The exploration of sexuality in video games is nothing new. Take The Last of Us II, life is strange and Tell me why as prime examples. If you’re active in the gaming community, you’ll know that it’s mostly episodic stories in the action and horror genres. You could say it’s becoming increasingly common for such games to explore topics related to sexuality and gender. Unpacking, however, takes this into new areas.
The award-winning indie – which was released last November for PC, Xbox and Switch and is soon on PS4 and PS5 – is a “zen puzzle game about unboxing a life”. Yes, literally unpacking boxes and finding space for a central character’s belongings in a series of houses. That’s it. There’s no larger plot, like fending off zombies or discovering unexplained superpowers. We never even meet the character at the heart of the game. So how can something with only the most basic functions tap into such a powerful and relatable narrative of the bisexual experience?
Despite Unpacking lack of plot, in the four months since its release in late 2021, it quickly became clear to the Twitch community that this wasn’t your average indie game. Rather, a poignant example of how discovering our queerness can be something subtle; a series of small but important discoveries made throughout a lifetime.
In effect, Unpacking covers 21 years of the main character’s life in eight unique levels. As the game loads, you – the central character – are greeted by a title screen in a predominantly pink, blue, and purple colorway. What else unites these hues? The bisexual flag. These colors follow us to the first level, where they decorate the protagonist’s childhood bedroom and quietly set the scene for things to come.
Unboxing here, we learn that our character enjoys video games, sports, action figures, art, and stuffed animals. Once all the objects have been placed in their respective places, we continue this style of play while going through the different stages of life and discovering more about them. The following levels cover their first life away from home as they move in with roommates, a move to a boyfriend’s apartment, returning home after a breakup, their first solo apartment, another place shared with another partner and ultimately, “the last home”. The last two stages are undoubtedly the most significant, as it becomes clear that we, a character widely accepted as a woman, are in a relationship with a woman and we settle in a family.
Notice the stage of life after the boyfriend’s apartment? The relationship didn’t work out, and for players paying attention when unboxing the previous boyfriend tier, it’s not hard to see why. The boxes contain very few of our characters’ possessions, their hobby items are scarce, and they have to choose between storing their once-proudly-displayed diploma in a closet (ahem) or under the bed. They are clearly in the wrong place.
“I didn’t notice it until they left their boyfriend’s house and came home,” says Twitch streamer @TeaAndToastie upon discovering the character was odd. “She seemed to accept herself more and felt free to express herself; inside this relationship, she had no right to be fully herself”. @TheLadyJordan, another Twitch streamer, asked him earlier, when unboxing their partner’s goods. “You go out for 2-in-1 shampoos in your friends’ apartment, but in the future, you go out for tampons and you think you’re waiting… cis men don’t wear them!”. Their reaction says it all.
Content creator @larahmp had a similar heartbreaking moment when she realized the character was in an established queer relationship during gameplay. “I’m very oblivious, so just when I found out another woman was moving into the apartment, it finally clicked for me”, they tell us.
For many players, what we learn from the character experience – a gradual realization, even though the signs were there from the start – reflected what it was like to explore their own sexuality. He’s a sentimental content creator that @thatnerdviolet couldn’t agree with more. “They found a new romance with a woman after it didn’t work out with the ex-boyfriend,” Violet tells us. “In my own experience, it was pretty much the same, especially as a queer woman. It was so relatable how some partners can suppress parts of you, and others would watch it. blossom.
In later stages of the game, we unbox more meaningful objects; strange signifiers or indications of exploring a burgeoning sexuality – everything from plaid shirts to a favorite mug in the colors of the bisexual flag. Interestingly, Twitch streamer @SammiTheSamurai identifies the character’s D&D hobby as something that stands out for them. “Even though it’s not just an LGBTQIA+ hobby, community members are drawn to it because it gives them freedom of expression,” they explain. Plant life, meanwhile, not only suggested a feminine presence, but something a little deeper for @thatnerviolet. “I loved the depiction of the plants his wife brought with her, showing that their love was ‘growth’.” In their reaction video for this level, they tear up realizing the character was in a healthy queer relationship. “I wish I had that type of game growing up,” Violet sobs in the live-streamed footage. “Representation is really important, you know? It’s really cool.”
Ultimately, Unpacking teaches us not to underestimate the power of what, at first glance, might be considered a cute indie game. For someone on a similar journey of discovering their queer self, conscious comfort Unpacking and its pixel-art aesthetic can provide a strong argument for not ignoring the subtlety of things – both in games and IRL.
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