If I weren’t in college, I would have picked up a career as a professional organizer by now — I love organizing and discovering all the ways things can fit together in a space most efficiently. Having moved between Michigan and Tennessee at least seven times since starting college, I’ve also found a fondness for unpacking all my belongings and figuring out how they can be organized in a new space, so imagine my delight when I stumbled across a game called “Unpacking.” I was absolutely enthralled by the cute puzzle game oriented around unloading boxes in rooms and was quick to buy and play through it. What I found was a video game that went far beyond its surface story of helping the main character (you, for all intents and purposes) move into new places and, instead, played out a truly moving narrative about growing up, love and, well, unpacking.
Developed by the Australian indie studio Witch Beam, “Unpacking” opens in a bedroom in 1997 — a small room, evidently a young girl’s, with a lofted bed, a desk and a small dresser. There are three large boxes on the floor, and the player is prompted to open them. Inside there is a variety of items to be found: books, stuffed animals, art supplies, musical instruments, all the makings of a young artist. Your job as the player is to decide where each item belongs in the limited space offered and to determine how best to organize that space.
“Unpacking” is relatively free range in allowing its players to choose where to put things, but the game also acts as a guide — once everything is unpacked, items placed in the wrong spot will glow red until properly stowed away. There are few explicitly “right” places for things to go, but there certainly are places that are “wrong” or make more sense than others. Did you happen to put a stuffed animal in the cabinet under the bathroom sink? “Unpacking” will let you know to get that bad boy back on the bed where he belongs!
The next level, a college dorm in 2004, adds a kitchen to the equation and is, for me, when the familiarity really begins to kick in. I never moved until I went to college, so where the first level may have acted as a demo, the second level was a thrill. The dorm is small and the kitchen is messy, but they invoked fond memories of my freshman year at the University of Michigan, learning to divide a bedroom in half and trying to pack that half full of anything that might make the room familiar and cozy. From my million blankets to a worn copy of “The Lord of the Rings,” everything mattered to me just as much as the main character’s art supplies and stuffed pig seemed to matter to her. “Unpacking” emphasizes that, in a college dorm, the space is finally your own to do with as you please.
In September of 2010, two apartments post-college, there is one space that marks a pivotal turn in the story of “Unpacking”: the Boyfriend Apartment. Let’s get one thing straight: I hate this boyfriend. His apartment is decorated in shades of gray, his art is uninteresting and probably overpriced and, worst of all, he leaves little space for the main character to make the apartment her own. Her art supplies are tucked away in drawers, her books go on back shelves and her diploma is forced to be stored under the bed when there is no more room on the walls.
What I had to come to terms with was that, in spite of my hate for the boyfriend, this is where “Unpacking” shined. So far, not a single character in this game had a face, yet I was able to feel extreme distaste for one and extreme compassion for the other. I was not only familiar with their spaces and their possessions, but I was also familiar with the intimacy found in the act of unpacking and moving. Our character is nostalgic and nerdy, and I knew that just from what she brought from place to place. The seemingly innocuous act of moving into a space became a character building exercise within the game, and I was able to bond with her over what we unpacked in each space and become extremely protective over both her and what she deemed important.
By June 2012 the main character had broken up with her boyfriend — thank God — and had moved back into her childhood bedroom. It was an objective downgrade in terms of space and decor, but a subjective upgrade in terms of her emotional wellbeing and my own joy on her behalf. After that she moves into another apartment of her own. This one is once again populated by her stereotypically “nerdy” paraphernalia like video games, comic books, action figures and stuffed animals. The first apartment I lived in by myself was arguably worse than this one, but it was still freeing to recall and relive the experience of spreading out and claiming full ownership of a space after sharing it with others.
Then, before we know it, we’re sharing our space with a partner yet again. Only this time it’s a woman, by the looks of the clothes in the closet and the beauty products in the bathroom, and the femininity in the space is refreshing. It isn’t oppressive like the boyfriend’s monochrome apartment nor is it childish like the first room we unpacked in. These are two adult women who share an apartment with a clear respect for one another’s space and possessions.
The level after this is a house — a house with a nursery. The women are married with a baby, but what really had tears in my eyes was discovering that the main character became a children’s book author. Her office is spacious and furnished with the art supplies that have followed us since that 1997 bedroom, and there are several advance copies of a children’s book on the bookshelf. And don’t worry — the books, video games, action figures and plants came too. She is still nostalgic and nerdy, but now our character is grown up. Objects move from place to place with her not because she can’t let go, but rather because she holds on to what makes her who she is. The repetition of objects is a testament to this character’s resilience — even after college, a terrible boyfriend and returning home, she is still able to hold onto what makes her happy and unique, and that ability has carried her all the way through to adult life.
The final frame of “Unpacking” is a still shot of the main character, her wife and their baby. They are sitting on a porch, their backs to us, the sun shining down on them. If I had a word to capture this moment, it would be the same as what I would use to describe the experience of playing “Unpacking.” It may sound strange, but the experience of picking through another person’s possessions, organizing them in a satisfactory way, creating our own spaces and letting people into them was nothing short of beautiful. It was beautiful to grow with a person as they underwent the radically intimate act of moving and inhabiting new spaces, and it was equally beautiful to let them go at the end. “Unpacking” is, at its core, a game about the puzzle of life and the things we bring along the way to make the pieces fit.
Daily Arts Writer Maddie Agne can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.