Unpack to reality, spousal disparity
After showing the Master’s degree I spent five gruelling years attaining into a dark crevice under the bed, I place my hands against the cool glass of his wardrobe and cautiously slide it open. Inside, there is a chest of drawers, and various other items that I still feel as though I shouldn’t be allowed to see. Above all, there’s space. Space! For my things! I optimistically open two of the drawers to see that he has used them both, but messily, and not to their full potential. I sigh, and begin moving his crumpled underwear into one single drawer. The rest of my life flashes in front of my eyes.
This is just one of the harrowingly realistic scenarios that Witch Beam’s Unpacking presents to you, as you move through several different houses, unboxing personal belongings in different time periods while a narrative slowly unravels around you.
The game starts in a childhood bedroom in 1997. You’re given a modest diorama to populate with possessions, both nostalgic and decorative. Items pertaining to that time period will pop out of the room’s box one by one each time you click them. A stuffed animal here, an unbranded rectangular handheld games console there; you’re creating your own sense of order in this room by dragging and dropping items into homes of your choosing.
There’s a light element of puzzling in that some items must be placed in their correct spaces – objects that haven’t been placed in a suitable home will flash red, so they’re easy to spot and fix. At first, Unpacking is largely open to letting you design your space however you want. Books, toys, personal memories – there’s no real right or wrong answer unless you’ve left mountains of junk all over the floor like an animal.
As you move through each level – all of them representing a different milestone in your life – the placements of objects becomes more difficult as you arrange yourself around other people. Suddenly, there’s a shelf that can barely accommodate your cups as well as your housemate’s, or you feel a little uncomfortable plopping your quirky orange slow cooker next to your boyfriend’s array of John Lewis teal crockery sets. And as you deliberate on where to shove whatever possession you’re wielding – whether that be a special plushy from your childhood, your degree, or just a random book – the story that unfolds is one that resonated with me, the subtle but jarring notion of someone not making space for you.
The object-Tetris is great fun, and it’s open enough to give you freedom of placement, but restricted enough to tell its story without being invasive. I found that the mechanic became less soothing as the levels got bigger. One room is comfortable, but as rooms became flats and flats became houses, I found myself uncomfortable with items appearing in rooms they shouldn’t – toothpaste in the kitchen, pans in the bedroom – and resorted to just emptying every single box onto the floor and being furious at whoever packed them in the first place. Perhaps there is a gentle merit to taking each item out one by one and putting it in its right place, but that isn’t me. I need to see what I’m working with. As the number of items grew, I started to find the gameplay a little stressful.
As as someone that moved house maybe ten times in as many years, keeping all of my sentimental possessions squished under someone else’s bed punched something personal in me, which I’m sure is not unique or unusual. And despite acting as a nameless, voiceless and appearance protagonist, Unpacking projects my own life experiences back at me, the helplessness of not feeling entirely comfortable in your surroundings, and later, the sheer relief and joy that comes with establishing a place that is incontestably yours.
Unpacking is a brilliant game. It executes its ideas perfectly, delivering a familiar tale without the need for narration or personality. It’s the toys that you keep, the hobbies that grow over time and shape who you are, the items that you lose and the places that you put them that tell the story, wrapped up in a deliciously zen mechanic that makes it a joy to play.
Didn’t get an achievement for putting my Game Boy under the bed though, missed opportunity.