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Unpacking | Games of the Year 2021

Witch Beam's zen puzzle game is a relatable tale about what you leave behind, and more importantly, what stays with you

I have moved houses ten times in the past ten years.

Some were happy moves -- moving to Canada in 2013, moving to the UK in 2015. Some were deeply unhappy moves, like leaving home at 19 or having to pack my bags twice within four months during a global pandemic.

But one thing never changes, regardless of my level of happiness at the time of each relocation: the satisfaction I derive from finding the right place for the right item in each new home. Deciding which cupboard the pans will go into, finding the perfect spot for my plants, moving a book from one shelf to another three times because I feel like it belonged there more than here. I'm Auri in Patrick Rothfuss' The Slow Regard of Silent Things, constantly making the slightest adjustments to my belongings until it feels just right.

This might sound like a ludicrous thing to enjoy to many people. For me, it's about calmness after the storm, the satisfaction to know that everything is just as it should be. It's comforting, it's something I can control, it brings me joy.

And that's exactly how Unpacking felt to me.

Witch Beam's title, which released this November, lets players follow an unnamed and unseen protagonist across house moves, from 1995 to 2018, and unpack their belongings. From their childhood's bedroom to a final move that I will not spoil, the journey is punctuated by many milestones: going to uni, moving in with partners or flatmates, and more.

But Unpacking isn't actually about finding what you deem is the perfect place for each of the protagonist's belongings. While it very much scratches that itch, Unpacking is a human adventure about discovering someone through their possessions, and learning more and more about their life with each move. And maybe a little bit about yourself in the process.

There's a sense of almost child-like excitement with each new move that never falters in Witch Beam's title. Every single time you enter one of Unpacking's dioramas, you're greeted with a pile of boxes. Who is the protagonist moving in with, if anyone? What's in the boxes? As you start opening each one of them, you learn more about their situation, their tastes, their life.

It's full of subtle moments of calm wonder, and it's also one of the best examples of environmental storytelling I've seen in recent years.

I've always been a fan of stories told without words. One of my favourite graphic novels, A Sea of Love, tells the improbable tale of a woman looking for her fisherman husband across the seas. It's 224 pages long and doesn't feature any dialogue.

When words are missing, the medium, whatever it is, is forced to find other ways to communicate emotions and situations. Unpacking accomplishes this and then some with such perfection that it was impossible for me to not pick it as my game of the year.

There's that diploma that a partner doesn't leave room for you to display in your new city apartment. That photo you hide away after you move back to your parents. That piggy plush you drag from move to move. That collection of worldwide landmark figurines that keeps growing from flat to flat. That moment where you can finally afford a real couch.

Unpacking is intimate but never feels like you're prying, and is also full of small revolutions, like when you're organising the protagonist's boxes of tampons and sanitary towels. It might sound mundane to many people, and not that big of a deal, but I personally can't think of any other video game acknowledging the existence of menstruation. There is so much value in exploring the mundane things of life, and that value is at the core of what makes Unpacking an absolute delight to play through.

My love for this title is also about the way a community rallied behind it, patiently waiting for its release since 2018 and eagerly sharing their experience once it released. A younger generation not understanding where a GameCube-like console is supposed to go because they don't know what it is. Players in certain parts of the world not getting why you can't store something in your oven.

Unpacking allows joyous moments of self-reflection and, if you look for it on social media, a view into other people's way of life.

It's a relatable experience and definitely one to share; my partner and I spent a lot of time organising the protagonist's game collection and trying to guess which title was represented on the tiny pixel art boxes.

Unpacking leaves you thinking about what you personally left behind, what concessions you had to make, but hopefully it also reminds you of what stayed with you and the decisions you made for your own good. It's a universal story, told through impeccable pixel art and immaculate sound design, which shines extremely bright and feels just right.

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Marie Dealessandri avatar
Marie Dealessandri: Marie joined in 2019 to head its Academy section. A journalist since 2012, she started in games in 2016. She can be found (rarely) tweeting @mariedeal, usually on a loop about Baldur’s Gate and the Dead Cells soundtrack. GI resident Moomins expert.
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