This is a reprint of the Games essay from Issue #58 of Exploits, our collaborative cultural diary in magazine form. If you like what you see, buy it now for $2, or subscribe to never miss an issue (note: Exploits is always free for subscribers of Unwinnable Monthly).
When it comes to videogames, one of the most fundamental aspects of immersion is storytelling. It is easy to fall in love with a game when the story is interesting, well-written and totally riveting. For many of the titles I played in 2022, this came through a combination of oral narration and cutscenes – each of which directly feeds the story to the player. There is one game that I fell for, however, that puts its own unique spin on storytelling: Unpacking.
Developed by Witch Beam and published by Humble Games in 2021, Unpacking was a game unlike any other I have played. There is no verbal narration, and very little written storytelling – there are only the captions of photos taken after levels and a final image at the end. Otherwise, the protagonist’s story is told only by the objects they have owned throughout their life. The ones they keep, the ones they don’t and the ones they acquire throughout explain how they have grown and changed – no dialogue is necessary.
The game begins in their childhood bedroom. The unboxing of their stuffed animals, toys and more gives players the foundation of their personality. As life goes on, players follow the protagonist as they move from their family home to college dorms, apartments and eventually homes of their own. We watch their fashion sense evolve, their developing love for yoga and we can even see their relationships with those they live with in the way their belongings mesh together. We witness their triumphs and mistakes, and it feels as if it was happening to us or someone we love.
My first full playthrough of it occurred alone, in my room, in the span of one night. I started up the game with expectations of a calm, relaxing way to end the evening. While it helped me relax, I wasn’t prepared for how it would make me feel. I spent that night living out their life as if it was my own. I watched as they grew into hobbies I loved, like gaming and D&D, and I felt so happy as they traded in their dorm for an apartment full of friends with the same interests. I looked on as they managed to fall in love with the person of their dreams, and cried as I watched them move into their final home with the job they had been working on their entire life.
Of course, there were sad times, too. I despaired as I watched them move into an apartment with a partner who wasn’t putting in enough effort for them. I watched how they had to move back home, and watched as their physical health declined. I felt so sad watching these things happen, and yet I was cheering them on from the other side of the screen, hopeful for them to receive something more.
In its unique, silent storytelling, Unpacking shared a lifetime of emotions and experiences with me solely through the protagonist’s possessions. It gave me abundant sadness and joy that I don’t believe would have been possible if it had been simply written out for me. Not to mention – and what brings the most joy to me – is that no matter how many times I replay it, I will always discover a new object or connection that will tell me more about them.