I watched a stream a few months back where I heard about a little game called Unpacking by Witch Beam Studio (https://www.unpackinggame.com). The gameplay was simple: unpacking boxes after moving. Certainly, many of us have experienced the need to pack and subsequently unpack our lives into boxes to move house. The concept was familiar to what I’ve done in the physical world many times. The most interesting aspect of the game to me was the way the story was told: entirely through spaces and items.
For those of you who have not, or do not, wish to play the game, the chapters are each place the character you’re following moves. You unpack their things into their new space, organize it, place everything in the right rooms, and learn about the character you’re playing as through the experience. It really is that simple. Accompanied by a beautiful sound track, crafted to subtly create a mood, you pull items from each box one at a time. Upon completing each chapter, you’re treated to a single line about the room you end on from the perspective of the character with a picture of the room to accompany the text. It is in this way, as you move through the years and through their life that you watch the character grow up, discover hobbies and interests, find a career, and live their life.
This action, learning about a person and their life through their things is inherently archaeological. The only way to understand the story is to pay attention to the items you’re placing around the spaces. It is in this way that Unpacking beautifully tells a story through archaeology. I’ve talked about it before in this blog (as have others in the academic literature): that subtly teaching archaeological methods is present in many types of games. Specifically, other individuals have discussed talking simulators as being archaeological. Myself and Andrew Reinhard have talked about how landscape archaeology and methods are presented in many games. This was the first that I’ve encountered that solely relies on artifacts to tell the story—in this case artifacts being the items removed from boxes and placed in spaces.
*** SPOILERS AHEAD ***
Playing through the game oneself, you begin at childhood; presumably the first time your character moves house with their family. Little clues are given about who they are and nods to the year and era, like cassette tapes and 1990s memorabilia are present. You only have to unpack the one room—just your character’s bedroom. You learn about interests and ideas of the child, like that they play soccer and like to draw. It’s enough to teach the mechanics and ready the player for the rest of the game without necessarily giving away too much information, encouraging the player to continue to learn more.
We move to chapter 2 as they go away to University and you discover bras and menstrual products. Similarly, you learn more about the character in Chapter 3 when you move in with roommates. Our character has discovered geek culture and dungeons and dragons. Increasingly, you unpack new interests and learn about the progression of the character’s life. You can even learn about the character’s world travels as you unpack different trinkets from iconic sites, like a red double decker bus from London, the Eiffel Tower from Paris, and the Leaning Tower of Pisa from Pisa, Italy.
It is in Chapter 4 that the character moves in with their boyfriend. From the moment the level begins, it is clear that there isn’t space for our character in his life. He doesn’t make room for any of your things. And while you can move most of his stuff, there isn’t any place on the wall for your diploma. In fact, one game mechanic is to tell you that something is in the incorrect spot. The only correct placement for the diploma is under the bed, hidden away. The use of space is a clever environmental cue that the relationship may not work out. In the next chapter, the character moves back in with their parents. In a similar way, there is a picture of your character and their boyfriend from the fridge in the previous chapter. This photo is required to be hidden somewhere, either under the bed or in the cabinet before the chapter can be completed, further signaling to you that the relationship ended.
In this way, the things that you’re unpacking and the placement of these things in the space illustrate the story. Even by watching these videos about how I played the game can tell you about who I am, unpacking and organizing someone else’s items. The story evolves and reveals itself as you pull new items from the box. I won’t spoil any more, but the use of artifacts to tell a story is inherently archaeological. It is an affective game that makes use of analysis of materials in a way I had not before seen. It is indeed a way to teach about archaeological analysis.
Below I’ve included sped up videos of the remaining chapters for my gameplay, if you’re interested in watching it and learning about the rest of the story that way, though I encourage you to play the game and discover the story yourself.
– Kaitlyn Kingsland, Archaeogaming
27 June 2022