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Telling a story through someone's belongings in Unpacking

Road to the IGF: Unpacking sees players learning about a life as they unpack someone's belongings and put them away in their new living space.

This interview is part of our Road to the IGF series.

Unpacking, which has been nominated for Excellence in Audio, Narrative, Design, and the Seumas McNally Grand Prize at this year's IGF Awards, sees players learning about a life as they unpack someone's belongings and put them away in their new living space.

Witch Beam spoke with Game Developer about telling a life story with the most mundane of household objects, giving players creative freedom within small living spaces, and how their work on a previous twin stick shooter would affect how they work with emotions through the game.

Who are you, and what was your role in developing Unpacking?

Tim Dawson, co-developer of UnpackingI'm Tim Dawson. My credit is Technical Director on Unpacking, which is to say I did most of the programming, tools and tech art, and helped design the game alongside Wren Brier, the Creative Director.

What's your background in making games?

Dawson: I've always been interested in art and programming, and got my start working in games as an Animator back in 2004. From there, I moved between various Australian studios, still animating, but also dabbling with programming and design on the side.

In 2013, I went independent, founding Witch Beam Games with two friends and creating our studio's first game, Assault Android Cactus.

In a previous interview with Game Developer, you mentioned that the initial concept for Unpacking came from a real-life unpacking session and the game-like elements you picked up within. Did this seem like a strange idea after having worked on Assault Android Cactus (a twin stick shooter), your team's previous game?

Dawson: I try to be pretty open-minded when it comes to games as a possibility space. The only truly strange games are ones that don't try to do something interesting! 

That said, though, Unpacking owes a lot to Wren's own tastes in games, in particular telling stories in more grounded and everyday spaces, and I was more than happy to follow her lead and help shape the result. It's also not bad to work on something so mechanically different after building a twin-stick shooter for so long!

What development tools were used to build your game?

Dawson: The game was built in Unity engine, and we used Wwise for in-game audio as Jeff van Dyck had used it on bigger projects in the past. Our artists used Aseprite to create the pixel art in the game.

Unpacking_1.jpg

How did your work on your past game, Assault Android Cactus, influence your work on Unpacking?

Dawson: Assault Android Cactus influenced Unpacking in a number of ways. On a technical level, the wealth of experience I gained from shipping a title on Steam and console platforms let me avoid many potential pitfalls, and was a big reason why Unpacking successfully shipped on three PC platforms and two consoles. On the production side, it helped us know what to expect regarding stages in development, approaches to marketing, how to do events, that kind of thing.

Finally, when it came to game design, while the two games might not look similar, there is crossover in how it's vital to anticipate the player's emotional response, and typically either reinforce it or subvert it for drama. AAC used enemy waves and level layouts to build narrative beats the player could either notice or simply feel as they play, and Unpacking's approach to storytelling is, in some ways, an extension of this.

Each room offers a story players can unearth by unpacking their items. Can you walk us through the creation process for one of the rooms you particularly enjoyed? How you captured the specific narrative beat of that room through the objects and elements you put into it?

Dawson: Typically, room designs would start with a concept for what kind of space it was, and what kind of usable surfaces it might have, and from there Wren would start working on a layout to get a feel for the space. We often prioritized getting rooms in the game early so we could start adding items. 

Wren might start by placing existing items, then add placeholder new items we knew should be there to suggest the story we were trying to tell, and then fill up the remaining space with ideas that made sense to be there, were interesting visually, or deepened the character in some way (ideally all three!). We had a flexible workflow, and in the end I think no two rooms were built exactly the same way. I tried to make sure our tools made it possible to continue making tweaks and changes throughout development.

Without getting spoilery, some of my favorite rooms were the office levels later in the game. I liked how they hint at someone coming into their element but also celebrated all the little things like a basket full of cables or a ream of printer paper or the art textbooks you've been carting around forever but hang onto like a good luck charm.

In Unpacking, players don't have to deal with meters, scores, or other "rating" elements typical of some puzzle games. Did you ever consider having those elements? Why did you feel the game would be stronger without them?

Dawson: We considered various approaches, but I feel that every feature - even if they're common or expected - needs to justify why it exists in your specific game. Any way we came at it, giving the player points for putting the microwave in a 'good' spot or awarding a rating for finishing a level quickly just didn't feel like an improvement. 

The further we got with the prototype, the more we realized there was a joy to expressing yourself, and typically that's harder to do if you're aware of a system you need to manipulate for a positive outcome. Even the system we did implement—validating your placements once the boxes are gone - is generous and has no lasting repercussions. At some point, meters, scores, and ratings means observing the player and making that observation explicit, and it felt strangely invasive for something we wanted to feel peaceful and personal.

Unpacking_3.jpg

Unpacking gives players some freedom to be creative with their item placement to an extent. What challenges did you face in creating that freedom within a constrained space? In creating items and spaces that would give them that freedom, but not a limitless freedom?

Dawson: Early on, we realized the most interesting rules for our game were the ones players would create for themselves. Some people would insist in placing cups in a certain spot and so would rearrange the kitchen to achieve that before they accepted that they had "finished" the level. Other people won't accept arrangements they consider ugly and will struggle to fit things even though there's plenty of space. 

For the most part we wanted to provide some friction, a hint of challenge, and let the rest emerge organically. So, sometimes we'd make a shelf that wasn't quite big enough for all of one type of object—suddenly the player has to chose what's going to go on another shelf. The kitchen drawers often could only fit everything if you rotated everything to fit like a puzzle. Meanwhile other surfaces had plenty of space. By dropping in little spots of difficulty that were sometimes very situational, we could remind the player there were some rules, which helped them find their own.

Throughout the game, the player gets to know the character from their owned objects. What thoughts went into telling someone's story with the most mundane of objects? With a dish, a towel, a chair, etc?

Dawson: Something we embraced was that everything is an opportunity to tell a story. There are a lot of items in the game that are just there - a kitchen has kitchen things in it - but even then you can think "what would this character have?". Did she buy her spatula new? Then maybe it's her favorite color. If it was a hand-me-down from her parents when she moved out, maybe it should look old or battered or have a dated color scheme. Maybe she picked it up on clearance so it's mismatched. If it should be in a set, is it in a set? 

The great thing about mundane objects is we're familiar with how they're obtained and what that could mean, and because we know our character, we can consider her choices or circumstances. Think about the chair you're sitting on - where did it come from? Where could it have come from? What would each of those choices have said about you and how your life was progressing? Even if the player doesn't exactly get what we're going for, it's still in there, painting a picture.

Unpacking and moving is a task that I honestly can't stand in real life. What do you feel draws players to this kind of ordinary real world task in a game? You have created an undeniably compelling story to draw the player in, but what is it about the action of unpacking boxes and sorting out a life that you feel draws players to your experience?

Dawson: I'm not a fan of moving either, but the unpacking part can feel like the home stretch, and it's when your new space becomes your space. I think, mechanically, there's also something compelling about being asked to sort things out. "This cup needs to go somewhere, where should it go? Oh no, now this book needs to go somewhere!" It's pure decision-making, and you don't get dusty or sore. 

There's also something a little voyeuristic about looking through someone else's stuff! Taken together you get this socially-engaging, organization-based gameplay lending itself to telling a story about how we go through life, so I think there's a lot to identify with!

This game, an IGF 2022 finalist, is featured as part of the IGF Awards ceremony, taking place at the Game Developers Conference on Wednesday, March 23 (with a simultaneous broadcast on GDC Twitch).

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