Videogames: pure escapism. Enact extreme, often immoral, experiences that you would never dare explore in real life: steal a car, murder hundreds of people, grow a moustache and stamp turtles to death. But Unpacking ups the ante: how would it feel to keep your cutlery in the second drawer down? Yes, a journey into the mind of a psychopath – depending on how you play it, of course.

If you’re a good-hearted, normal person who correctly keeps their cleaning products under the sink and their toaster on the countertop, Unpacking is a peaceful, meditative game. Presented with some living quarters and some boxes, you unpack personal possessions and arrange them how you like in the home. Each scenario represents a house move at a different time in the main character’s life, beginning with setting up their very own bedroom in the family home.

A story unfolds entirely through this gameplay, without any access to the protagonist except via their belongings, which change over the years, providing a poignant insight into the true constants in a life – the things we care most about and keep, and the things we just never get round to changing. Moving house is an emotive, hopeful and perhaps traumatic experience, providing perfect story beats for the biography of this unseen person.

The practicalities of this process involve moving a cursor to click a box and remove an item. The items come out in a predetermined order and must each be placed somewhere before another can be taken. This leads to very natural approaches like setting everything out on the bed and deciding how to organise it, or, if you have no shame, just stuffing unmatched shoes under a shelf as they emerge.

Of course, this interaction is crying out for a mouse, but rather than simply let the Switch version flounder in the PC’s shadow, Humble Games and developer Witch Beam have gone the extra mile to make the controls work. Thumbstick controls have helpful settings for cursor speed and switching the right and left sticks, handheld players can use the touchscreen directly, and with detached joy cons, there is the option for Wii-style motion controls with intuitive pointing. The implementation is anything but lazy and it pays off with great usability. HD Rumble, too, is incorporated thoughtfully and makes you crave the tangible satisfaction of folding away each completed box.

The delight of performing these basic actions is driven largely by the wonderful sound design, which makes every item a deliciously tactile thing as you hear it connect with the surface you choose to put it on. The inherent intimacy of arranging someone’s toiletries and underwear is made incredibly personal by the feel of the items you come to know after unpacking and arranging several times. As a result, it’s impossible not to work with care and respect in a game format that could so easily become clinical if it were constrained by puzzles or dressed in beep-boop video game-isms.

However, Unpacking is absolutely a video game, leveraging some established game design ideas to engage the player in the action. Much as a platform game, for instance, will teach basic abilities then challenge you to apply them in new scenarios, Unpacking teaches what kind of space an item can fit into, then changes up the spaces on offer in the next new home. Challenge is extended as certain collections of items grow over the years, meaning suddenly it seems untidy to keep them all on the corner of a desk, or two shelves are needed rather than one. None of this is delineated by rules, achievements or failure conditions, it’s all self-imposed by the player, driven by the desire to respect this person whose life you are resetting over the years, through their private ups and downs.

These mechanical considerations are all applied to make the peaceful sandbox work effectively. It’s almost a non-game built with an intuitive understanding of games. The goal is clear – unpack all the boxes – but rather than an opportunity to tally points and strive for an S-rank, it just lends purpose to the gameplay so there’s a sense of direction. Sometimes an item is packed in a box for the wrong room, but rather than throwing a curveball to test your wits, it simply nudges you to move around and consider other spaces, discouraging a purely rote, room-by-room approach that might get dull. It’s taking effective video game tricks and doing something subtler than a shooter, but punchier than a meandering indie think-em-up.

Unpacking’s approach to environmental storytelling is fascinating. Where a walking sim would have you discover and experience a scene that has been carefully prepared, here you will build the scene yourself, actively feeling out the nature of this person’s life story, instilling it with your own care and purpose. Nonetheless, the story is authored and controlled by the developer. The plot is simple, but the experience of it is affecting.

Conclusion

Unpacking manages to do several things very well, all at the same time. It’s a touching story told through interaction, it provides the creative play space of a great dollhouse game, and it deftly applies established game design ideas from completely different genres. Its only real shortcoming is the repetition that is a necessary byproduct of landing its message. Effort has gone into making the controls satisfying on Switch, and the visual and sound design are delightful throughout, making Unpacking, like any sane person’s cutlery, absolutely top-drawer.