Unpacking is a narrative videogame where I glean the story of a woman’s life by unpacking her possessions every time she moves. Beginning in her childhood and following her through college, careers, friends, and romantic partners, I act as this woman’s private moving service to the disparate places she calls home at different stages of her life. By examining which objects this woman leaves behind, which she takes with her, and the conditions of the various houses and apartments she moves into, I get a glimpse at her interior life—all without a human body once visible on screen or a spoken line of dialog.
I play Unpacking by using a cursor to pull items from cardboard boxes and place them in empty spaces on surfaces, on walls, and inside cupboards in one or more rooms within the protagonist’s latest home. Some items change depending on where I try to place them. Kitchen towels fold into an efficient square when placed on a table, or hang neatly when draped from an oven handle. Posters emerge furled and do not unroll until I find a spare piece of wall where they may hang. I do not get to choose the order in which I unpack things. When I click on the box, the next item emerges like a little surprise to reveal more secrets about this unseen woman whom I learn to know well.
Complications are created much as they would happen in real life. The protagonist never seems to have enough hangers for all her clothes, so I find myself draping her tops, blouses, pants, skirts, and dresses across tables, beds, and floors before I find a way to make them all fit in her closet. I may be unpacking in the bathroom and discover a kitchen appliance which did not fit in the kitchen boxes. I must carry it to the kitchen and find a place for it, possibly having to rearrange other things I placed there which only barely fit.
Only by rotating items and trying different layouts and configurations can I get everything out of boxes and off of floors. Some of the more challenging levels—not to suggest things ever become strenuous—have only just enough room for everything the protagonist has brought with her. By barely changing a thing about the logistical realities of moving, Unpacking transforms the chore into a light puzzle videogame.
Playing Unpacking is almost that simple. Almost, but not quite. After I have unpacked every box and placed every item in an available space, I may discover some items now have a red outline around them. Before the level will finish I must revisit these objects and find the place these items are really supposed to go. Usually these items have a logical spot they’re meant to occupy, but on a few occasions their special spot has a deeper meaning to the overall narrative.
The first red item I encounter is the least consequential. Unpacking’s first level is set in 1997 where I unpack the possessions of the protagonist as a girl. After putting away all her clothes, books, games, and stuffed animals, I find the diary I placed on her table now has an angry red silhouette. I try placing it in a drawer and on a bookshelf, but the red outline will not go away. Finally, I find where the diary wants to be placed: on the bed, under the girl’s pillow. A stereotype, but one I don’t have difficulty swallowing.
In nearly every subsequent level I encounter at least one object which I have failed to place precisely where it wants to go. Sometimes this spot is annoyingly picky, such as exactly where a bathmat should be placed on the bathroom floor. Unpacking the kitchen is always a headache as the protagonist is frustratingly anal about which shelves are allowed to contain which pieces of kitchen paraphernalia.
It’s a photograph in one level which keeps me stuck the longest. Unpacking’s graphics are not detailed enough to capture the finer points of a human face, so I only see two vague silhouettes captured within the photograph. I try placing it on a corkboard above the bed where I have pinned a collection of other pictures and drawings, but it refuses to remain there.
I quickly deduce that whoever is captured in this photograph is someone the protagonist does not have fond memories of, but it takes me a long time to find out where she wants to hide it. Finally, I tuck it away in a spot where it may be ignored and the level clears. I don’t understand the logic of this placement, but I accept that her feelings towards this object are not coming from a logical place. My frustration with the photograph likely mirrors hers.
It is through incidental details like this that Unpacking tells its story using the protagonist’s possessions. Usually it doesn’t take as much deductive reasoning to infer details about the character.
It’s the objects the protagonist keeps every time she moves that tell me the most about her character. A large stuffed animal is omnipresent in every level, growing more and more ragged over the years—except for the levels where it’s been cleaned and patched. She also owns a Gamecube which she later upgrades to a Wii, but the videogames she owns don’t seem to change throughout. I deduce from this that she is a person who is comfortable with the familiar and doesn’t have to constantly fill her life with new possessions.
Objects which do not reappear between moves are also telling. Discarding her childhood toys when she moves into her college apartment requires little understanding. Watching her clothing choices change from branded tops and t-shirts to fashionable blouses and dresses shows a young woman aging into a more professional look as she begins her career. Even that frustrating photograph vanishes after the one level in which it bedevils us both as she moves past that relationship.
The apartments and houses that the protagonist moves into also tells me much about the changes in her life. In 2007, she moves into an apartment already cluttered with the possessions of at least one other person. But it’s a neat clutter, with shelves in the kitchen and the bathroom cleaned out for the protagonist’s possessions and a pristine bedroom with every space available for her use. It is clear that this living situation is amicable and I imagine the relationship between this pair is much friendlier than cordial space-sharing between roommates.
It’s the move in 2010 that is most fraught with subtext. This apartment is already filled with objects, and the single bedroom with a single bed tells me much about the protagonist’s relationship with this new roommate. Unlike the previous roommate, this apartment is not friendly. The new partner’s possessions are strewn across every room, socks occupy every drawer in the closet, and the wall is covered end-to-end with posters, framed pictures, and guitars. It feels like this new partner expects the protagonist to do all the work of making room for herself in her new home. Only a single bedside table has been cleared for her use.
The most frustrating thing about this level is what it means for the protagonist’s brand new college diploma. The tiny apartment is so packed with the new partner’s possessions that there are only two places it may fit: on the wall above the toilet, and under the bed. The lack of respect the new partner has for the protagonist is palpable. I begrudgingly slide the diploma under the bed, and the level clears.
I am not surprised to find in the next level that the protagonist has moved back in with her parents where, at least, there is a huge open space on the wall to hang her diploma.
Unpacking is a simple videogame. Its single activity is not especially intricate. It does not create new experiences through the interactions of numerous systems stacked on top of and beside each other. Instead my enjoyment is found more through investigating the minute details built into every object and environment. Unpacking’s main activity is removing things from boxes and placing them in a space. The game is understanding what these things tell me about the protagonist. It’s not built for point-chasing, speed-running, or boss-conquering. It’s a meditative and cerebral narrative experience and a nice way to break up my usual choices of retro platformers and procgen dungeon crawlers.