Having gone through this myself a few months ago, there are few things more stressful than moving out. Packing everything into boxes, making sure everything fits, making sure nothing breaks, making sure the whole thing isn't too heavy, it all adds up to a blistering headache. Developer Witch Beam is looking to take a lot of the torture out of the practice of moving into a new home with its latest game, Unpacking. And, while it mostly works, it ultimately proves impossible to remove all of the stress.
Unmaking a box fort
Unpacking puts players in the role of a mysterious person across various phases of her life. It starts from her childhood, where she moves into her first house, and ventures forward into adulthood. The common factor is that each of these places have giant boxes filled with necessities and knick-knacks, all of which must be sorted and placed onto different areas.
There aren't a lot of restrictions in Unpacking. That's because it's meant to be a relaxation exercise. Simply sit back, listen to the soothing music in the background, and place objects wherever you'd like. It's not always obvious where certain objects can go. For example, I'd frequently find picture frames that I assume can be laid on a desk. And, for the most part, it can, but the frames seem to be meant more for walls. It's a "learn as you go" kind of process, one that lets you further soak in the game's atmosphere.
As you go, you can turn the whole area into a picturesque landscape, one that you can later share with friends. Once all of the boxes are gone and the freedom's there to just sort things out and make it more to your liking, it starts to feel more like your personal space. It's a small feature, but one that feels rewarding.
As the moving days wrap up, players learn more about the unnamed protagonist. More details about her life are gradually revealed through a soft-spoken voiceover. It's a nice touch that injects some extra personality and a greater sense of continuity into what's otherwise a pretty basic puzzle game.
Packing it in
While I enjoyed Unpacking's main concept, a few things started to make the overall experience feel awry. Eventually, the boxes eventually become empty and everything is laid out just as you want it. That should naturally be the end of it, but suddenly, objects start glowing red. That's the game basically saying, "No, no, no, this cannot go here."
This is where I note that I'm prone to panic attacks. So, for me, the relaxation basically stopped, because now the whole thing turned into a frustration exercise. The goal was now to find spots for these wayward items, but there was often no room left to place anything, which meant something else had to be moved. This only got worse as the game progressed and I had to move into a house with multiple rooms. When each stage started, I walked in with enthusiasm. When it ended, I had a sense of relief and that's probably not what I was ultimately supposed to get out of it.
Fortunately, Unpacking's accessibility options are a big help here. There's an option that allows players to put anything where they want without restriction, which takes a lot of the frustration out. This might be a weird description for it, considering this is supposed to be a zen puzzle game about unpacking boxes, but think of it as a sort of God Mode.
Unfortunately, no God Mode can save Unpacking's other issue, which is that it operates on a fixed camera angle. So if there's a back corner that you want to tuck an object into, it's not always reachable. I would have loved for an option to rotate the camera, so I could squeeze objects into those hard-to-reach places.
Feels like home
Unpacking largely succeeds at creating a calming experience, which is funny, because there's usually nothing "calm" about moving into a new home. However, if you remove the placement restrictions, this is a game where you can sit back, soak in the music, and enjoy a pressure-free story. The only real downside to it is that it's an all-too-brief experience, wrapping up in just a few hours.
As someone who generally hates sorting things out and often leaves boxes out for weeks at a time, I can say that Unpacking is a much better experience than the real thing. If only actual unpacking could be such a calm exercise.
This review is based on an Xbox digital code provided by the publisher. Unpacking is available now on Steam, the Microsoft Store, and the Nintendo eShop for $19.99. The game is rated E.
- Simple premise and controls
- Gentle soundtrack
- Option to turn off placement restrictions
- Photo sharing options are a nice touch
- Fixed camera means you can miss some spots
- Stress can set in the longer you're on a stage
- Short, coming in at just a few hours
Ozzie Mejia posted a new article, Unpacking review: Does it spark joy?