Puzzle game

Unpacking is a zen puzzle game that brings order to chaos

Do you ever get rid of stress? It’s that compulsion to tidy up when everything seems to weigh you down. Maybe the work is pouring in, the kids bouncing off the walls, and the puppy is peeing on the carpet again. You may feel like your only options are to pull your hair out or, as a healthier alternative, to clean your house.

It’s a way of creating a semblance of control. There’s something soothing about rearranging a shelf or dusting off the entertainment center when you’re having a bad day, isn’t there?

The stressors of everyday life have only become more burdensome for many people during the pandemic. That’s why, as we finally seem to be turning a corner in this whole mess, Unpacking has become the meditative downtime that I wish I had a year ago but it’s the one I’m grateful to have today.

As part of LudoNarraCon, this week’s indie game festival focused on story-driven games, I got to check out a few dozen demos of upcoming indie games, but Unpacking is my favorite of the whole event.

In Unpacking, the players organize the rooms as if they had just moved in. Without even a textual introduction or opening cutscene, the first level immerses you in a kid’s room fitted with bunk beds in 1997. An empty bookshelf and desk sit there, along with three taped cardboard boxes.

Instinctively, you know how to open boxes and start decorating the room, and the complete lack of timers, score settings, or anything that would be considered gamification makes it so much more appealing. You are mainly free to organize and decorate the room as you see fit there are almost no wrong answers in Unpacking.

Maybe you want the stuffed animals to go on the shelf, the board games to go under the bed, and the soccer ball to sit in the corner next to the desk. Or maybe you want your football trophy displayed prominently in the middle of your desk, but you’re done with the stuffed animals, so you place them on the top bunk, generously given vertically to your little brother.

Only a gentle hand to guide you will let you know that some items are not in one of their many “right” places. You can’t, for example, leave board games strewn across the bedroom floor, but what kind of rascal would like anyway?

Meanwhile, nonchalant music plays and the game only goes to the pace you choose. For stress cleaners, series organizers, or even interior designers around the world, Unpacking is a once in a lifetime experience that you probably didn’t know you wanted.

Without any character models or dialogue, you’re free to make up your own story as you move from room to room, year to year, house to house. Who is this person whose room you decorated? This stuffed pig that sat on their desk in 1997 is now next to their dorm computer in 2004. Did they bring it to college? It’s up to you to decide.

Awkwardly, my inferred story even got a little dark when I imagined the stuffed animals belonged to the younger brother in the game’s first level, so I put them on their bed, but when I pulled out the same pig out of the box in the next level, I had to explain why the big brother brought their brother’s toy with them to college.

Was it a gift from a brother you would miss? Was it a monument to a child taken too early? No one knows for sure, but like the act of decorating the room, there seem to be few wrong answers.

Unpacking apparently provides a vast blank slate for players to fill in their own stories this way, but even if you don’t think too much about the details of what you’re decorating, there’s a wonderful sense of tranquility in moving from room to room, by opening the boxes, arranging their contents as you wish and admiring your finished work.

I’m the type of person who really gets a little stressful when a movie includes a scene with a messy space, like a kids’ toy room or a dilapidated post-rager kitchen. The simple act of cleaning a room in Unpacking feels like the cure for what plagues me so often, now more than ever in a year my eight year old son has been home schooling for a year my two year old daughter has never even seen a library or a toy store, and my wife and I have three jobs combined, two at home and one in a city hit hard by the pandemic.

You can start to feel overwhelmed, even in a family as loving and close-knit as ours. But play Unpacking gives me the kind of respite that I find so inviting and so effective. Better yet, it’s so unexpected.

I don’t think the concept of this game would work, but with soothing music, a nostalgic visual style, and a design with no false answers, Unpacking has become the break from the daily chaos that I enjoy so much. I can’t wait to unbox the full game when it hits PC later in 2021.

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