In this GDC Vault talk from from last month's big show, Witch Beam's Wren Brier dives into the process of designing Unpacking, 2021's hit "chill" puzzle game where players learn the story of a character by moving her belongings into new lodgings. In the game, players go through about eight moves with the main character, learning all about her life by arranging her belongings (and making choices about where to put things in the new home).
Brier noted that the game was actually based on a real-life move: when her partner moved in with her, and the couple found themselves thinking about the "game like" qualities of the whole process. Brier had previously worked on popular (and well regarded) mobile games like Jetpack Joyride, and the couple set about making a prototype that focused on one simple mechanic: unpacking boxes of the character's belongings. That focus on one core mechanic: polished, immediately clear to players, and versatile helped the team navigate some uncharted waters.
As Brier freely admitted, Unpacking is pretty weird and unconventional: there are no scores, or fail states or negative consequences for players. It's also a story-based game without any dialogue: all of the story beats and character cues are conveyed through the gameplay itself and the environment. The team went about finding the core of the game by deliberately employing subtractive design: eschewing conventions and adhering to only the elements that would make their game what it needed to be.
Subtractive game design in Unpacking
"Now, obviously, pre existing game conventions can be really useful," Brier said.
"A designer shouldn't have to reinvent the wheel every time they make a game. But they can also be a trap designers can fall into without realizing it. Does my game really need this feature? Or am I including it simply because other games in the genre have it? If it tags along just because: it's baggage."
"This is where subtractive design comes in. subtractive design is all about strengthening the core of a game by removing anything that isn't serving the core ideas. This subtracting happened very early on in our design process when we were first prototyping, so we were only subtracting conceptually rather than removing bits we'd already put in the game. That would be expensive. We challenged our own biases and questioned everything, even if it seemed obvious and even if it's how a lot of games do it. Anything we do or don't do on a game is a design choice."
"And every choice comes at a cost. The time it takes to implement something can be used to improve something else. And one choice may not be compatible with another choice that would have been better with the game we're trying to make... We really had to understand what our game was about at its heart."
The team came up with a list of adjectives they wanted to evoke for the player experience, and further polished their design into three core pillars: contemplation, discovery, and expression.
Throughout the game's development, the team kept close to those major pillars, in order to make the game they really wanted to make. Brier mentioned that thanks to this process, they were able to make a game that 5 year olds and 75-year-olds could play to completion and really enjoy, and the title has seen incredible success (in terms of both sales and prestigious awards).
Brier also included one truly fantastic stat amongst the practical design advice: according to her statistics, fourteen percent of players flushed every toilet in the game.