Unpacking Title screen from Witch Beam games
November 2, 2021 | by Solon
Witch Beam’s ‘Unpacking’ Transforms A Simple Chore Into A Ritual Of Material Anthropology
Handled With Care
Summary: Through seemingly magical design and execution, Unpacking takes one of life's most laborious and undesirable tasks and turns it into a soothing flow with a unique flair for storytelling.

4

Good


After I left college, there was a period of two years where I moved ten different times. I wouldn’t recommend this to anyone, but the people I knew needed subletters or house sitters, and I didn’t own enough stuff in my life for it to not simply fit in my car. There weren’t boxes to unpack in those days because without any roots I really didn’t have any boxes, I just needed my computer and wifi. There isn’t any kind of hard living like that in Witch Beam’s newest game simply titled: Unpacking. Unpacking is a nice game that purposefully makes assertions about how people will put their entire lives into little cardboard boxes to take with them into a new living space, and then how that space can reflect their life as a snapshot of that moment. You enter a plain residency, from an isometric view, you open boxes, and then you place the items from inside those boxes around the room. Once you’ve finished placing items and all the now-empty cardboard boxes have magically vanished, the game will then tell you if you’ve placed any objects in unreasonable spots by flashing red. You can’t just throw all your laundry onto the bed on the first day of moving in; however, you can organize your stuffed animals on your bed and make them play-fight with each other if you want!

This makes for a soft but realistic puzzle element to the game where you have to identify each object you are pulling out of a box and then figuring out where the game allows you to place it. Most of the time this meant pulling out the long-handled stovetop pot you keep bringing with you everywhere and then panicking because the shape of it is so unwieldy. Unpacking is full of these micro-dramas that are paced out in an intentional way over the course of the protagonist’s lifetime. And through this sliding timeframe it pushes you towards building its narrative yourself with very little text or explicit story beats happening on screen. Any object that the player unpacks has been brought for a practical or emotional reason, and so each object becomes an artifact to this main character’s world with its own history and its own future. Sometimes it is as simple as unpacking a graphic tee and a tiny colorful game disc and feeling nostalgic – “ahh 2004, a much simpler time for us all” – and then you open a box that only contains a full printer and scanner combo and scream “Goddammit! Screw 2008, absolutely miserable! Where do I even put these things? I’m going to use them once!” Other times, emotional moments can be more abstract such as the moment you add your own bowls to a stack of some stranger’s bowls because you are moving in with roommates for the first time. The bowls don’t match, and theirs are a little fancier than your simple bowls are. You even start to build little unpacking rituals like putting your oversized yoga mat under your new bed every time you see it. The titular system of ‘unpacking’ is expressive, comical, and even emotional at times, as you build an entire life box by box.

One of the funniest moments is later in the game when I opened up a box that contained a book. It’s a children’s book with cute animal characters on it that I’d seen from previously hand drawn pictures that I’d unpacked four or five times now. It’s my own book! I seem to have become a published children’s author, with characters I made myself with an entire childhood of inspiration! A touching and beautiful moment. So, I put the book down on a shelf and return back to the box. Oh, it’s another book. And another book. And another. AND OH NOO!! I’m a published author and there are so many of these books clogging up my house! Curses to the curling of the monkey’s paw!! This is just one very simple micro-story told perfectly through the Unpacking system – and out of so many more, too.

While the system itself is extremely clean and plain, Unpacking allows hundreds of tiny details to shine through. It is delightful to stack, shelve, and reorder books, games, and dvds. It naturally teaches you that hanging things on hangers can help you save space and keep order inside of a closet, while also challenging you to try hanging up your one pair of short shorts on a pants hanger. Putting up your childhood poster over the years will start to show wear and tear. And the moment you find out that you can simply put your toothbrush and toothpaste altogether inside your bathroom cup, you feel so powerful! As you get to the last few boxes, the room will very subtly start glowing warmer from a setting sun showing how time passes. Objects that normally rattle when carried will rattle heartily as you shake your mouse or controller around the room – there are even myriad specific foley effects for when you pick up and put down a Gamecube game box vs a DVD box, Unpacking is just that thorough. There are loads of these little things that help guide the player as well as the narrative that you are unraveling over the short playthrough. While Unpacking is a major departure tonally from Witch Beam’s previous action game, Assault Android Cactus, it carries through a professionalism and care for the player’s interactions that is hard to match. With Unpacking, Witch Beam continues a legacy of simple games that contain thoroughly nuanced design strategies.

