Unpacking Review – A Pixel Tells A Thousand Words

Though I’ve been vocally excited for Unpacking since first trying it out at the last “irl” PAX Australia back in 2019, it wasn’t until finally sitting down and playing through the finished product that I truly understood exactly how special it is. The team at Brisbane-based developer Witch Beam hadn’t been shy about the gorgeous, zen pixel art puzzle game they’d been cooking up all this time, but they sure did a good job of downplaying just how unique and unmatched a narrative experience it would be.

At its core, Unpacking tells a story that spans 21-odd years, focussing on a character as they move from place-to-place from their childhood to adult life. This story is experienced through a simple gameplay loop that has players removing the character’s possessions from their moving boxes, one by one, and placing them into each room in each new location that they move to, from single rooms to shared flats, studio apartments and whole houses. 

The gameplay mechanism for the “unpacking” part of Unpacking is devilishly simple – playing on PC is a matter of just clicking on a packing box to remove the next object and then setting it down with a second click. Objects can be rotated manually and also naturally align themselves to structures and other objects, like books standing themselves up on shelves or stacking on top of each other when laid down. Cupboards and drawers can be opened for storage and things like towels and clothes hang where they should.

At the beginning, the goal is as simple as fitting everything into the given space in a way that makes sense, but as you progress through the game and the locations become larger and more complex, your story also starts to take a more deliberate shape. Blank canvases of rooms turn to half-finished compositions, where the game’s unseen main character and their story are shown with more intent than implication. It’s here that things get a little more puzzle-like and players need to not only find a home for their possessions but satisfy some unseen conditions that can be inferred from the environmental storytelling.

There’s an unmatched cathartic joy to the simple act of freeing an object from its paper-packed prison and setting it down in the room. From the cheerful little leap it does into the cursor to the sound effects of the packing materials rustling as well as the unique sounds each thing makes when it’s placed down, including the type of surface it’s placed on. Everything clicks together in a really satisfying manner. Objects interact in all the ways you’d expect – towels hang on racks, brushes sit inside containers and so on.

Though most things can be placed with a certain degree of freedom, within the bounds of logic and reason, the odd moment where something has a more specific placement can often have the biggest narrative payoff. These ingenious sections where the game takes the reins away from the player and tasks them to puzzle out not just the placement of an item but its meaning to the moment offer some of the purest and most concentrated notions of storytelling I’ve experienced in ages.

Anyone who’s moved enough times in their life will likely appreciate the brilliant little touches that really sell the whole unpacking experience. The stories within aren’t just about the destination, each new box holds its own tale of how it was packed – the possessions inside, the order they were placed in, the rooms they belonged to – everything has the potential to be another thoughtful introspection. 

RELATED:  The Next Xbox Will Be A "Reference" For Devices From Other Manufacturers According To A Reliable Leaker

The first time I unpacked an entire room and found myself missing one shoe out of a pair had me grinning in an uncomfortably-relating kind of way. I also had a legitimate moment of crisis in an early stage, where a graduation certificate that was obviously very important to my unseen character and that they’d carried with them to their very first co-living situation suddenly had no place on any of the walls.

There’s so much to learn about this character that’s embedded in the act of unpacking – their love for video games, their favourite books, preferred brands of shampoo and tampons. The things they carry through the years and the things that slowly disappear over time, all of it paints a picture that’s far greater than the pixelated images on-screen. There was one incredibly memorable turning point for me, something as innocuous as a new pair of socks that tipped me off to an impending change in this person’s life that came almost immediately after. That was when I knew just how special this game truly was.

Indie games and pixel art are common bedfellows, but Unpacking nails its isometric aesthetic with some gorgeous, pixelised versions of recognisable objects that remain shockingly recognisable – a special mention to the blu-ray and video game covers that I spent far too long attempting to name each time. The surprisingly-robust photo mode and exportable timelapse gifs keep things fun well after the core five-ish hours are over as well.

It’d be remiss of me not to shout out the game’s music either, which is pure perfection, the chill chiptune soundtrack complementing each new scene wonderfully. There’s even an adorable vocal track in the game’s credits.

With barely any text to speak of, an easy-to-understand interface and just enough accessibility toggles to smooth out most potential progression blockers or comfort issues there’s clearly been a lot of thought put into making Unpacking a game that almost anyone can pick up and play. Any studio that’s willing to let players circumvent the inherent challenge in their game, in this case the ability to completely switch off the puzzle element of correctly placing objects, is doing the right thing in my books so it’s great to see that here as well.

Unpacking is proof that a pixel tells a thousand words. Through simple, zen gameplay and a startling attention to detail a story unfolds in this tiny, pixelated world in a way that just wouldn't have been possible in another medium. That's truly something special on its own – a wholly unique and original narrative experience – and the fact that it's wrapped up in an incredibly cathartic and tangible puzzle game makes it all the more praiseworthy. Witch Beam has something incredible on their hands with this one.
Addictive and cathartic unboxing gameplay
Chill soundtrack and thoughtful sound design
Unique storytelling is a huge success
Pixel art is packed with thoughtful detail
Pick-up-and-play for people of all familiarities