There was no shortage of fascinating upcoming games to try at PAX Australia this year (opens in new tab), including Broken Roads, a turn-based RPG set in post-apocalyptic Australia (opens in new tab), like Fallout but even more Mad Max. Or Heavenly Bodies, in which clumsy astronauts co-ordinate to repair a space station while struggling with deliberately awkward controls (opens in new tab), like QWOP in space.
But the highlight was Unpacking, a new game by Witch Beam. You may be familiar with their previous game, Assault Android Cactus, a frantic twin-stick shooter about cartoon robots and colorful explosions. Unpacking could not be more different. It's about unpacking boxes after moving to a new house.
The first level is a kid's bedroom. I click on one of the stacked cardboard boxes and get a stuffed pig, which I can spin around with a right-click. It could go on a shelf or in the cupboard, but I decide to put it on the bed where it's soon joined by a dragon and a frog.
You'll have to trust me this is enjoyable. Witch Beam calls it a "zen puzzle game", because there are no fail-states and no scores. There's not even a timer. It's less like Wilmot's Warehouse and more like that bit in The Sims where you've made your people and their house and you're just deciding where the guitar goes.
There's environmental storytelling going on too. After the kid's room the next level is a three-room apartment. You're playing a young woman whose unfolding life is told by her changing possessions. What has she kept, and what has she lost? When does she share living space, and when is she alone? It's clever, and more subtle than blood graffiti on walls or skeletons on toilets.
Some of the items are a bit mysterious, bottles and jars that could be anything. Is this dishwashing liquid or olive oil? It's up to you to decide, which is one of the many ways Unpacking lets you express yourself. You can put the stuffed pig on the desk in front of the framed picture of a pig, just a pig staring at a pig. Someone else arranged the toys in a circle, like they were having a meeting. There are no wrong choices.
Except actually there are. At the end of each level some items—one or two or three—will be outlined in red. These are in the Wrong Place and have to be moved. That jar of whatever is actually a bathroom jar, not a kitchen jar. The diary can't be left out in the open, hide it in a drawer. It's a little bit of deliberate friction to make you really think about things and where they belong, and why we care so much about them. And we do, as the response when I asked people which way around they place the toilet roll proved.
It turns out that people have opinions.
make important decisions #screenshotsaturday pic.twitter.com/7rJOdV5S4cOctober 12, 2019
Assault Android Cactus was a game full of details, like kickass reloading animations, that were difficult to notice given how bullet-hellish it was. Unpacking is totally the opposite in terms of pacing, but has a similarly impressive attention to detail that's obvious in little touches like the way boxes glimmer away to another dimension when emptied, or books automatically rearrange themselves to make room in the middle if that's where you want one to go, or the solid whoosh and clunk of spinning and placing items.
It's a slight game about a mundane act, and every single element of it is delightful. It all sparks joy is what I'm saying.