I played the first handful of levels of Unpacking, a game that involved unpacking a character’s household items according to a number of moves over the course of their life, with my own life stacked behind me in cardboard boxes.
Now that I write this weeks later, in real life I’m unpacked half a continent away. After days of wearing out box cutters, shoving furniture around, and dragging empty cardboard boxes to a growing pile in the garage, I’m full of gratitude for what unboxing the game does when unboxing the activity. Developers Wren Brier and Tim Dawson managed to filter out the most annoying, tedious, and difficult steps in unpacking, leaving only the comforting bits where you put the items in exactly the right place, fold away the empty box and move on.
Unpacking is something like an organization simulation where you visit a series of moments in a lifetime and unpack their items, place each in a reasonable place in a room, apartment or house, and keep going until all the boxes are ready. You will recognize some objects from move to move, because sentimental children’s toys or favorite decorations travel with the protagonist from place to place. And there is a lot of clever storytelling in the wordless narrative of Unpacking as you examine the things someone thought were important enough to take them from move to move, or make difficult decisions about whose things to put where when two Pull people together.
Fittingly, unpacking was inspired by Dawson’s and Brier’s own experiences. The two met years ago at a game developer event, met at a later game developer event, and a year and a half later, Dawson moved in with Brier – accidentally sparking the project they would be working on for the next several years.
“We just unpacked Tim’s things and I realized there was something playful about this experience,” says Brier. “First of all, you can learn a lot about someone from the things they own. So here is a storytelling mechanism through some kind of environmental storytelling. When you have unpacked and emptied everything in a box, you unlock the box below.
“We completed sets between boxes. Tim and I both have a lot of collectibles and stuff, so you take out some toys and then in another box you can find the rest of the collection. So you complete a set of things that complete sets that all felt like a game.
“I also enjoy organizing things. I have the feeling that there is something very satisfying and also something playful about simply creating order out of the chaos. I have the feeling that in many games you take that literally. “
Dawson adds, “I feel like I was instrumental in making this happen. I didn’t really label any of my boxes so everything was surprising when it came out of the box. It’s like, ‘What’s in that box?’ When I open it, okay. I didn’t suspect that. “
At the time, Dawson was working with Witch Beam on Assault Android Cactus, and Brier was taking a break from regular appearances to focus on freelance work. They used their first prototype from Unpacking to apply for the Stugan nonprofit gaming accelerator program, which helps indie developers spend two months working on their games out in the woods in Sweden, along with others who are also involved with the Advice and support from more experienced developers working on their games. When they finished the program and returned to Brisbane, their play suddenly received unexpected support, both financially and from an interested audience. Until 2019 they both worked full-time with the help of Witch Beam on the unpacking.
What caught people’s attention about unpacking? Brier suspects that part of it had to do with removing the tedious parts of unpacking the boxes. There is no tape to tear open, nothing heavy to lift. Each item snaps neatly into place, and the game offers several reasonable, acceptable options for each item’s placement. For me, the most satisfying thing is when a box is empty, when you click it once, it automatically folds up and disappears in a pleasant animation.
“I think packing is really stressful and moving is really stressful,” says Brier. “Unpacking is not that bad in my opinion. There are obviously elements that are tedious and at some point you just want to be done and just switch off and watch TV or something. But the nice thing about unpacking is that you get it to rediscover all your things, everything that is important to you.
“If you’ve done a good job packing, then hopefully you’ve got rid of a lot of things that aren’t fun. Lots of things that you don’t need or that you no longer feel so strongly. So, everything that comes out of the box is important and valuable and you can recontextualize all of these things in your life now in this new environment, and you can make this new environment your own and there is something really powerful and really cozy That’s the kind of feeling we wanted to get through the game. “
Dawson adds that, in his opinion, the storytelling element of Unpacking helps to support this. Not only do the items you unpack tell a story, but because the items belong to a specific character, there is no way to throw them away. Everything has its place somewhere – it’s just a matter of finding it and putting it there.
“That’s an ideal way to move, isn’t it? Where everything that comes out of the box is an item that you want to keep and that you definitely want to put somewhere … I think that automatically makes it more interesting and more puzzling than having to put everything in a closet. “
Brier and Dawson both gained an appreciation for the process of unpacking and organizing through developing Unpacking, an appreciation that they hope will win its players too. Brier adds that she also wants unpacking to be thought provoking and stimulating to understand how a person’s property can tell their story.
“My grandmother died just before we started working on the game,” says Brier. “And shortly before that, she and I went through this box of old things that actually belonged to her mother. There were photos and old certificates and an old gold pocket watch. So that was a family heirloom to me, the story from the lives of people I have never met or who I hardly know about, but that’s all I have from them. So I think it’s nice to look at the things around us and see them as mementos of yourself. “
Rebekah Valentine is a news reporter for IGN. You can find her on Twitter @duckvalentine.