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Unpacking review and a discussion on game pricing and worth

Gaming discourse can be a fun space to interact with. I remember back in 2017 when Odyssey was first revealed and people (including myself) absolutely lost their minds when Mario had nipples; all that additional power of the Switch utilized to give Mario what he has been missing all these years: Nipples. It was some dumb fun that made a lot of people stare at nipples and discuss them for a few days, which was a nice break from the gloomy discussions of real-world problems or what usually are the talking points in gaming discourse; from toxic and harassing, like the TLOU 2 reaction, to dumb topics that elicit strong reactions like difficulty, gaming discourse usually makes me roll my eyes and move on to something more interesting or wholesome or important. One of the increasingly dumb topics that keeps getting brought up is a game’s monetary worth, which is where Unpacking comes in the frame; there wasn’t a big controversy or a mob aimed at the game like for the previous topics, but it is something I would like to discuss alongside the game’s review.

Unpacking is a game that I highlighted from this summer’s Steam Nextfest event and having now played the game and 100% it, I was not disappointed; it’s one of the most zen and surprisingly captivating experiences of the year and I would be hard-pressed to find 10 games this year that I enjoyed more. The game is exactly what you’d expect from its title; you move into a new room or house and you unpack your stuff, slowly revealing more aspects of the life you help start anew each time. This idea of repeating objects and new situations contrasting what came before was actually one of the most interesting narratives I’ve seen all year; just from what items come out of the boxes has led me to infer the personality of the person I was helping out and start developing a narrative of who they are, how their life has progressed, and at what stage of their life they are in. As the game progresses, you come to understand their relationships, their values, and their state of mind. It’s a fascinating game because there are little to no objectives or progression paths or any real incentive to be as methodical or determined as I had been while playing the game; I wanted all the toys to be in one spot; I wanted all the dishes on one shelf; I wanted all the movies on the top shelf with the names on display and all the physical game boxes on the shelf below, categorized by platform. The game didn’t force that, it just needed those boxes unpacked and the stuff in the general vicinity of where they should be, yet I would spend half an hour getting everything as I wanted it to be and then moved on with glee and excitement to the next scene.

A lot of that motivation came from how detailed and stylish the game is, with its beautiful pixel art style making everything look almost identical to their real-world counterparts, but also vague enough where personal interpretation had to come in at some items. A Rubik’s cube looks exactly like a Rubik’s cube, but a nail-clipper and an eyebrow plucker are only distinguished by their size, which is where this game got really interesting for me. There are so many things that are culturally different about mundane and everyday items, their uses, and placement in a household, it made for a fascinating “discussion” about how Australian households store and place their items; I would never think of storing a yoga mat under the bed or in a bedroom for example, because why would a bedroom have enough space to use it in and if it’s not meant to be used in that room, why store it there? Those little, subtle variances from culture to culture are fascinating and when gamifying that discovery in such a wholesome and chill experience, it becomes engrossing to play. Add a great soundtrack, some lovely secrets that add a bit of levity and “puzzle-solving”, and that gives you a complete package of a wonderful experience…right?

For some people, there is a hurdle that cannot be overlooked; the $20 (or region equivalent) price tag. For that price, some people think that there should be more content available or more reasons to revisit the content already there. I wholeheartedly disagree; however, I understand the inherent subjectivity of this matter. Many people make decisions based on value, which I find completely bonkers like getting a new phone worth 4 figures. I don’t see the value in that so I don’t do it myself, but I don’t judge people who do. It’s the same with video games; I don’t feel like Far Cry 6, as an example, is worth $60 because I want something new from that franchise, which the newest entry has not delivered on. It’s more of the same and that will please lots of people, who will see the hours of content they can get, the level of graphical fidelity, and the polish Ubisoft has given to Far Cry and decide that it is worth the price and that the value is satisfying. Likewise, I see the value of a good narrative in video games or the attempt to make something new or ambitious in nature and can forgive a higher price or some negative aspects of the experience. Having said all of that, Unpacking is neither extreme; it took me 4 hours to complete, was creative and unique in all the best ways, had a ton of polish and visual beauty, and had a lot of work gone into it that is apparent and distinguishable once you get your hands on it. It’s the same discussion that’s been had with Firewatch or Gone Home and it’s still the same answer; if you don’t see the value move on if you feel the value has not been met because of the quality then criticize, but saying a game that has a couple of hours’ worth of content is not worth $20 is purely wrong. I still remember most of my time with Firewatch, Gone Home, and Unpacking will be a cherished experience from video games in 2021, but I honestly forgot most of my time with Far Cry 5 or Halo 5 or most other AAA, $60 blockbuster games. That’s not to say there is no value to them or that they are overpriced, however not every game at every price point should have dozens of hours of content; there should be space for studios to pour resources, time, and effort on tighter experiences that have a definitive end and can deliver one amazing experience, once, with no need to replay or prolong it.

Some people will find that to be unacceptable and that’s perfectly fine; I find most of Ubisoft’s offerings to not be worth the full price and I wait for a sizeable sale in order to justify the value I see in their recent offerings. No studio should be forced into making something they don’t see as part of the intended experience; there are 100s of games out there aiming and willing to offer 100s of hours of content, and there are 100s of games wanting to create a well-paced, memorable experience that you play once and then move on. Unpacking is part of the latter and is one of the better ones to come out this year. If what it does sounds like a good time to you, then don’t sleep on it because I think it is worth every cent of its asking price (and it’s also on Game Pass)  

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