Unpacking is a wistful game built around nostalgia. When people talk about nostalgia in video games, it’s usually referring to an aesthetic style or a type of play experience that recalls another game they may have enjoyed some time ago. Those memories might lead to the recollection of a certain place and time in life that once was.
But people won’t have played a game like Unpacking before, a game where you literally unpack moving boxes and arrange their contents within a series of rooms. You could say that the isometric pixel art is reminiscent of a bygone era, but that doesn’t do justice to what is a smart, naturalistic, and modern style.
Unpacking is a game that caused me to feel an incredible nostalgia about various periods of my own life, despite it having relatively little in common with the specifics of the game’s unseen protagonist or their overarching story. It cut right into my soul with a fine touch.
There may well be a novelty value that makes the game’s premise initially intriguing, and entertainment value to be found in playing it with other people and discovering each other’s unspoken household quirks. But my experience of playing Unpacking was incredibly affective, a pensive, personal reflection about the ups and downs of life for both the game’s protagonist, and for myself.
In the past year, I’ve moved house three times due to a variety of circumstances. I’ve upsized, downsized, and sometimes I can’t believe how my life has changed in just that time. Before that, I’ve also made the typical moves out of home, into share houses, and in with a partner.
These are pivotal markers in someone’s life, and Unpacking is framed as a look back through an old photo album that explores some of these key moments. Moreover, it deftly captures the emotions that can come with both moving into a new stage of life, and rediscovering mementos of stages gone by.
It’s the things like moving into a sharehouse for the first time, and being extra careful not to encroach on the status quo, no matter how bad it might be. Or moving in with a partner and witnessing the very visible clash of possessions, while you quietly wonder in the back of your head whether this was the right decision or not. Or having to dramatically downsize and cursing the fact that you have way too many books. Unpacking’s eight chapters, marking different years of its protagonist’s life, are all understated arrangements that barely insinuate anything as detailed as what I’ve suggested, but manage to speak volumes regardless.
That’s true of the items you unpack too, especially the ones that might cause you to recall your own personal relationship with something similar. I too, have unpacked my Donnie Darko and Ghost World DVDs and arranged them proudly on multiple shelves over the course of the decade, simultaneously looking back on them fondly and thinking about how maybe I should get rid of them the next time I move. I too, lugged around my university degree and wondered why the hell I was doing so before dumping it under my bed. I too, have a stupid box full of cables (three, in fact) I’ll never get around to sorting out.
Here I was playing Unpacking, essentially going through the motions and emotions of a fourth house move in a year, only this one wasn’t my own.
Eventually, it became too much.
My partner jovially chastised me the first night I played Unpacking remarking that I should be sorting out our shed, which is currently jam-packed with the stuff that didn’t fit in our house since our last, downsizing move.
But those early chapters are satisfying. Contained to one or two rooms, I’d happily played these levels via Unpacking’s demos multiple times over the years, often going back to them whenever I wanted to simply sort things neatly into a pile and find some zen in that.
Some nights later, Unpacking’s final stages tasked me with unpacking numerous boxes throughout multiple rooms. It’s a mammoth task, and even though I was looking forward to the insinuated turn in the narrative, after a full day of real-life work and an evening of tidying around my real-life home, I couldn’t bear to handle it.
No longer a cute wholesome game in that moment, Unpacking was suddenly a chore, and my partner was right. The novelty was gone, and it took me three nights to complete the game’s final few stages.
Reflecting back on those moments now, I immediately think about all those times my partner and I moved house over the course of a weekend, with every intention of unpacking quickly in one concentrated swoop, eager to start the new stage of our lives. But moving is draining, and so is the thought of unpacking, especially when you start to think about everything that exists above and beyond someone’s moving and unpacking tasks.
So many times after house moves, my partner and I would regroup after work, put the kids to bed, and clean up. It’d be 9pm, and we’d take one look at the unpacked boxes, say ‘fuck it’, and resign ourselves to be slobs on the couch, watching TV while our gargantuan legacy of stuff surrounded us. Unpacking replicated this feeling again for me.
We can only really speculate about what else is going on in the life of the Unpacking protagonist, drawing what conclusions we can from their possessions. In those last few stages, I like to imagine that they probably said ‘fuck it’ a few times too.
When I did push through and finally finish the job, Unpacking left me with the same kind of positive satisfaction of a job finally done. Life is exhausting and sometimes difficult. Moving house can be both exciting and frustrating, no matter what kind of turn in your life that move is representing.
Unpacking captured and recalled that messy abundance of emotions precisely. It’s a special game. It drew me in, it pushed me away. It was a chore at times. But its thematic strength and effectiveness in conveying that is incredible. Unpacking is a remarkable piece of work that elegantly evokes the ebbs and flows of life. A game that evokes a very special brand of nostalgia that is yours, and no-one else’s.
Five stars: ★★★★★
Platforms: PC, Nintendo Switch, Xbox
Developer: Witch Beam
Publisher: Humble Games
Release Date: 2 November 2021
The PC version of Unpacking was provided and played for the purposes of this review