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The RPS Advent Calendar 2021, December 3rd

Does anyone have any boxes to spare?

Phew. Ready to open the third door? There's still a lot of work ahead of us, but if we go through it all methodically, and make sure it's all in the right place, then we'll be okay. Weird how much you can fit in one box, isn't it?

One more box down! That's right, it's Unpacking!

Cover image for YouTube videoUnpacking Trailer

Alice Bee: Most people who play Unpacking really enjoy it and think, you know, it's a fun, cute game about unpacking boxes each time you move house. Until they reach one bit. It's the bit with the diploma. You'll know it when you see it. And you'll go, "Ohhhh. Oh no. Oh nooooo." And chances are you'll recognise a moment like that from your own life.

Unpacking is great for a couple of reasons. One is that unpacking in real life sucks the big one, but unpacking (the verb) in Unpacking (the noun) is a beautiful game. Every box is a rustling paper cave of delights, full of little pixelated treasures. Plates that chink together as you stack them in the kitchen. Little souvenir models collected on trips abroad. Jewel-bright t-shirts and pyjamas that hang in your wardrobe or fold up perfectly to slip under your pillow.

A horde of boxes lie unpacked in a kitchen, in Unpacking.
Image credit: Humble Games

In each level you must unpack a life - the same life, as it grows and matures and collects new possessions, but gets rid of others - and put everything away. Put the towels and shampoo in the bathroom and the clothes in the wardobe, and the cleaning products under the kitchen sink. That's the puzzle-y bit of it, I suppose, 'cos you can't unpack the next move until you've got the previous one mostly right.

But then there's the other side of things. It's how you get to know the person who you're unpacking. You see their favourite mug go with them down the years. The changes to their fashion sense. The kitchen utensils they accrue over time. You take them through highs and lows - bad relationships, fun flat shares, moving back in with their parents, getting their own place. You're there for it all, deciding which cupboard is going to be the one were we keep the drinking glasses.

An isometric cutaway of an artist's office in the game Unpacking, with a sophisticated drawing tablet and computer as well as a lot of cute desk toys
Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun

I think when people talk about environmental storytelling, they shouldn't be arguing about whether or not grafitti saying, "I HATE ZOMBIES!" or, "WHO ARE THE REAL MONSTERS?!" Instead, they should be thinking about Unpacking. They should think about what it means in one level when you open a box and take out a certain photo that you recognise from before. A moment that is an emotional gut punch, but occupies such a very small part of the game. Or how it feels to have to push some display glassware together to make room for your favourite books. What it's like to see your old childhood bedroom taken up by a crafting desk. The triumph when you first move into a place that has a whole room for your office.

Katharine: There is no greater villain in games in 2021 than Unpacking's first boyfriend. Just move your shoes over, goddamnit!

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The all-seeing eye of Rock, Paper, Shotgun, the voice of many-as-one.