The new Australian game Unpacking is an intimate experience of domestic realism. By Jini Maxwell.
In the final room in Unpacking, I struggle to find a place for the baby bouncer. I try the living room, next to the coffee table that supports a set of succulents, coasters and a photo book. The placement is rejected. I try again in the study, imagining the infant admiring the lights on the printer as the rhythmic movement puts them to sleep. No dice. The game indicates the nursery is a bad match too – until I happen to place it.
Immediately, the image becomes clear – the armchair, with tissues and a lamp on the nightstand beside it, is just an arm’s length from the bouncer, once it’s nestled close by. I can immediately picture the tired mother, maybe humming along as a familiar playlist pipes through her headphones. The image, in my mind, immediately feels intimate and tangible enough to dispel my previous confusion. Here is a home: I understand now how the people fit together in it.
Unpacking is an independently developed game from Brisbane-based studio Witch Beam. The player is offered a house full of moving boxes that they unpack one object at a time, slowly learning about the absent inhabitant of that space, developing a relationship with her as they find new homes for familiar possessions. The game spans seven households during the protagonist’s life, starting in early childhood and ending in adulthood. While the narrative presented in-game is fictional, the emotional underpinning of the game is inspired by the real-life emotions that arose when creative director Wren Briar and programmer/co-designer Tim Dawson moved in together.
Technically, the game could be described as a home decoration simulator, or as a block puzzle. However, it doesn’t position its audience as an omnipotent home designer, as they are in The Sims franchise, or demand the deft spatial reasoning skills of a seasoned Tetris player. Each box of packed objects only can be unpacked and arranged within the confines of an existing space and the objects that already exist in it. Their placement is limited by the confines of the house and furniture that is already placed. The only restriction is that every object must be unpacked and placed before the game offers the opportunity to move to the next house. It offers no incentive to move quickly, and there is no way to win or lose.
The result is a domestic narrative game that I have seen variously described as wholesome, Zen-like and meditative – but these terms belie the emotional impact of the game. This coming-of-age tale is rendered in an interactive environment that offers its audience the gift of time, not just through the decades its narrative spans, but the time each player has to spend tending to each new home and the subsequent familiarity we develop with the protagonist’s objects, tastes and needs.
Alongside the increasingly confident expectation that particular artefacts – a cookie jar, a soft toy – will continue to travel with her from house to house, comes the realisation that her expanding medicine cabinet is the result of a chronic, perhaps progressive, illness. It’s an object lesson in the reality that intimacy – real intimacy – exists as a series of ministrations that seem banal at first glance. Unpacking also does brutal service to the indignities of a life unhappily shared. In an early shared apartment, I was struck by the incongruity of my protagonist’s colourful, cluttered approach to home decoration against the apartment’s steely greys and blacks.
This feeling of alienation was underscored by the realisation that, for the first time, her menstrual products had to be secreted away in a low cupboard on the far side of the bathroom, rather than in a visible position by the toilet or on an open shelf.
The unpacking of this house somewhat labours the otherwise subtle point by offering no space for our protagonist’s degree on the apartment walls, which are occupied by her similarly absent partner’s minimalist, clinical art purchases. The only space of wall available is above the toilet – though the game won’t accept this placement and the degree ends up in a drawer. In the next house, the game will only accept one place for a photo of the unhappy couple that she carried over: the bottom of a shut cupboard.
Occasions like these, when the game explicitly directs the player’s positioning of an object, are strongest when they express something honest about the protagonist’s experience. Unpacking negotiates the tension between player freedom and narrative deftly, at once encouraging curiosity while offering constant reminders that it is her home, and not the player’s, that is being arranged here.
There were times when I felt frustrated by the game’s finicky object placement requirements – placing each coathanger, discovering which shelf the game deemed appropriate or inappropriate for a soft toy, virtuously ferrying a roll of toilet paper, after every move, from an aberrant box and into the bathroom. There was an emotional limit to my appreciation of the realism of unpacking one Ugg boot and discovering, six boxes later, its pair in among the saucepans.
Unpacking the protagonist’s underwear became a particularly onerous chore. The drawers had strict limits on how many stacked garments they could contain, and being given no sense of how many pairs of undies she had schlepped from house to house plus the limit of unboxing one object per box at a time, I found myself repositioning undergarments for significantly longer than I felt comfortable or interested in doing so.
But to indulge this fleeting feeling of frustration would entirely miss the point and appeal of the game. I learn about the game’s protagonist and the people in her life not just through her possessions, but through my decisions about her possessions. Through me, she becomes left-handed. She becomes the kind of person who mixes Blu-Rays and DVDs on the shelves. She becomes an adult who keeps her soft toy pig from childhood on her bed, even when she is a mother herself. And when I see that her award-winning illustration work features a pink pig similar to that toy, I think of her as sentimental, not unimaginative, and that shapes my choices in turn.
With its gentle but unflinching approach to domestic realism, Unpacking offers its players an opportunity to reflect on the sum of a home and its relationship to its constituent parts.
Unpacking is available for Nintendo Switch, Xbox One, macOS, Linux, Microsoft Windows, Xbox Series X and Series S.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 4, 2021 as "Domestic Zen".
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