Unpacking a life seems...challenging. Not just in terms of sheer workload either, but in a manner that cuts deeper. What things of yours can you carry forward? Can everything you hold close even fit in whatever new life a new home promises? I havent moved since 2007, meaning its been a teenage lifetime at least since I last unpacked.
As such, these are questions I havent had to ask, but theyre some of the ones Ive pondered as Ive started considering my first move in over a decade and played Unpacking, a cutesy puzzle game about life, its many moves, the hurdles associated with them and fitting yourself in the margins of it all.
In Unpacking, you unbox your life one phase at a time. Its the latest in a growing trend of grounded games taking on mundane, but relatable subject matters, and its a relative success on these grounds. Every one of the levels is a room, or series of rooms, with boxes needing to be emptied. Inside each one of these is a little part of yourself: A soccer ball from your youth, stuffed toys youve accrued over the years, pictures of friends and relationships past, etc. Over the years, your living spaces (mostly) grow denser and larger. Your closet gets packed to the brim, your desk gets cluttered and you get so so many games and movies in your entertainment center.
The challenge, a term Ill throw around incredibly loosely, becomes finding where everything fits best. Its a logic puzzle, so as long as youve been in a kitchen, a bedroom or bathroom, youll be able to sufficiently reproduce a functional home. While there is a degree of flexibility to where you can place some things, there are absolute places you are intended to place most everything you unpack, though an accessibility option can disable that entirely, allowing you the full range of freedom. Theres a joy in getting it all right, but the greater one to me was playing a game that, in bits and pieces, understood the relationship we build with the things we collect.
Unpacking is a game that, quite understandably, likes the finer details. Its a game where you unpack boxes, hang or place your things and decorate your home, so of course the small things are what matter the most.When you hang a frame or a poster, Unpacking gives you the wiggle room, for example, to place them on just about any and every wall, allowing you personalize the many rooms and apartments you move to. The tiny ways you could cram a place with your things, like turning up your pillow and hiding your music player there, were the moments when I knew the game understood the importance of stuff and our rituals with it all.
But while I broadly enjoyed my time with Unpacking, I did find myself wishing there were more secrets like that hidden throughout; more knowing glances at the player about how deeply personal our interactions with a space can be.
The heart of Unpacking is an emotional rollercoaster, whose beats are familiar and similarly delivered if youve played a game like Florence before it. The first room you unpack is a childs room in 1997the first time your character has a room to themselves. Theres a chipper tune on and an excited energy in the air as you put up posters, adorn your drawer with toys, and layout your first desk. Its a tacit acknowledgement of how good it feels to call a place yours. That excitement only builds as youre propelled into young adulthood and your first solo apartment for college, or the first time you have roommates and the first time you move in with a partner.
Things eventually take a turn for the somber before picking back up near the end, but in these lower moments, the game pulls off a quiet sense of devastation as your character and you wrestle with how to fit your life alongside others. What survives in the ruins of the realization that you dont fit? Is a space really a home if you cant flourish in it? The answers to these questions seem obvious, but I appreciate the game allowing us to explore our characters journey through those moments. While never explicitly conveying how the character feels (as theres zero dialogue in the game, only a sentence of flavor text at the end of each level), the broad strokes guide you enough while leaving plenty of room for you to fill your own picture in.
Theres a certain, intoxicating hubris in making plans you think youll be able to follow through on, as they rarely ever come so effortlessly. And so its no subtle irony then that Unpacking, a game about planning a space, has something to say about waylaid plans, the hurt inherent in their collapse and how to build up again. Its not a profound game, but an empathetic one. Unpacking doesnt have the answers on how to best keep on track, or how to get over that pain and start anew. Its simply the personification of an assured look, a hand on your shoulder and the utterance of a warm, but firm, Youve got this. Things will get better.
I know a little something about having to build oneself back up in the face of personal collapses. The last year and a half has especially been trying amidst immense loss at a global scale, a diminishing sense of self and stability, personal tragedy and of course, the destruction of best laid plans. Much like the game, I dont have the answers to how Ive made it this far and will continue on. All I (and Unpacking) can offer is that kindness and grace go a long way. Unpacking communicates this kindness and grace through a careful deployment of nostalgia and a light touch.
The title of the game is scrawled in marker on the menu and as it's written, the unmistakable sound of a marker etching cardboard follows under every stroke. The soundtrack often pairs minimalistic riffs or plucky guitar and ukulele patterns with breezy synths that convey a tender warmth, and the games color scheme hardly employs a shade darker than a lightly crimson red. Unpacking not only wants to pull you into its world, but sell you on its lofty fantasy and reframe how we view moves. They can be painful, but every one is a potential step towards the better place the game earnestly believes well all end up.
Ultimately, I love stuff and what it tells you about the people it belongs to, meaning Unpacking was always going to be a game for me. I love imbuing pointless mundane tokens with deeply personal meaning, transforming them into artifacts. I treasure so many things Ive collected while stumbling through life and relationships and am constantly shuffling things around looking for ways to fit it all. Im going to try to even as I hopefully move out soon and strike out on my own for the first time. I believe you persist in your belongings as much as the places youve been to and the people youve spent your life with and that stuff comes together to tell stories we forget or stop telling ourselves. They take on a cosmic significance, even if its only for ourselves, and as long as those things persist, so do you.
While Unpacking didnt outright tell me that, and wont tell you either, it does feel like it understands those sentiments better than almost anything Ive played and I think I needed that.
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