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?
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.