Puzzle game

Unpacking: The Meditative Thinking Game About Organizing | Games


MMost people are well aware of the boredom and joy of moving into a small space and making it your own. Meticulously tidying things away may not immediately seem like award-winning video game material – but Tim Dawson is hoping it will be popular.

“It all looks like a game already,” says Dawson, one of the co-founders of Witch Beam, the Australian developers behind the new indie game Unpacking. “You have the pleasure and the surprise of taking things out of the boxes and not knowing what will come next… and you have that clear end goal where everything is finally organized. “

Now available on PC, Switch and Xbox One, Unpacking won Game of the Year at this year’s Australian Game Developers’ Awards – the same title won in 2019 by the smash hit Untitled Goose Game.

In line with recent trends towards “healthy” games, Unpacking is a self-proclaimed Zen puzzle – a kind of Marie Kondo-style balm for the chaotic world we live in.

The game’s narrative is laid-back: a calm and charming story of a lifetime over time, told primarily through objects brought in between moves as the unseen main character grows up. Soft toys, books, a dented and chipped mug; familiar objects reappear in cardboard boxes over the years, and locations change from a childhood bedroom to a small united apartment, to a crowded suburban shared apartment and beyond.

Dawson and his Witch Beam co-founders, Sanatana “Nat” Mishra and songwriter Jeff van Dyck, parted ways with established studios to go independent, with their first project, the hyperkinetic (and very well-received by critics). Android Assault Cactus in 2015. While searching for a new project to work on, Dawson moved in with his partner, Wren Brier – an artist who had previously worked on games like Jetpack Joyride and Fruit Ninja – and an idea clicked.

“I helped him put his things away, and we realized that every part is like a little adventure,” says Brier, who is the creative manager of the game. “This one was from Tokyo Disney; this one dates from when you went skiing… and unpacking it all, it’s both a discovery and a self-expression.

“You can tell a lot about a person from the things they own,” adds Dawson. “It was really exciting for me from a narrative point of view, to tell a story without cutscenes or lectures.”

Tim Dawson, Wren Brier, Sanatana Mishra and Jeff van Dyck of Witch Beam. Photograph: David Kelly / Photo David Kelly / The Guardian

The game is basically pretty straightforward: you click on objects and place them wherever you want in a room, until you’re completely unpacked. But since this is a puzzle game, there are limits to where you can leave things in an acceptable way – with bad choices marked with an angry, thrilling outline. Kitchen knives, for example, can’t just be stored on the floor or books scattered on a bed.

“You should be able to put things where you want, within reason,” says Dawson, “but every now and then we’re a little more specific on something,” like a secret diary or a meaningful photograph – “ and these dots generally serve as the emotional rhythms of the game. “

Against a backdrop of extremely chill out guitars and synths, a very personal form of order gradually emerges from the chaotic piles of cardboard boxes and trinkets. Much of the charm of the game is its ability to express itself, something the team discovered during prototyping.

“I remember a friend, she pulled out that juicer, and she was like ‘I never use them’, and she pushed it as far as she can behind a bunch of other items,” Brier laughs. . “Turns out people like to watch other people play Unpacking because it’s something everyone can do.

“So it’s really easy to drive in the back and you learn a lot about someone when you watch them unpack. “

It also led to the discovery of unexpected cultural differences. “A lot of Asian American players have asked us if they could put stuff in the oven,” Brier explains. “And I think she was a Latvian player, she didn’t know what the washing-up basket was. They have a sort of built-in crockery cupboard above the sink, so they don’t need a separate basket.

Unpacking by Witch Beam
Some items – like a valuable plush – stay with your character as you move around the world.

In building the game, they were aware of representation across cultures (“We had a strong reaction to the dreidel,” Brier says), gender (“tampons and all… guys are a little confused, but women are like,“ I’ve never seen that in a game before! ‘”), and even geography.

The game is set in Brisbane – something most people won’t understand. “The first level, the children’s room, is located in a QueenslandDawson says. “Some people will recognize the planks on the walls, they might recognize the gum trees on the outside… There is something cool about a well-made world. “

Witch Beam joins a wave of small Australian teams exceeding their weight on the international stage, alongside small studios like Team Cherry (Hollow Knight) and House House (Untitled Goose Game), as well as more modest entrants like Beethovan and Dinosaur (The artistic escape) and modern storytellers (The forgotten city).

And with Unpacking, they hope for an international market, a game that deals with a universal meditative experience.

“I thought we were making a niche game that would just appeal to people who like to organize stuff,” Dawson says, “but it actually seems to have a broader appeal.”