"Games that tell stories through exploration": Witch Beam's Tim Dawson talks about the making of Unpacking 

The art of organizing (Image via Unpacking)
The art of organizing (Image via Unpacking)

The premise of Unpacking is disarmingly simple. The playground of the title is the rooms in a house (such as the bedroom, kitchen, bathroom, and so on) containing cardboard boxes filled with belongings.

Players have to open these boxes, remove the objects inside and organize them within the given space. Somehow, this simple-sounding task becomes so much more. Spanning the years 1995-2015, the player watches along as the game's narrator moves to different homes through various stages of her life.

Unpacking is portrayed as a poignant action in the game, where one unpacks not just their belongings in a new surrounding but also unpacks themselves: their trauma, their identity, and their memories.

In a conversation with Sportskeeda Esports’ Angshuman Dutta, Tim Dawson, Technical Director of Unpacking, spoke about how the game came to be.

Unpacking's technical director Tim Dawson on the game's influences, development, and more

Tim Dawson provides a look at the making of a beautiful game which, on the surface at least, has a simplistic mechanic. “Unfortunately, a simple premise doesn't translate into simple levels,” he says.

The pixelated style effectively drives the emotions, and at the end of it, Unpacking is a worthwhile experience for the player.


Here’s the excerpt of the conversation.

Q: Although the title of the game is self-explanatory, I would ask you to talk a bit about what Unpacking is for our readers?

Tim: Unpacking is a game about unpacking after a move. You take items out of boxes and find places for them to go. But along the way, you learn about someone's life from what possessions they bring with them: the ones they pick up along the way and what they leave behind.

Q: I remember reading about a GIF you all had shared on Twitter that caught the attention of the community and went viral. That was three years ago and the game has moved away from the kitchen in that GIF. Can you share the experience of developing the game?

Tim: It's been a wild ride. The kitchen shown in that GIF is still in the game, but in the years since posting it, we built another 34 rooms around it, telling a story that spans two decades of a character's life.

Q: Focusing on the gameplay first - why did the developers focus on this simple game mechanic?

Tim: Simple mechanics are often strong mechanics, and the faster a player can understand what they can do, the more time they can spend thinking about what they can do or why they can do it.

I love games that are easy to play but still do something deep or interesting with that, and we wanted to make sure the mechanical gameplay of Unpacking felt smooth and intuitive to players so they could spend more time thinking about the rest of the experience.

Q: What was it like designing the game levels, given the simple premise?

Tim: Unfortunately, a simple premise doesn't translate into simple levels - Unpacking's stages are intricate and slow to build. Once we planned out a location and figured out what rooms it would have, Wren, our creative director and lead artist, would generally pixel-art the first version of the room and we'd start planning out the items that would go in it.

We tried to balance telling a story with keeping the rooms interesting to unpack, which generally meant ensuring we had items of different sizes and styles, or finding ways to surprise the player or move them from room to room.

Q: Although the idea of unpacking is in itself simple, the emotions involved behind it is not only an emotional activity but also something that sheds light on the identity of who we are. What were the influences that drove you all to create Unpacking?

Tim: Wren often cites Gone Home as a game she felt inspired by, but there are many other games that tell stories through exploration, or games like the iOS title Florence that also tell a personal story through actions and activities.

The first home (Image via Unpacking)
The first home (Image via Unpacking)

Ultimately, the biggest influence on the game was an actual move, when Wren recognized that unpacking my stuff had a lot of game-like elements. Using it to tell a story was a logical extension of that.

Q: Has the COVID-19 pandemic affected the development of the game in any way?

Tim: We've always been working remotely (even though most of the team live in or around Brisbane), so luckily, it didn't affect us as much as it could have, but it's made things harder and stopped us from attending physical events.

Q: Given that the project has been worked on for some time now, how has the experience been since the release of the game?

Tim: Surprisingly busy! We were hoping to take a break but instead, we've mostly been responding to fans, submitting to festivals and otherwise trying to keep the buzz going.

Q: With nominations like that in GDC 2022, did you expect the amount of positive response from players and critics alike?

Tim: We always hoped people would like our game and we worked so hard to make it something we felt really proud of, but we've been blown away by the response. We're ecstatic with how the game has been received, both by critics and fans.

Last year, we won Game of the Year at the Australian Game Developer Awards. And now, we're nominated for seven awards at this year's GDC and the Indie category at the upcoming DICE awards. We're hoping a lot of new fans might discover us this year!

Q: What is it like being an indie developer in Australia? What are the studio’s future plans?

Tim: Australia has a small but talented indie game scene, and Brisbane in particular has a wonderfully supportive community. Typically, being a game developer in Australia has been hard as we're not in the same timezone as America or Europe, and getting to the bigger conferences and events is expensive and difficult. Ironically, with Covid pushing so many events online, it has gotten a little easier to participate.

Witch Beam's plan is to keep making games - we have another project in the works and after that, we will be looking hard at new ideas. We hope we can continue to surprise and entertain people with what we make.

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