In case anyone isn’t intimately familiar with my gaming preferences and loyalties, I’m a PlayStation boy and have been my whole life. For the most part, it’s been a joyous occasion, but with the many peaks, there have been a few valleys. I had to watch all of my pals migrate to the Xbox 360 while I waited patiently for the PS3 to launch, I never got to enjoy the Fable series, among other interesting titles on other consoles, and recently I had to sit idly by while Microsoft acquired Zenimax Media, practically ensuring that any future Bethesda titles will be out of my reach. However, as a huge indie fan, the biggest and most constant issue has been the cavalcade of indie titles that take an age to hit Sony’s digital storefront.
The latest indie title that had me pressing my face against the metaphorical glass and watching others have fun over on PC and Xbox Game Pass was Unpacking, a quaint little game where, rather predictably, you unpack your stuff. It sounds mundane, but this cute and cathartic title is about more than unpacking boxes.
It’s about life, about change, about adapting and growing as a person. Until now, I’ve had to sit on the sidelines while this game captivated the world, penetrated the cultural zeitgeist, and even won a BAFTA, but finally, the time has come, and I have my hands on this charming title.
So now, all that’s left to do is load up the U-haul, settle down in a new place and, break open boxes, then assign each item to its destined place with care and precision. For those of you that spent your time in Gone Home cleaning the house instead of unraveling the secrets of the Greenbriar Estate, or those that spent way too long fighting with the item manipulation in Skyrim to decorate your home, this could be a game that sets your world on fire. Here is our Unpacking PS5 Review
Pixel Perfection That Does Spark Joy
Yes, I’ve made a Marie Kondo reference right out the gates; sue me. If this game was an item on my living room floor and Miss Kondo asked me if it sparked joy, I would, without hesitation, reply, ‘absolutely.’ That could be for a litany of reasons but let’s start with the visuals on offer here.
Now, a 4K, Unreal Engine 5, raytracing, ultra-realism showcase, this is not. However, there is something so visually appealing about pixellated indies, and Unpacking leans into this, offering a series of interiors and a laundry list of beautifully rendered items that blend together seamlessly.
If I had to compare it to something, I would say that this game looks like what Habbo Hotel would have looked like had it been made in 2022. That being said, I can only assume society would have had the good sense not to make Habbo Hotel in 2022. Maybe that’s wishful thinking.
The overall art style is great, but what draws the player in the most is the finer details and the cultural references that only us gamers of a certain era will understand. I’m sure you have heard the stories of younger gamers finding it hard to place an item within this game that they couldn’t identify, only to be told it was a Nintendo Gamecube.
Kids today, they ain’t got no culture. These little nods to the years you play through are frequent if you know what you are looking at. We won’t spoil the fun for you, though, as that is a huge part of the Unpacking experience.
A Chiptune Symphony
Just like the delightful visuals, the game has a stellar array of chiptune style and synthonic music, which serves as the backing track for your never-ending moving day.
The tunes do a great job of capturing the overall theme and feel of each moving day, with tunes that convey childhood whimsy, curiosity, adventure, sadness, determination, celebration, and contentment.
The score is never overbearing but instead accompanies you on your journey and holds your hand as you navigate life one home at a time.
However, as much as I love the soundtrack here, the real audio masterclass is courtesy of the Dualsense controller, as the haptic feedback that this game utilizes is seriously something else. Whether it’s the jingling of change in a piggy bank or the clink of ceramic on ceramic as you stack plates, the feedback offers another layer of immersion that makes you feel like you are standing in the room orchestrating everything in real-time.
I mean, honestly, when I lifted a hot water bottle and felt the water sloshing about in my hands, I looked down at my controller in awe, then naturally, I proceeded to do as the man from Outkast once told me and shook it like a polaroid picture. Dated references aside, though, the Dualsense functionality here is superb.
Making a House a Home
Now, let’s get into the gameplay of Unpacking; I know this might sound repetitive by now, but all you do here is unpack boxes. The game places you in various interior environments, and your job is to hunt through boxes and then place the contents of said boxes in the correct areas around the various rooms.
