Unpacking: The Art of Rediscovering Life Through Simple Objects

Unpacking, a puzzle game of your own memories and psyche, taps into a wide range of emotions. It accomplishes this feat while managing to remain fun and relaxing, with soothing background music and a satisfying loop that gets more detail-oriented as life moves forward (or drags on). 

From a bird’s-eye view, Unpacking is a point-and-click game about performing one of the most dreaded tasks known to humankind: unpacking your stuff after a move. Unpacking has a singular mechanic—you’re just grabbing items out of boxes and placing them in your new humble abode—and it’s a straightforward experience that gives you the freedom to approach the art of organizing clothes, books, knickknacks, stuffed animals, electronics, and household goods as you see fit. 

While the loop never evolves, there’s a joyous charm to a simplicity that lets you hone in on a single task. That said, those looking for a layered puzzle game may find Unpacking to be underwhelming.

Unpacking tells a mostly wordless story starring an unseen young person making their way through life. It starts in 1997 when they are a child who has to organize a few boxes of toys in a small bedroom. Rooms are already furnished; you merely have to find a place for the items in the boxes. Years pass between each move, but the levels don’t necessarily become more dense; instead, the scenarios evolve and complicate. 

For instance, they move into their partner’s apartment, requiring you to squeeze their possessions between and around another person’s stuff. Cohabitation can be tricky, especially when you’re moving into a space already lived in by your roommate. Unpacking deftly conveys the challenges and excitement of getting a fresh start in a new place. At the end of each level, a photo of the new place is added to a scrapbook alongside a line of text commemorating the move.

This is precisely how Unpacking became a profound experience for me. You cannot see the items in the cardboard boxes. Once you click the box, a new item pops out from beneath the packing material. Seeing a stuffed pig from their childhood emerge from the box multiple moves later is a quiet joy. 

We all have things that we’ve kept for most of our lives, and learning which of those possessions is meaningful to Unpacking’s protagonist made me reflect on the things that I have kept throughout my moves—and why I keep them. Over the course of my roughly five-hour journey, I felt like I was getting to know this person simply by seeing the things they carried with them.

There are plenty of small moments here that stir strong emotional responses. For instance, when they settle into their dorm room, you can see how hastily they packed due to the bathroom products being located in bedroom boxes and clothing that obviously had a matching item in a different box. I became irrationally annoyed when I only unpacked a single shoe from one box. 

Where was the second shoe? How can I organize this when things are so awry? And as the levels go on and the moves pile up, we see the chaos that is life represented by unkempt rooms and unopened boxes that have been sitting for days (maybe weeks) after a move. This made me care about organizing their rooms even more. They want their worldly possessions to be neat and tidy, right? Decluttering their living space will soothe their mind, yes? I thought about these things constantly while moving stuff around.

Unpacking does demand that you organize things in a somewhat conventional manner, but the vast majority of items don’t have a designated spot. For the most part, you can organize however you like, as long as it isn’t completely against the grain (you can’t just toss stuff on the floor). Items will flash after everything is out of the boxes if they aren’t in an appropriate space, and some of these cues subtly help tell the story of where this person has been and where they’re trying to go.

The freedom provided by Unpacking’s very loose puzzle gameplay allowed me to reflect and project my own hardwired tendencies onto the task at hand. It also reinforced some of my own habits when it comes to the things I own. As someone with obsessive-compulsive disorder, Unpacking both heightened and soothed my quirks. Yes, I spent way too much time placing books on the shelves by size and making sure that the toy ponies and Troll dolls were placed in the “right” spot—there were two ponies and one Troll doll, so the Troll doll had to go in the middle, of course. Jackets, long-sleeve shirts, and blouses had to go on the few hangers I had, while t-shirts were folded and stacked by color.

Perhaps it’s because Unpacking doesn’t do anything to dissuade you from your choices, or maybe it’s because the quick and intuitive process of moving and shifting items makes obsessive organizing a breeze, but I was reminded that it’s not necessarily a bad thing to have particular tendencies that would seem weird to some people. That’s what makes Unpacking such a treat. I peered into the life of someone else and saw myself. It compelled me to look back on my own experiences, the good and the bad, through the simple act of unpacking the contents of their life. Unpacking may be a zen puzzle game that’s just relaxing for some, but for me, it was a more profound experience that I’ll never forget. Sometimes we put our past into proverbial boxes; ripping off the tape and rediscovering what we hid away can be cathartic and illuminating.

Unpacking is a game that answers the question: How would it feel to unpack someone’s life? An indie game that came out in November 2021, developed by Witch Beam and published by Humble Bundle, it was a lovely surprise for gamers everywhere. Unpacking is a puzzle game in which you follow the protagonist as she unpacks and decorates her room throughout different points in her life. Within each room, you have a certain set of boxes and within those boxes are different objects to be placed in their proper spots. Whether that be books, a soccer ball, photographs, or an adorable pink pig plushie, each item has its place and you, as the player, get to figure out how to make the ideal room. It is a charming, zen-like, peaceful experience, especially if you enjoy organization or cleaning.

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  1. Hi Ron! I enjoyed reading your incredibly detailed thoughts. I totally get what you mean about Unpacking being a profound experience; it’s amazing how such a simple concept and mechanics – unpacking boxes – could evoke so many emotions. I experienced the same reflection in playing Unpacking; it made me look back on my own experiences unpacking in college, and now, as I graduate, unpacking when I start a new life outside of college. Phew – such an insightful game, I’m glad you enjoyed it as much as I did!

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