The game that’s all the rage this week isn’t a glimmering racing game or a gritty first-person shooter. It’s not a massive expansion to a beloved life sim. No, the game of this moment is a delightful little puzzle game called Unpacking, which quite simply tasks you with the menial act of unpacking boxes. I’ve been playing it the past few days, fully expecting Unpacking to feature some sharp, creative puzzles. I did not expect it to so effectively tell the chaptered story of a life without so much as a word.
Then I “met” the protagonist’s boyfriend.
Spoilers follow for Unpacking.
Unpacking plays out during a series of pivotal moves one woman goes through over the course of her life. During the first level, May 1997, you’re clearly a kid, with your very own room and elevated twin bed, the works. The following level, January 2004, shows what appears to be a college dorm or a starter apartment. In each, your goal is to unpack boxes and place their contents in generally the proper area they’re supposed to go: clothes in the closet, silverware in the kitchen drawers, and so on. The challenge, such as there is one, is finding the space.
Through context clues in each stage, you can gather what’s going on in the main character’s life at the time. Law books on the shelf? Well, she must be in law school. GameCube lookalike packed next to a muted gold game case? Like the rest of us, she loves Wind Waker. Tums on the shelf and lower-back heat patches in the cabinet? Oh, she’s 30 now.
In September 2010, it’s clear the main character is moving in with some dude. Without even showing his obviously stupid face, you can tell this boyfriend character is just the fucking worst. (My colleague Luke Plunkett detailed a similar thought in his insightful review of the game.)
You can get an inkling of his personality by looking at the space: the all-grayscale décor, the bourbon-flavored body wash, the guitar on the wall, the miniature sand garden on the bookshelf, the 23 kg dumbbells in the living room, the 96-inch canvas art of an abstract sunset, the sanitised meticulousness throughout. His home has all the hallmarks of a late-2000s bachelor’s pad, a pitch-perfect composite of the requisite jerk’s apartment from, I don’t know, pick a rom-com from the era. In that sense, developer Witch Beam nailed it.
“It was tricky to define a character solely through his home and items without leaning a little too hard into, ‘This guy is just the worst,’” Unpacking creative director Wren Brier wrote in a recent Reddit AMA. “I hope he’s not too cartoonishly terrible!”
He is, but it’s not because of his stuff. (Vanity isn’t a sin. Neither is an interest in sleek design and fastidious cleanliness.) It’s because he doesn’t care enough to compromise.
September 2010 is the first level in which Unpacking feels truly cramped. Your things — your dolls, video games, and battered kitchen supplies — won’t fit within the confines of the level’s default setup. Instead, you also have to move the dude’s existing stuff around to make room. (There’s also the sense that you’re invading someone else’s space, given the mishmash in aesthetic tastes.) You eventually fit everything, but you do the entire task all alone. It is off-putting, to put it charitably, that this dude who was fully planning on moving in with someone didn’t even bother to make an inch for his incoming partner.
I’m at an age where some of my friends have hit the “We’re moving in together!” chapter with their partners. I’m not gonna put numbers to it, nor will I ascribe any specific reasons here, but a nonzero number of those friends are no longer living with their partners. In all cases, it’s safe to say these splits were the result of two parties unable to find a compromise.
There’s one object in Unpacking that you can’t find any easy spot for, one that instantly reveals the depths of this guy’s tree-rooted stubbornness: your diploma. It doesn’t fit on the bedroom walls. It doesn’t fit anywhere in the kitchen. Though you have leeway to move most objects in his apartment, you can’t move his fancy framed band posters to make room for your diploma on the gallery wall. The only possible place for it? Under the bed.
In the next level, June 2012, you’re back in your childhood room.