Anyone that is reading this has likely had to unpack their stuff at least once, and I’ll tell you, having moved house not too long ago, it’s not something I would volunteer to do again anytime soon. However, when you take the logistical stress, the travel, the financial considerations, and the manual labor out of the equation, it turns out Unpacking is really satisfying.
You might think that the fun that you can have playing around with the Feng Shui of your living space, deciding how to line up your plushie menagerie, and maneuvering your roommate’s stuff to give your own belongings priority would be pretty limited.
Yet, in reality, it’s compelling, and it’s due to the simple and accessible, pick up and play nature of the gameplay, the freedom the player has to decorate, and also the balance that the game finds where players have to solve the puzzle that each new item represents.
Not to mention how the game will test you as time goes on by limiting your space, forcing you to contort items into small spaces, but I’ll be damned if I will sacrifice aesthetics for convenience.
Then speaking of puzzles, the game also has some secret puzzles and achievements that are a joy to uncover. Seriously, I implore you to cast aside that guide you found online and play naturally, seeking out these fun and often humorous achievements by yourself.
Heck, I’ll even get you started. Being the nihilistic ray of sunshine that I am, when there was an opportunity to take the toaster from the kitchen and place it in the bathtub, it was a no-brainer.
Now, this was purely to entertain me, and me alone, but to my amusement, the game decided to award me with a delicious trophy and the rush of serotonin that accompanies each trophy pop. So with that nudge in the right direction, go forth and seek out the rest.
A One-and-Done Experience
One criticism that has to be leveled at a game of this nature is that once you have seen all that there is to see. Which you will have done in roughly about two-four hours of playing, what added value does the game have to keep the player returning time and time again.
Well, the simple answer is that there isn’t anything that pulls the player back in for more. There is no compelling gameplay loop that adds replay value; there is no new game plus, no DLC, and no procedural generation.
What this game is, is a one and done experience where the relaxing gameplay, the unveiling of each item, and the subtle yet poignant narrative will only be as powerful at the first time of asking, then after that, it’s diminishing returns.
So if you are someone that doesn’t mind paying for unique experiences that don’t offer lots of playtime but instead live long in the memory, then Unpacking may be a good option for you.
That being said, your mileage may vary depending on what type of gamer you are, and the best way to explain what I mean is with a little personal anecdote. Now, I am a gamer that thinks about what the developer wants me to do, and I aim to go through games ‘the right way’ which means I tend to play in a much more formulaic way than most players.
However, my partner is quite the opposite, and instead of breezing through the game and gunning for a quick platinum trophy like myself, she spent extra time pairing up socks, getting each room looking pristine, and when she reached the level where you move in with what I can only describe as a ‘Gym Brah’ she spent an ungodly amount of time to make room for all of her stuff by shoving all of his in cupboards and in awkward, hard to reach places.
What I’m trying to say here is that if you can create your own narrative here, you’ll probably get more bang for your buck.
Your Life in Boxes
Hey, remember when I said that this game ended up winning a BAFTA award. Well, I reckon I could have given you unlimited guesses, and you would have never guessed what category this title managed to bag. Many would have guessed best original soundtrack, best art direction, or the best newcomer, but you would still be off the mark, as this game, despite having no dialogue to speak of and no characters, managed to bag the ‘Best Narrative’ award.
Now, you may be scratching your head, wondering how a game such as this has pulled this off. Well, the answer is through very subtle and careful item placement and incredible level design. The game tells a story by timestamping each level, placing you in a certain period of the protagonist’s life. Then through uncovering the items in boxes, you get to know this silent protagonist.
You get to see them grow from a child to a fully grown adult. You get to see their interests change over the years, their fashion sense change, their romantic relationships bloom and wilt. You get to know little details about them purely through their belongings, and you get to know the company they keep through where items must be placed in the various homes.
I can’t tell you how aggregated I was when there was no room for me to place the main character’s framed degree on the wall; meanwhile, the person they were living with had clutter all over their home. It’s these moments when you contort yourself and cram your stuff into living spaces where you don’t belong that you realize how little these people fit into your life, and this makes it all the more special when you meet a love interest who moves into your home, and it’s like your collective belongings blend together symbiotically. These moments are when you see the genius storytelling in full effect.
