The final level of indie-puzzler Unpacking awoke a great green-hued beast within me. Jealousy took hold as I was tasked with outfitting a full-sized, multi-level home containing a perfect little nursery and its own fenced-in backyard. Narratively, this ascendant moment is the culmination of Unpacking’s story: the protagonist has a stable partner, she supports herself with her creative and artistic pursuits, and she has a child on the way. Mechanically, it’s the largest level by far, and now that there is finally enough space for everything, you must populate every inch of it.
It was an excruciating experience. As I addressed the pile of boxes, it became increasingly clear that I was doing the same things I would do to declutter my real-life room, albeit in an environment I feel like I’ll never get to see. What should have been a meditative experience transformed into an unpleasantly unattainable fantasy.
Initially, this process is immensely satisfying, especially since Unpacking captures all of the fun of organization without any of the sweaty hustle of wedging a couch up a stairwell. But it’s not just mechanical. Unpacking’s incredible narrative trick is that it reveals the plot solely through the items the protagonist brings from location to location, rewarding careful consideration of her various possessions. From a dorm room to a shared apartment with friends and then into an unsuitable boyfriend’s claustrophobically modern flat, I traced the arc of this unnamed woman’s life.
When I put her underwear in the same spot as I do my own, it removed the usual separation I might feel with other fictional characters. I filled in the particulars of her personality through placement and then was somehow still surprised by how similar we were. Her belongings were full of fantastic little touches that reinforced a real-world familiarity, such as the obscured but still recognizable cover arts for Gamecube games and a shared affinity for plush. Each object revealed another facet of her personality; another link between us.
However, my enjoyment began to shift when she moved into a gorgeous exposed brick apartment. Rather than just placing objects and piecing together the story, I started to vividly imagine myself in these spaces. I wondered what it must be like to have natural light in every room as I stuffed boardgames into the glass-fronted TV-stand. I thought of how nice it would be to have a dedicated office as I laid Instagram-ready succulent planters and a perfect pothos on a windowsill. It started to feel less like the relaxing exploration of a familiar process and more like creating my own unattainable product-catalogue dream.
Being confronted with a vision of domestic bliss in that final whole-house level caused me to abandon my earlier care. I began flinging clothes into the walk-in closet, taking a kind of vindictive pleasure in how wonky and misaligned they looked. The souvenirs I had carefully unpacked and arranged on the cupboard in each new location were now strewn across the floor. The potpourri bowl in the guest bathroom found its home directly in the center of the tub. By the time my organizational tantrum subsided and everything was out of its boxes, I was faced with myriad objects surrounded by a red glow indicating that they had been improperly placed. Sheepishly, I put everything back properly, stunned by the intensity of my jealousy. I realized that, as the levels grew more complicated with more to unpack and the rooms became more desirable, my similarities to the protagonist had drifted apart.
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She now had a better situation than I, and our established link caused the game to surge past the usual limits of escapism. This issue isn’t present in cozy contemporaries like Animal Crossing and The Sims. Circumstances may constantly improve in those games — however, there is still space within their mechanics for abstraction. No matter how cute my room in Animal Crossing becomes, dressers can only ever hold two items on their surface. You may be able to build your dream home in The Sims, but you aren’t privy to the exact feelings of what living there would actually be like. Unpacking allows you to get granular, filling every kitchen drawer with utensils and gadgets in a way that recognizably mirrors reality and strips away artifice. Since everything is so immaculately detailed, from the many sounds of settling glass on wood to the scuff marks on the cabinets, it’s actually harder not drawing those parallels.
The root of my envy isn’t a mystery — the dire numbers on home-ownership among incoming generations speak for themselves. While ownership has been on the rise for those older than 65, as much as eight percent since 1982, the rates have stagnated or declined for those under 35. Add to that the proportional transfer from lower to upper incomes, and the obliterating modifier of being LGBTQ, and it becomes a statistical improbability.
This creates a sharp contrast to how the protagonist’s circumstances in Unpacking are often improving. Sure, she faces some setbacks, dealing with a bad breakup and having to move back in with her parents for a year, but they are held at a glossy social-media distance by Unpacking’s structure. Aside from that, she graduates university, moves in with friends, moves to a better place, gets some books published, and ends up with a gorgeous house.
This is useful for the game, allowing for multiple levels of varying and gradually increasing complexity, but it makes the comparison to my decidedly un-game-like life unfavorable. Like many authors, I’ve had to come to the hard realization that my novel writing will at best be a hobby. Rather than facilitating an upward climb, the costs and time associated with their production will actually just keep me renting. Similarly, instead of ushering his toddlers out to a yard when they chase one another around the apartment kitchen, my boyfriend can only wince. The kids’ giggling pursuit needs to be quickly curtailed lest the ornery downstairs neighbor announce their displeasure via the blunt end of a broomstick against their roof.
To be clear, I’m not saying Unpacking would be better if it was more economically “realistic,” or even that it should somehow address the real-world challenges that are leagues outside of its pleasant scope. The shift in what I expected would be a zen experience is simply an interesting result from how successfully I was transported into each location and allowed to visualize my similar belongings within. It’s such a strong connection that being faced with an idyllic ending felt like being teased by something forever out of my grasp — and the grasps of many. It turns out that a game can still be wildly effective at unlocking real-world baggage when the questions it asks of you aren’t, “Would you do a revenge?” but instead “Where do you put your big plastic colander?”