Unpacking Isn't A Traditional PAX Game, But It Was Easily One Of The Best

unpacking video game unpacking boxesImage: Unpacking

Walk the show floor at PAX Australia, or listen to any of the touring developers, and you'll hear a lot of chatter about games that are "good for PAX". It's basically shorthand for the kind of game that plays well on the show floor, but doesn't necessarily do well commercially. Couch co-op games often fall into this category: they're fun at a show, but that's it.

Unpacking is the opposite. It's singleplayer only. It's slow paced. It's not good for cycling a lot of players through a packed booth, and it doesn't compete for attention with loud visuals, sounds or mechanics. And yet, out of all the indies I saw at PAX Australia, it's easily got a better chance than most of being commercially successful.

The premise is fairly simple. Unpacking takes place over a series of "levels", set in different time periods. You start by unpacking a single girl's room in 1997, learning the particulars of her life one item at a time. As you take the items out, you decide where they go in the room. You can stack a bunch of books in any order. Want to put the teddy bear on the pillow? Go ahead. Does the school backpack go next to the cupboard, or at the front of the bed? Or on the bed, if you're a monster?

Image: Supplied

That's the core loop: getting order in your life, and enjoying the serenity that follows.

The PAX demo had two levels, one from 1997 and then a level later on in the unseen/unspoken character's life, when their family had moved house again. The second level has more boxes and more rooms, including a kitchen and bathroom. As you unpack more stuff, you get to see the transition of the girl and the family through what they've kept, the new things in their house, and the new spaces they live in.

There's an increased appreciation on Steam for games like Unpacking, things that help you chill out or just completely unwind. They'll never be the sorts of games that sell millions of copies, ala Hollow Knight or Undertale, but there is an obvious, definite audience out there for them. The market isn't as crowded as someone trying to make another 2D Souls-like platformer, a couch co-op game, roguelike adventure or large scale battle royale, which makes a large difference when games have to fight for attention on platforms like Steam, where someone's attention is at the mercy of algorithms.

It's the kind of game I can see working well for certain streamers too, people revealing their personalities through the way they organise their space. Tim Dawson, one of the developers from Witch Beam and creators of Assault Android Cactus, told me one tale about spectators reacting wildly after one PAX attendee placed a toothbrush on the toilet. Those are the kind of little moments that are made for clipping and Twitch chat, and even though Unpacking isn't pitching itself as that sort of game, I can see it working with the streamer crowd nonetheless.

The game came together when Dawson moved in with fellow Witch Beam developer Wren Brier moved into together, and the game was selected for the Stugan non-profit accelerator program, where selected developers are given eight weeks in a Swedish cabin. After shots of the game's development went viral on Twitter, the game was demoed at Double Fine's Day of the Devs and GDC's Mild Rumpus, and has been in full production since.

It's due for release late next year, and reminds me an awful lot of the fun I had with Kind Words or the Aussie-made Feather. Like movies and TV shows, games exist for all different moments, moods and times in your life. Unpacking is one for anyone who wants to decompress and unwind through the joy of order. You can find out more on the official Steam page. It's also funded by Screen Queensland, so if you're happy to wait, it'll probably be on the PAX Australia show floor next year too.


Comments

    Woah, this sounds like it'll be extremely my jam. Next, you'll tell me that the soundtrack is lofi beats to study/relax to. Thanks for the write up.

      I spoke to Jeff Van Dyk at PAX (he did the music for AAC and is part of Witch Beam) and he assured me the music will be suitably chill for the game.

    That dragon plush in the featured image looks familiar...
    ... Reminds me of an old webcomic I was obsessed with once - Dragon Tails...
    ... "Tim Dawson" - Yep! That's him!

    Looks like a nice relaxing game, too. I think I might have to buy this one

    I didn't do PAX, but did notice that Steam did an Oz PAX-focused page on the store while the convention was on. Unpacking was one (of many) that I wishlisted almost immediately.

    It's funny... I wish there was a years-later update on where the PAX indie booth titles end up. I remember one demo I played briefly was about a lumbering titan making its way to some goal as tiny armies pester the titan on its journey. Another was a cute-looking mobile crafting-focused adventure title (whose dev was watching crestfallen as an endless procession of attendees had to ask how you accessed the crafting interface). I'd like to play the finished versions of those, but I'm not sure they ever actually got made.

    At least one was a success story... an enthusiastic fella I chatted with for ages at the first or second PAX (can't remember) was converting the Peter Jackson Sorcery! choose-your-own-dungeon-crawling-dice-adventure books to games. After we talked about getting the originals out of libraries and making our own sheets for play-throughs, he gave me his email and offered to send me free game codes. It was a lovely offer, but I just bought them outright instead. He deserves the cash.

    But I just wonder sometimes about the titles that I didn't see. Gamedev is famously hard. Did they make it? Did they have to abandon their promising dreams for harsh reality?

      I'm in the same boat as you. There was a (purposefully) glitch-heavy 2D exploration game, that I think had some association with Swinburne in the indie booth last year that I really liked to look of. Despite a few searches, I haven't been able to find what it's called or whether it's out, or still on its way.

        It's annoying because the PAX AUS site does have a page for the indie showcase, but it's not the complete list of every indie booth that turns up - just the 'winners'. So it's a fraction of what was worth looking at, and for most years not even what I was most interested in.

      Surprised to hear that you skipped PAX this year.

    I lined up to play this at PAX and was not disappointed - it is beautiful and wonderfully paced. There are many small details that show just how much love has gone into this title.

    The sound design in particular is brilliant - each type of item has a distinctive sound when you place it on a surface. Some items animate when you click on them.

    Each object has a distinctive personality and it's immediately clear what it is - but it's up to you to decide if pyjama bottoms should go with pants or to start a new sleepwear section. Should they be displayed on the wardrobe shelf or tucked into a drawer?

    The rooms are cunningly designed to have just enough space for everything - but just like real life you might need to temporarily stash a few things on the floor or bed while you arrange and rearrange - you don't know just how many books or plates there are until you have finished unpacking! Plus of course there are bathroom things in the kitchen box and a t-shirt or two in the bathroom box and towels in all of them.

    We discovered this when we were chilling out of the main expo hall in the Next area.
    My daughter was so enamored I sent the developers a thank you message (with apologies for anybody waiting behind her)

    Another solo casual game, but with an explore/create/grow theme, that I liked at PAX is Unfamiliar from Mana Tea Games.
    They also have an official Steam page.

    Last edited 24/10/19 2:23 pm

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