination for the upcoming Australian Game Developer Award (AGDA). It is also a finalist for Excellence in Accessibility, one of the specialty awards recognized by the AGDA and highlights how far the industry has come to produce games for all. The award is for outstanding achievement in impact and inclusion, as a reminder that gaming is for all.

The awards are part of the annual Melbourne International Games Week (MIGW). Every year, game developers from around Australia and the world gather to celebrate, work, and promote gaming in every form. It features a range of workshops, conferences, and special events–including the AGDA Awards Night and 3-days of PAX Australia. Unfortunately, in 2021 Melbourne is still in COVID-19 Lockdown and all physical events have been moved to the digital space. Anyone can tune into the streamed event, scheduled for Wednesday, October 6 at 7 PM (Australian Eastern Standard Time).

Unpacking is a finalist for four (4) awards: Excellence in Art, Excellence in Gameplay, Excellence in Accessibility, the coveted Game of the Year. The full game will be released on November 2, 2021, on Switch, Steam, Humble, and Xbox One. 

Score: 5 out of 5 full rolls of packing tape (based on the two-level demo I have played at the time of publication)

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