When I was young, I was always terrified of losing my worldly possessions to a fire. It wasn’t like I was in the areas that annually burst into flames (and much less so back then), but I’d become fixated on preparing for a blaze. I’d think about how I would wrap up all my stuffies and throw them out the window—completely assuming we’d grab the cat—and get out of dodge. The items I had accumulated in my life were as precious as the life itself. I feel a bit ashamed to admit this, but if you’ve moved around as much as I have, you may understand: it’s your life in those boxes.

The following contains spoilers for Unpacking.

Unpacking by Witch Beam has you play through the part of moving everybody loves: getting all your crap out of boxes! I jest, but Unpacking is built on clicking on moving boxes in rooms, revealing the various belongings of the person who’s moving in. As you puzzle out where to place everything, you get a glimpse of the life this person is living. The isometric environments are a joy to look at—each level represents loving, pixel perfect creations of living spaces, ranging from childhood rooms to modern apartments.

Starting in childhood days of 1997, we have a sweet loft bed setup with a desk underneath. There are soccer trophies to display, crayons, a stuffed pig and a GameBoy! I already like this person. But besides great taste in pastimes, included in the precious possessions is a dreidel. With just one small object, we learn a culturally significant part of our person. After I’ve placed everything in an appropriate spot, and debated whether to muffle the Tamagotchi in the desk drawer, I’m treated to an album photo of the finished room.

Screenshot from unpacking. All items for the childhood bedroom have been placed in the space. There is a loft bed with a shelving space at the end and a desk underneath. There are stuffed animals on the bed and framed pictures on the wall adjacent. The desk is topped with chalk, crayons, and toys. Next to it is a cupboard sitting below a window. On the cupboard are toys, soccer trophies and a picture frame. Sun filters through the curtains, creating sunbeams in the room.

If you’re old (in your thirties) and from North America like me, you at least had a passing awareness of Tamagotchis, little virtual pets you had to care for by feeding them, playing with them, and cleaning up their poop. I remember when they were clearing them out at Kmart. I had a $5 allowance a week from my Mom and attempted to get as many as I could, only succeeding in procuring two. They’re with me now, sealed in sleep forever with a sliver of cardstock separating the battery from the electronic contacts. I try playing them now and then but give up. But I just can’t seem to let them go. In Unpacking, we’re not going to see the Tamagotchi again for many years. I guess it’s left in the past with childish things. It’s nice to pick up and remember the time you played together—like a first pet.

Fast forward to 2004, and the kid is headed out to University. A couple of the stuffies (a posh cat and pink piggy) join on the adventure. Art reference and sketch books begin to litter the bookshelf. I start to notice what has happened in between moves. Next to a double-decker red bus toy, there’s a scale model Eiffel tower. The soccer ball from childhood has more bruises. Well worn and well loved, it can be placed in the closet or on the floor. An old boombox fills me with nostalgia for my sibling’s Avril Lavigne CD, playing non-stop into the night. I, of course, had a sophisticated enough palate for Linkin Park.

A few years later, after graduation, our kid takes the big step of moving in with roommates. I can see the other two personalities bursting out of the rooms. In this miniature world, the kid is joined by two nerdy friends, one with a love of cosplay and the other a budding entomologist. When I had to move out I was lucky enough to move with my sibling but I gotta say, I’m a little envious at the excitement of random roommates. I know we hear constantly about nightmare living situations but we so rarely appreciate the very human need to meet and know someone new. We’re ultimately changed by the people in our life, for good or ill. Watching how the protagonist gains new interests from their friends is also a reminder of how we learn and grow through others in positive ways. Due to a certain someone, I know more about professional wrestling than I wanted, but I’m reminded of the joy it brings someone I love.

Screenshot from Unpacking. Dark brown shelves against the wall are filled with various items including: a bug terrarium and equipment, anime figurines, DVDs, books, and video games.

Unpacking‘s narrative storytelling is engrossing. I’ve gone back and looked over little pieces to read further and further into the character’s interests. When I’m over at a friend’s place, I immediately start poking around the layout of the home. Don’t report me, but sometimes when I’m walking about I casually spy the open windows facing the street. What’s on TV, how their house is set up, is there a cat in the window? A snapshot of lives I will never truly know.

Next I’m greeted with a very sleek and modern apartment. I figured it probably belongs to a boyfriend from the little bitty pictures on the fridge and the electric shaver in the washroom. While the spaces look exciting and stylish, it’s somewhat cramped getting my character’s stuff in. There’s a collection of a mother hen and her chicks multiplying in every move that I’m delighted to see. The pink pig stuffy is looking worse for wear. My character has taken cues from their old roommate and has a little beetle friend they’ve brought along! I think I’ve almost figured out how to get everything in place when I realize there’s no space for the diploma or laptop. I tried moving stuff around several times, till it finally dawned on me: it was intentional. My little artist isn’t allowed any room to show off their accomplishments or stretch their creative work. They are literally holed up in a tower to be another decoration in this man’s life.

Screenshot from Unpacking. A cramped, modern-looking bedroom is filled by a full-sized, grey-sheeted bed and a large white closet. The main character's diploma, laptop, and drawing pad sit on the bed. They are outlined indicating they are not in the correct place.

