Unpacking is a Great Example of Using Setting and Mechanics to Tell a Story

Last week my partner Des scooped up Unpacking for our Nintendo Switch. They’d been looking forward to it ever since it was advertised as part of a Wholesome Direct. So as soon as it started getting around that the game had been released, we scooped it up quick. I personally didn’t have a ton of interest in Unpacking. As someone who prefers titles with a focus on narrative and character development or crunchy mechanics to dig in to, a game that primarily seemed to be focused on “vibing” didn’t speak to me. Still, Des was enjoying it quite a bit and as reviews began to come out from various outlets, it seemed that a lot of people were rather impressed with Unpacking. The final push came from my child, who tried out the game but got to some points where my help was needed to wrap up a level. There was a simple joy to finding the best place for the various objects in the room that had me thinking “okay sure I can probably check this out for myself.” At the very least, I’d end up with some capital C ContentTM for my website, right?

This review will contain spoilers for Unpacking.

The premise of Unpacking is pretty straightforward. You follow a character through various moves in her life, starting in 1997 when she gets her own room all the way through 2018 when she and a partner move into a spacious home together. You’re not really told in each scenario exactly what’s going on in your character’s life. Instead, you get to fill in your own story using the details given to you through the objects you’re unpacking, as well as the objects that already exist in the space you’re moving into. The basic mechanic of the game is to select a box and click on it to remove an object, which you then can place anywhere in the room(s) you have available. Well, mostly anywhere. In order to progress to a new stage of your character’s life you do have to make sure that objects are placed in their “logical” locations. When you’ve finished unpacking a whole level worth of rooms, you’ll likely end up having to do a sweep where stuff you placed in the wrong place has to be moved. This requires some trial and error but it’s the only “difficult” part of Unpacking, and this can also be turned off using an accessibility feature. Mechanically, Unpacking is not for folks who are looking for a difficult game. It appeals to other types of fun instead.

Part of the appeal of Unpacking comes from the technical aspects of the game. The pixel art is very good and broadly does a solid job of communicating the nature of what each object is supposed to be. While it is certainly possible to get confused by what something is if you don’t really recognize it in real life, the more familiar you are with the items in the household there are some excellent details in the way they are designed. For me, I could identify specific GameCube games being referenced in the character’s game collection as well as some of the board game puns. The quality of the visuals is matched by the quality of the sound design. Opening a box, digging through the packing material for an object, and placing the object in the environment all have distinct and satisfying sound effects. It’s a little touch made more obvious by the playback feature that you unlock when you finish a level. This allows you to watch a sped-up video of the process of unpacking a level, and the rhythm of the little object sounds as they are quickly lined up and placed is musical in its quality. I could easily see clips of these playbacks showing up in those “satisfying video” compilations where you might normally see people popping bubble wrap or crinkling different materials.

Other than objects having a specific room or a type of surface they need to be placed on, there’s a lot of customization in how you arrange a space. That customization is highlighted by the photo mode feature, which allows you to take pictures of the space you are arranging using a variety of frames, filters, and stickers. You can make your photo look like a GameBoy screen, a panel from a comic book, like Solid Snake just got noticed by a guard in Metal Gear Solid – you got options. I personally am not much of a photo mode guy in games but I can imagine those who enjoy them will find something to love about the feature. It’s particularly nice to be able to get pictures of the rooms stripped of the UI elements that you might otherwise pick up with a normal screenshot feature. Whenever you finish a level, the room you choose to end on takes a final picture that gets a unique caption based on what room you chose to highlight in your album.

What really impressed me about Unpacking was the way in which the objects and where you are allowed to placed them is utilized to communicate details about your character. I already mentioned that your character has a GameCube at one point – she’s apparently something of a Nintendo fan because she keeps current with the consoles up through the Wii generation, at which point gaming becomes less of a focus or maybe she just prefers to play older games and doesn’t keep up with modern titles. You can also tell that she is an artist courtesy of her many art supplies, and while in my playthrough I tended to shove those art supplies in relatively inaccessible places, she was using them more than I gave her credit for because eventually you can tell from a collection of books and a poster in her boxes that she becomes a published picture book illustrator. When she moves in with a boyfriend who plays guitar, she also adds a ukulele to her stuff for the first time – did the boyfriend teach her to play? There is so much you can infer about the character or the people she lives with based on the details in each room.

Mechanically, the limitations in where you can place objects are sometimes used to convey story details as well. When you move in with the aforementioned boyfriend, there are a lot of objects in his already-cramped apartment that you can’t move around. You broadly get the impression that this dude is not legitimately making space for you, but nothing makes that clearer than the options for placing your college degree. The dude has a bunch of band posters up in his living room and there’s no wall space in the kitchen or bedroom. The only open wall is in the bathroom above the toilet, but actually hanging the degree there won’t let you finish the level. You can only progress by placing the degree under your bed, out of sight. That simple restriction tells a very potent story about exactly what this relationship is like, and it’s pretty unsurprising when your next level is returning to your parents’ house after a nasty breakup. But later on when you move your new girlfriend into your own house, the ability to maneuver some of the objects around in order to create space for her points to a much healthier relationship dynamic.

Unpacking is a compelling demonstration of how video games can use their setting and mechanics to communicate an essentially wordless story. I mentioned in the beginning how I am typically drawn to games with a focus on storytelling and character development. These are things I didn’t expect to find in Unpacking, but the game does an excellent job of subtly communication those elements without explicitly telling you what is happening or what to think about it. For that reason, I’m really glad I have it a try. It’s a good reminder that there are lots of ways for games to tell stories and that no one method is more viable than another. Unpacking may not be the most mechanically compelling game I have played this year, but the charming story it tells and the clever way it does so left me satisfied and impressed at the conclusion of the game.

2 thoughts on “Unpacking is a Great Example of Using Setting and Mechanics to Tell a Story

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  1. I enjoyed your review! I played this because I was drunk scrolling through Game Pass one night and was like “Hey, I saw that on Cozy.Games TikTok, wonder what it’s like?” Haha. But I ended up finishing it, which certainly speaks to the games strengths even if I was ready for it when it ended. Good weekend game.

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