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How the developers of Unpacking told a story with 1,000 items

How do you tell a story without any words or dialogue? By the items your character leaves behind, as Witch Beam tells us.

Holly Green, Community Editorial Coordinator

March 22, 2022

6 Min Read

Unpacking is a game of simplicity: no on-screen characters, combat, or dialogue checks. Just an impressive 1,000 different items, each telling a story about the unseen persons living within the rooms and homes that comprise its premise.

During GDC 2022, Witch Beam creative director Wren Brier and technical director Tim Dawson walked us through the game's design, discussing how they created a narrative that could be inferred from objects from the environment. In Unpacking, the personal belongings that are carefully unearthed from their moving boxes and placed in their appropriate spot aren't arbitrary or meaningless, but rather, reflective of the player-character and the different phases of their life as depicted over the course of the game. 

Of primary importance was the fact that interacting with in-game objects and making decisions about its placement forces the player to engage with it more thoughtfully. "Through handling items players are forced to consider each one," says Dawson. The item's use, where it belongs, and what it says about the character are all considered as the player examines the item, decides what room it belongs in, and then takes in what its details may be saying about its owner. 

Blocking out the narrative

The team sketched out the game's arc by creating a snapshot of seven stages of life: childhood, university, having housemates, moving in with your first partner, moving out on your own, having your partner move in, and, finally, moving into a house. All were designed to center on certain life events that are relatable, understandable, and linear, while escalating in complexity. The childhood stage represented the tutorial, while the "moving away from university" stage added rooms and new room types, illustrating the character's personal progression.

The third stage introduced new concepts that continued to support this metaphor. Some items in the rooms, for example, cannot be moved, forcing the player to negotiate their belongings with someone else's by filling in empty spots, representing the need for cooperation in shared living spaces in young adulthood. In the fourth stage, the player can move the other items that are already in the room at the beginning of the level, representing compromise in romantic relationships.

In the original idea for the fifth stage (which was later reimagined with a different conceit) there are totally empty rooms, five in total, illustrating a "break up" stage--sparseness represents fresh start, renewal, independence. In the sixth stage, the player is decorating the same space but unpacking for someone else representing the intimacy of someone moving in with the player character (here, the different in packing boxes hints as to the living space's new occupant). And in the seventh stage, moving into a house is a representation of a relationship grand finale, implying stability and, in this case, finality. Of special note here, the nursery implies the player character has moved onto a next phrase of their life: parenthood. 

While these were the seven stages in their original form, a problem arose early in the process:  many of the game's significant moments were not giving sufficient room to breathe. Since there was no way to depict additional context like the time between stages of the character's life, unintended statements about that character were made. This issue was the driving force behind that change for the fifth stage. Designers later solved any confusion about that particular move by changing the fifth stage to a childhood home rather than an empty apartment. In doing so, it instead reflects the relatably disappointing stage of having to move back in with her parents and evokes the sense of moving backward while also giving emotional momentum.

Witch Beam did not want the idea of the "right" decision to affect how the player plays--the emphasis should be on choices, but guided by consequences.

Unpacking as we know it tells a linear tale. Despite its storytelling potential, branching narrative was a design choice that the team deliberately did not make for Unpacking. Splitting up the story into paths introduces FOMO, choice judgment, and unwanted outcomes, which the team found contrasts with their design goals of creating a "zen" game that doesn't stress the player out. They did not want the idea of the "right" decision to affect how the player plays--the emphasis should be on choices, but guided by consequences. 

Because there were no characters on screen, that meant their belongings had to do the narrative work. Their personal traits, thus, had to have corresponding items scattered throughout the level, either in rooms or in boxes.. No item? No trait! However, there were limitations to this approach, in that some concepts did not lend well to items, or could only produce limited complexity. Due to its self-imposed constraints, Unpacking was also unable to depict specific events in the years between moves, which meant the players have to operate comfortably within a zone of ambiguity.

As the talk progressed, Brier and Dawson moved on to citing direct examples of their design in action, walking us through a character study of each occupant was depicted in the game. Ways that they implied details of these characters included objects that portray or reflect hobbies and interests, like sports gear, items that suggest professions and personality, like law school books or perpetually dirty dishes in the sink, personality-signifiers like a preference for loud colors (suggesting vibrant personality) or pieces that depict cultural background, such as a Malaysian character's preferences in art, food, and knick-knacks. 

The point of these details are to engage the player by asking them to fill in the blanks and be an active participant in the story. "Empathy through detective work" is how they coined this term. The act of handling objects forces the player to consider each one. Familiar objects and situations allow players to relate, while depriving them of definitive answers allows them to have theories and hunches. It's a relationship of trust between the developer and player--the trust in the player to piece the story together and the trust in the developer to not be misleading in the relationship between story and mechanics.  

The villain you never meet

One prime example of this in action is the level during which the player character moves in with her first boyfriend. This level was intended as a portrayal of a relationship that doesn't work out. But how to achieve that without dialogue or cut scenes?

For the team, this meant slipping in "red flags" showing that the player character and her boyfriend are a poor match. The objects each owns hint that there is little to no overlap in their interests and that they have very different backgrounds. Worst of all, there's almost no space for the player to put their character's most prized possessions, including their diploma (which winds up first over the toilet and later, under the bed). Through this, they imply the relationship will not work out. The scene is a culmination of the game's rules, but with a twist that epitomizes the incompatibility and serves also as a metaphor and forces an internal dialogue with the player that is similar to the character. This serves as an example of good friction within a game, as it was illustrative in the moment and emphasized the narrative beat. 

Other storytelling techniques employed included dictating item order to suggest progression, evolving fashions and items in the house to reflect changing tastes and interests, and the retention of certain objects to suggest that previous cohabitants had an influence on the main character. Ultimately, the goal was to ensure that every single item added to the story in some way. Their final points, summarized, emphasize that mechanics shape story, item progression is character progression, and that every item in your game's environment sends a message whether intended or not. By channeling intention, we can tell a story without speaking a single word. 

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About the Author(s)

Holly Green

Community Editorial Coordinator, GameDeveloper.com

Holly Green has been in games media for fifteen years, having previously worked as a reporter and critic at a variety of outlets. As community editorial coordinator, she handles written materials submitted by our audience of game developers and is responsible for overseeing the growth of iconic columns and features that have been educating industry professionals under the Game Developer brand for decades. When she isn't playing about or writing video games, she can be found cooking, gardening and brewing beer with her husband in Seattle, WA.

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