Unpacking Is a Zen Puzzle Game about the Joys of Moving in and Moving On

Unpacking, unsurprisingly, will make you unpack more than boxes.

I don’t have a great relationship with moving. My family has only ever been able to afford moving between small, rented apartments within a 1.5-mile radius of each other all my life. In recent years, moving signified my constant travels between the comforting but oppressive environment that is my home — and eventually my college campus in another state, as well as a place I try to only think about during therapy sessions. My most recent move was a whirlwind thanks to our previous landlord of almost a decade, who gave us a hilariously short window before kicking us out during the pandemic. Well ahead of whenever it happens, I already know the day I permanently move away from “home” will be the most liberating and terrifying of my life.

It’s unfortunate because I don’t hate moving. I don’t think most other people mean it when they say they hate it, either. They hate the overwhelming stress that comes with deciphering so many logistics. But moving itself is a transformative experience — a mark of the inevitable changes we spend our lives learning to embrace. And this is where the true zen appeal of Unpacking is found: not in its charming art style or bright colors, but in how it takes away the unnecessary and unlikable complications that come with the necessary and complicated process of change.

In contrast to the agonizing endeavor of real-life moving, Unpacking is a relatively short and easy affair you can likely wrap up in under five hours. It has you assume the role of a character whose face you never see, and whose voice you never hear. But that doesn’t mean they don’t express themselves. Unpacking instead leans on the tried and true tool of environmental storytelling — and it does so very, very well. As your mundane protagonist, you move through various living situations. Starting from a childhood bedroom and moving to a college apartment, and on to places she can call her own, her life is chronicled through spaces you personally fill with the items contained in boxes you unpack. 

These items serve as puzzle pieces you slot into wherever you think they belong. You can play Unpacking this way, ending each level with an overview of the items you correctly and incorrectly placed. Before moving on with the story, you’re required to put everything where it’s actually meant to go. However, if you find this restrictive, you can toggle an option that will allow you to place items anywhere — writing your own personality for this fictional person with the very world they inhabit. 

While I played the demo of Unpacking using the aforementioned accessibility option, I played the full game in its default mode. It was fun to see just how incredibly messy my ostensibly adult brain is — how unprepared I am to be trusted with furnishing an entire home properly. I might’ve felt worse about it if Unpacking’s pixel art wasn’t so adorable, if its aesthetic wasn’t so uplifting, or if its soundtrack wasn’t so relaxing. 

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But as you unpack boxes upon boxes, each item also adds a narrative function. As the protagonist experiences the many changes that life brings, I was glad to see certain items from her childhood — like her stuffed animals and game consoles — still show up in boxes I emptied years later in her life. I felt similarly as I saw her upgrade her small cassette player to a boombox, and her art supplies evolve in variety and sophistication.

I was also sad when the game indicated a portrait that was previously on display — and which I had assumed was still meant to be that way — now belonged inside the kind of cabinet destined to rarely be opened. I felt similarly, too, as I realized certain items she once undoubtedly cherished (and that I had unknowingly grown attached to) no longer accompanied her on the journey. Unpacking truly embodies the act of unpacking in the sense that you’re often surprised by what you take out of any given box. As well as what you don’t. That surprise is heartbreaking as often as it is pleasant.

I feel like this piece mainly sells Unpacking as the latter rather than the former. But I think the experience has stayed with me because that’s not entirely true. As I watched this character transform different spaces into her own, some more successfully than others, I was proud of her.  I was jealous of her. I wondered if that will ever be me; I wondered if I’ll ever get to have a space that is truly my own someday. Will I get to share it with a person I love? Will I one day decide I no longer want to share it with them and — unlike many of the women who came before me — will I have the freedom to leave and start anew?

Unpacking makes me think about the things I most deeply desire, but that still feel out of my reach. And for five hours, it let me pretend they’re not. Unpacking is about unpacking boxes, certainly. With its excellent audio design that elicits a unique sense of satisfaction when you place a glass item here or close up that empty box over there, it does a fantastic job of being a fun little puzzle game.

But for me, it’s also about unpacking my visions for a future in which I’m happy with my life. It’s an exercise in introspection that has made me realize that, no, I’m too messy to color-code my wardrobe. Yes, I take pleasure in the idea of hanging my diploma above the toilet. No, I don’t really know what I’m doing as an adult so far — and it may take some time before I do. 

As I put the finishing touches on the last level of Unpacking, I felt at peace. I had come to know this faceless woman whose life I had been decorating — not in her entirety, but enough to know she was right where she belonged. Every time she moved in and moved out, she was moving on and in the direction she was meant to. I have to trust that, despite every surprise life will have me unpack in the future, I will, too.