Most people are familiar with the boredom and joy of moving into a small space and making it their own. Tidying things up might not immediately seem like award-winning video game hardware – but Tim Dawson hopes it will prove popular.
“The whole thing looks like a game already,” says Dawson, one of the co-founders of Witch Beam, the Australian developers behind new indie game Unpacking. “You have the thrill and surprise of pulling stuff out of the boxes and not knowing what’s next…and you have this 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 game Untitled Goose.
In line with recent trends towards “healthy” gameUnpacking is a self-proclaimed zen puzzler – a kind of Marie Kondo balm for the chaotic world we live in.
The game’s narrative is laid back: a quiet, charming story of a life over time, told primarily through the objects brought in between moves as the unseen main character grows. Soft toys, books, a damaged and chipped cup; familiar objects reappear in cardboard boxes over the years and locations change from a child’s room to a small plain apartment, to a crowded suburban shared apartment and beyond.
Dawson and fellow Witch Beam co-founders Sanatana “Nat” Mishra and composer Jeff van Dyck have parted ways with established studios to go independent, with their first project the hyperkinetic arcade shooter (and well-received by criticism) Android Assault Cactus in 2015. While looking 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 caught on.
“I helped him pack his things and we realized: each piece is like a little adventure,” says Brier, the game’s creative lead. “This one’s from Tokyo Disney; this one dates back to when you went skiing… and unpacking everything is both discovery and self-expression.
“You can tell a lot about a person from the things they own,” Dawson adds. “It was really exciting for me from a storytelling perspective, to tell a story without cutscenes or lectures.”
The game is, basically, quite simple: 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 acceptable – with bad choices marked with an angry, throbbing outline. Kitchen knives, for example, cannot simply be stored on the floor, or books left strewn on a bed.
“You should be able to put things where you want, within reason,” Dawson says, “but every once in a while we get a little more specific about something,” like a diary or a meaningful photograph — ” and these points usually serve as a kind of emotional beats of the game.”
Against a background of extremely chill-out guitars and synths, a very personal form of order gradually emerges from the chaotic piles of boxes and trinkets. A big part of the game’s charm is its ability to express itself, something the team discovered while prototyping.
“I remember a friend, she pulled out this juicer, and she was like ‘I never use it,’ and she pushed it as far as she could behind a bunch of other items,” Brier laughs. “It turns out that people love watching other people play Unpacking because it’s something everyone can do.
“So it’s very 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 number of Asian American players have asked us if they can store things in the oven,” says Brier. “And I think it was a Latvian player, she didn’t know what the dish rack was. They have a sort of built-in dish cupboard above the sink, so they don’t need a a separate basket.
When building the game, they were aware of representation across cultures (“We had a strong reaction to the dreidel,” Brier says), genders (“tampons and all that…guys are a little confused, but women are like, ‘I don’t’ I’ve never seen this in a game before!'”), and even geography.
The game takes place in Brisbane – which most people won’t understand. “The first level, the children’s room, is located in a queenslanderDawson says. “Some people will recognize the planks on the walls, they might recognize the gum trees outside… There’s something cool about a well-realized world.”
Witch Beam joins a wave of smaller Australian teams punching their weight on the international stage, alongside breakout studios like Team Cherry (hollow knight) and House House (Untitled Game of Goose), as well as more modest entrants including Beethovan and Dinosaur (The artistic escape) and modern storytellers (The forgotten city).
And with Unpacking, they’re hoping for an international market, for a game that’s about a universally meditative experience.
“I thought we were making a niche game that would just appeal to people who like to organize things,” Dawson says, “but it actually seems to have a broader appeal.”