I would compare it to a long-running sitcom, like Gilmore Girls, for example. I always panned this show because I found the events in the show so mundane and trivial. However, when I sat down and watched it from start to finish, witnessing the characters grow up and go through these admittedly mundane but unmistakably relatable trials and tribulations of life, I began to appreciate this show more, and come the end, I was sad to see things wrap up.
Unpacking is a bite-size version of this, offering a window into someone’s life revealed through rooms and boxes, granting you the role of a fly on the wall, checking in on the protagonist as they build their life. Yes, it is trivial, and only those that truly want to read between the lines will experience and appreciate the narrative for what it is, but if you take your time and read into each item you get your hands on, then maybe you’ll see what I mean.
A Clean, Accessible UI
Then lastly, I just wanted to quickly praise the simplistic and accessible UI that this game offers. It’s akin to an old-school point and click game, where you hover over items and then drag and drop them as needed.
Then you can also rotate items for better placement, and there is a handy zoom feature if you are having trouble making heads or tails of a new item from the mounds of boxes. However, that’s it, there is nothing more complex at play here, and that is to be admired.
The game then has subtle features like collision when you place items in front of drawers, the cursor will fill white when you hover over an interactable item, and if something isn’t in a pleasing position when you empty all the boxes, it will flash red, urging you to place it elsewhere.
The way that you can tell if a UI is well designed is if you can jump into a game and play without any need for direction, and Unpacking is one of these games. There is no tutorial needed, no HUD required. It’s a doddle to play, and that isn’t by accident. It’s stellar design, and I, for one, really appreciate this attention to detail.
If I’m being brutally honest, there isn’t a lot of games on the market that I would truly call a close alternative to Unpacking, as this game is very unique and simple, yet high concept.
So it’s hard to propose a list of games to keep you entertained after you finish this short experience, but I’ll do my best here. Here is a series of close alternatives to Unpacking:
- Gone Home
- Assemble With Care
- A little to the Left
- Animal Crossing: New Horizons
- Wilmont’s Warehouse
- Stardew Valley
Question: How Long is Unpacking?
Answer: If we are talking levels, there is a grand total of eight levels that span 21 years of the protagonist’s life. However, if you are talking about how long it takes to finish the game, as the levels get progressively longer due to the additional rooms and the buildup of stuff you acquire over the years, it will take you somewhere in the range of 2-4 hours depending on how meticulous you are and how keen you are to discover all the hidden achievements.
Question: Will Unpacking Get any DLC?
Answer: The simple answer is probably not. It was made clear by the lead developer that they want to move on to new projects and distance themselves from Unpacking. They are proud of their title but feel that they have taken it as far as it needs to go. So, in short, no DLC and most likely no sequel either.
Question: Did Unpacking Really Win A BAFTA?
Answer: Yes, it absolutely did. This game was given the award for ‘Best Narrative’ for its ability to tell a story purely through a person’s belongings and their living space. It was completely unique in its approach, and while there was some stiff competition in this category, Unpacking was the runaway winner.
Overall, you have to give it to Witch Beam here, as they have taken a tedious and often monotonous task and turned it into an engaging, cathartic, and addictive experience that not only gamify’s a chore in a remarkable way. It also tells a silent story that is more poignant than what most indie developers can manage with reams upon reams of dialogue and pricy voice actors.
As your life unfolds with each new area and the new items you acquire, you learn more and more about the person behind the stuff, their goals, their passions, their beliefs, and as they accomplish things and grow, you follow them every step of the way, through breakups, through school life and you even see them start a family. It’s all about moving, and it’s emotionally moving too.
I will admit, this game is hard to complete in one sitting, as the gameplay gets a little stale before you wrap up, so your mileage may vary depending on how much of a meticulous interior designer you are. However, as a whole, this game is a masterclass in simple game design and well worth your time and money.
- Relaxing, cathartic, and engaging gameplay
- A surprisingly captivating narrative without a single line of dialogue
- Charming pixel visuals and an equally pleasant soundtrack
- The Haptic Feedback is sublime
- The Secret puzzles/achievements are a blast to figure out
- The game isn’t one you’ll likely return to
- The gameplay does become a little stale towards the end
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