All of these small details come together to tell a soft and subtle story about the personal politics and ritual of building a new living space. This is also where interest in the game is going to stop for a few people, because the narrative told throughout Unpacking is a realistic narrative that does little to challenge the structure of simply unboxing more and more things. That doesn’t mean there aren’t dramatic situations or beats, but while watching a young Jewish artist grow up, struggle with owning WAY too many art books, and falling in and out of love is a story that I may have enjoyed, it’s so light and idealistic that I can see folks looking for more tension within this format. Usually, unpacking a home is one of the most stressful things someone can do, so it’s hard to believe that the main character has so gleefully unpacked their life six or seven times without any direct fuss from anyone.

A fully finished solution for Witch Beam's new indie game Unpacking that shows a furnished dormitory full of childood toys. The caption at the bottom says, "Finally My Own Room!"

There is also an interesting limit to the game’s metastructure, since Unpacking’s way of naturally increasing difficulty is centered around adding more rooms to fill, so it feels inevitable for the narrative to fill this middle-class fantasy lifestream of: going to school, moving in with someone in a small apartment, coming back home to your childhood room, starting your career near the city, and then starting a family in a standard western suburban bi-level home. The limit of Unpacking comes with cultural biases towards a romanticized narrative of what a ‘normal’ growing-up story can look like and while that isn’t a bad thing at all, I in fact think Unpacking’s cultural bias is one of its most fascinating traits! I don’t want to give away anything, but building up expectations for cultural biases is something Unpacking does work to subvert, as you open the next living-room lootbox full of surprises. Why this is so interesting is that this bias is baked into the core of Unpacking’s design; the clean isometric view, the way things build out in a square grid, each object’s shape the very nature of this universe outside of what comes from the boxes themselves can only be contained inside of a square, western-styled modern home. And because of the style of consumer goods that are endemic to the period Unpacking is set in, all of these box-shaped things usually fit nicely in the box-shaped house in satisfying ways. I would love to see this get challenged by changing the class or setting of the protagonist. How would you do Unpacking for an RV, or a multi-generational family home, or a space-station, or a stately pleasure-dome that a Khan hath decreed? That’s right, Unpacking: Xanadu!

Those are lofty things that I can say now though only after having played Unpacking, of course. A game, which is breaking ground for an entire style of play and doing it with such finesse that it’s got me asking for more. There aren’t many games in this vein that aren’t one of those kooky 3d Unity ‘simulator’ style games. The maturity on display from Unpacking is novel and even the soundtrack matches that playful maturity with 8-bit style synths melting away into dense symphonic chords that build an atmosphere of timelessness. The presentation all comes together in a way that feels like when you finally set something down, that object has now found a permanent home in this space and time. Unpacking is a game that puts your soul at ease. The soundtrack itself shows just how different Unpacking is from anything else coming out right now in the games space while still couching itself in an intimately familiar way. Using familiar tools is what keeps artists grounded (a major theme throughout the game) and Unpacking makes that feel so effortless, it’s almost banal and pedestrian! But so is growing up, huh? 

Unpacking from Witch Beam has a variety of closet types with hangers that let you really wrangle down and control your space. Or you can throw everything in a pile too if you want.

Unpacking is a strong exploration of playing through this normal and regular action that occurs in almost everyone’s lives and is largely taken for granted (or maybe even abandoned entirely – you know who you are). And with that status of trail-blazing it carves a path of least resistance through a narrative that while I feel could be more challenging, largely evokes a nostalgic, nuanced zest for building life. Sometimes it’s a life built through friendships, hobbies, career paths… and sometimes it’s a life built through trying on a skirt for the first time and then suddenly buying like twenty freaking skirts that you realize you don’t have enough hangers for, goddammit, c’mon I know they fold up easily but we can’t keep doing this they’ll get wrinkl- oh *now* where am I gonna put your ukulele?!

You made it all the way down here? Great job! And thank you!

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