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Unpacking a new kind of story-telling

December 27, 2021
Screenshot from my first attempt

I was given a game for Christmas and I spent 10.4 hours of Christmas Day and Boxing Day playing it (according to Steam).

At 60, I am not much of a gamer although I did play Doom in my time and I raised a gamer and so have second-hand knowledge of much of the gaming culture, concerns, and pleasures.

Unpacking (https://www.unpackinggame.com/) was carefully chosen for me as a game that would match my interests and indeed it did. The play is simple. You find yourself in a room full of boxes. You need to open each, take out the contents and find places to put them around the room. It sounds banal and yet it is surprisingly compelling.

The delight comes in many forms. First there is the wonderfully nostalgic pixel art that manages to depict a rich domestic environment within low-res confines. Then there is curiosity about this person whose belongings you are unpacking. One has to deduce from the content of the boxes who they are, their life and preoccupations. The play is accompanied by a calming and uplifting soundtrack which matches (or sets) the mood perfectly. Finally, there is the joy of recognition of the objects associated with different time periods from the 1980s through to the 2010s. There are some really laugh-out-loud moments of recognition of those things that you have lugged from home to home.

The story starts in 1997 and you follow one person through a series of moves as their life unfolds. You will recognize well-loved toys, many of which you have owned. The timeline includes the development of technology and it’s really fun trying to identify the stages of development of personal computers as well as gaming devices and entertainment. The computer monitors and televisions get thinner and larger.

For anyone who has actually unpacked (and I have, many times) part of the fun is how easy it is. Packaging magically disappears, everything you extract is clean, and clothing obligingly folds itself when you put it on a shelf. Socks appear in neat rolls that would make Mari Kondo proud. This leaves you free to focus on the really important stuff like where to put the pictures, lining up the books by size and colour and arranging the socks in the drawer into pleasing patterns. Of course, it also takes far less physical effort.

As you progress to bigger, multi-roomed houses you can move between rooms by scrolling and even by opening a plan of the house and clicking on the room you’d like to go to. This is delightful when you discover that, as in real life, some items have been packed in the wrong boxes. It’s particularly useful in a multi-storey house.

But while it may seem a low-effort way to unpack, the physical strain on my old body of sitting in a chair for hours on end was in some ways a lot worse than the tired muscles that result from actually moving house (which I last did in April this year). There is something about muscles that ache from exertion which is a lot more satisfying than the cramped feeling of muscles that have been still for too long.

There is something enormously satisfying about setting up a room. From figuring out where to put books and ornaments, to packing the kitchen cupboards in a useful pattern that really appeals. This sense of satisfaction, as well as curiosity about the story-line, is what makes the game compelling. It might even be addictive. However, I find myself strangely inured to the addiction. The pleasure that I get from arranging rooms on a screen is significantly less than what I get from arranging rooms in real life. Pinning pictures on tiny pixelated pinning boards drove me to get up and finally glue the cork sheets lying on my desk to the wall. I also dragged boxes of pictures out and pinned them up. The satisfaction I get from seeing my pictures up in the real world, is orders of magnitude greater.

I imagine that this game must be appealing to those who are not able to move or don’t have the freedom to organise their own space. I’m pretty sure I would have enjoyed it more when I was younger and could not compare it to the real-world experience of moving. Given that many don’t have their own homes or get them only much later in life, I can see that the game can provide some kind of substitute. I am reminded of how I daydreamed in school about what life was going to be like and this is a lot more tangible than daydreams.

The really surprising part of unpacking is how an elaborate human story can be told through a series of possessions. One really gets the sense of understanding this person by tracking what they own, what they keep, what they let go of as well as the different living arrangements that they choose over time. I was impressed by how I found myself emotionally involved. I was cheering and fearing for them as their life unfolded.

As a medium for entertainment and storytelling this is very different. I’m a reader (and writer) and used to consuming stories conveyed in words. This story has very few words. There are short notes, and annotations in the photograph album, but everything else is communicated through the objects and the sequence in which they appear and disappear. It is storytelling without the need for literacy.

And yet, there is a rich visual and cultural literacy in play, as well as I suppose, a technical literacy in terms of how to navigate the interface. It has hints of interactive books in that you have some choice as to where to put things and so you bring something of your self to the exercise. But mostly it’s just a story and the compulsion to move onto the next level is primarily about learning where this person is going and what the next stage of life will bring.

It’s lovely to find a game entirely devoid of competition. The association of gaming with violent conflict is unfortunate since it obscures the great wealth of genres out there. I’d love to know if there are maps of this new territory showing what the genres are, how they differ and where to find them.

I am extraordinarily grateful to the wonderful team at Witchbeam that created Unpacking. You have made a good thing and the world is better for it.

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