Two years later, I’m back in a familiar place: the old childhood bedroom. I’m not getting too cozy in nostalgia, as I have to place pain management devices in the washroom. Little pieces of our friends have carried on with us in the form of a sewing machine and our little beetle pal. I have room to put up the diploma again. Our old Tamagotchi can be dug out of the cupboard. If I try to place the couple picture on the bulletin board, a pin is jabbed through the ex’s face. This isn’t the right place though; the game flashes a red outline on the picture. I stuff it into the cupboard—we no longer need to look at it. A poster for a fake movie, “Changelings,” is on the wall now. The fey child has returned home.

Looking through the items that have made it this far, I think the only thing that came out of the previous relationship was a love of music. The ex had a large sound system. Now there’s a little ukulele the character eventually gets a stand for. Getting into a relationship that turns sour (or had red flags you brushed past from the beginning) carries a certain form of grief. You don’t mourn what was so much as what could have been. I know I couldn’t keep the trinkets from a toxic one myself. These objects hold not only memories but intentions and part of the process of moving on is letting them go. Oh, but the Sony PlayStation doesn’t remind me of you…

It isn’t long till my character gets back on their feet, scoring a one bedroom apartment with office space. I’m always amused when media tries to portray living arrangements as “run down” by having some light paint chipping or staining. Now, this isn’t to say that it isn’t annoying if you can’t buff out a stain (or smooth over stucco walls in my case), but I think some creators have a very skewed view of what frugal living arrangements are. But I digress—it’s exciting to decorate a new home.

It seems the little beetle friend has passed, as there is a new portrait of a heavenly bug. A touching way to honour the little life that saw our artist getting their groove back. The chickies multiply and the piggy is patched up. A little windmill joins our collection of travel pieces and there’s a beautiful menorah. I excitedly tear through the boxes to decorate, and am surprised by unwrapping a cane. I remember the back pain treatment in the previous year. I wasn’t sure if this meant that they got hurt on shift at work, if the years of being hunched over drawing tablets caught up or… if the ex had done something. It’s largely left to speculation. Another small thing gives me pause: a pair of rainbow underwear. The fey child is flying free.

Unpacking gives a pretty good narrative thread to follow but, looking at my own items or that of a stranger, can you really get a true picture of the person? There’s hobbies, there’s interests, but how could anyone know how these items came to me? Dumpster diving and yard sale finds, skills I learned from my mom, gifts given to me by friends from a trip they had to a city I’ve never been to—all are little treasures scattered about the house. The possessions in our lives are just as much a piece of us as of another. You know when you get a gift for someone else, and it’s something you think they’ll like but maybe it’s also something you thought looked cool? Kinda like that.

Screenshot from Unpacking. A light wooden shelf is against the wall below a window and next to the front door. The shelf is filled with a person's belongings, including Thai soap flowers, books, and plants. Rectangle planters are on the windowsill.

Someone new has joined my character. A quick glance at the rooms shows us a new partner! Their little tiger stuffy joins the piggy! The paramour seems to be a movie aficionado and plant lover. The new life they bring in fills nearly every space of the home with vibrant green. Taking out some ornamental pieces tells us this person is of South East Asian descent, mostly likely Thai. I got a pleasant surprise in the decorative containers and learned they’re called Thai soap flowers. Unlike in the previous relationship, both our fey child and this new person are given plenty of room.

When my partner moved in with me, I wanted to make sure they had spaces of their own. We talk about what we wanted to fix up in the apartment, where we’d like to travel. Our love of games is shared but we also try to dabble in each other’s respective hobbies. I’ve certainly seen a lot more movies than I would have without them. It’s a relationship we’ve grown together. I never, ever believed in love at first sight. You grow love together, whatever speed that grows at or what form that takes will be different for everyone. Seeing my character find a partner through thick and thin reminded me of my own journey.

A few years later, we moved up! A large house with two bedrooms. How, in this economy, I wonder, but I don’t want to spoil their joy. There’s an extra room now, and it contains a crib. Their family has grown; now the stuffies sit in the baby bed, passing on their comfort to the little one. I think about all the plushes I have. Will they find a home elsewhere? I worry about them after I’m gone.

Various Worry Dolls are lined up in the palm of a person's hand. The dolls are made of colourful threads wrapped around wire outlines. Image sourced from Wikipedia.

I wonder if I’ll ever own a home. Discouragement happens to me a lot, and I feel like I’m not sure of myself as a person who can overcome things. I used to have these little dolls in a container called “Worry Dolls” (most are hand-made in Guatemala). You tell them all your anxieties and place them under your pillow. They take on your worries for you and in the morning you should feel better. I use to tell them my fears of a house fire. I’ve since let go of mine; sometimes I wish they were still here.

At least, in this journey, I can find a bit of courage. And I think it’s also reminding me I’m the one that has to create that new path, piece by piece. Literal years have passed in Unpacking, and while we can see the changes in this person, we also see what they’ve carried with them. The family home, with all the accumulated treasures, is finally here. Each move feels like a renewal. And still somehow it only feels like the first step.