The creators of Unpacking on developing a ‘weird’, queer, BAFTA-winning game

“Unreal. Absolutely unreal. That’s how Wren Brier and Tim Dawson, the creators of Unpacking, described their double win at the BAFTA Games to me last week. They were so shocked to bring home gongs for Narrative and the audience voted Game of the Year that the couple didn’t even prepare a speech.

The success of Unpacking has seen the indie “zen puzzle game” beat a number of big AAA games on several occasions (notably Eurogamer’s own Game of the Year last year), and find itself in the role of a sweet and strange David to Goliaths of Returnal, It Takes Two and Metroid Dread.

I met with Brier and Dawson before the BAFTAs to discuss game development.

One of the most powerful aspects of Unpacking’s narrative is that it’s almost entirely wordless. Instead, the player reconstructs the life of a young woman through objects unpacked in each room at different stages of her life. The inspiration for this came from a song.

“There’s a song called The Bed Song by Amanda Palmer,” Brier says. “And it goes through a series of snapshots in this couple’s life, just represented through the different beds they’ve had over the years. And I thought to myself, what if we did something like this but with movements in someone’s life?”

But how do you tell a story through objects?

“You can learn a lot from snapshots, you can fill in the blanks,” Dawson says. “Rather than sitting down and writing a story and saying ‘ok, what objects tell this story’, we think of objects and think of a story that this object will tell, and sometimes we think of a story and it invents objects. And we let the two cross-pollinate.”

Sometimes it was also the mechanics of the game that informed the story. An example is the boyfriend’s apartment level where you have to unpack the protagonist’s things around their new boyfriend’s.

“The game mechanic where we wanted you to be able to understand that you had to move things around ended up being a story beat, because emphasizing that it made the player feel like they had to intrude or make room for themselves, ‘ said Dawson.

“It heightened the naughtiness of the boyfriend,” Brier adds. “We needed a tutorial on how you can move the boyfriend’s objects, how do we do that? Oh, we make his objects take up as much space as possible. And then from that we get that story element of, ‘he didn’t “make no room for you. And people either love it or hate it.”

It is not just the narration but the characterization that is done through simple objects. This meant that these items had to reflect certain characteristics – sometimes specific to that character, other times just practical items. These have been organized into character profiles.

Similarly, there’s also a D&D influence, with roommates in the game playing an ongoing tabletop game. It was something tangible that instantly solidified the bond between these characters, without showing them explicitly.

“I think there’s something wonderful about geeking and physical objects,” Brier says. “It has a lot of physical artifacts, and some of it is terrible consumerism where we’re told we have to buy more and more to define who we are. But at the same time, it works really well for our game. And it’s kind of fun to have these items that are related to the things you care about.”

Initially, the game was more like a puzzle, but over time the team decided to relax the rules and allow players more freedom to interpret object placement and, therefore, the narrative. “The most interesting rules are the rules people make up themselves, not our rules,” Dawson says.

The game’s narrative is that of a young woman discovering her bisexuality and, for Brier, this largely reflects her own life experience. Yet while she herself had been in a relationship with a woman before she met her current partner, Dawson, she reversed that for the game to avoid bi-erasing. She didn’t want the female protagonist’s relationship to feel like a phase or be dismissed as a college story.

“It’s a very personal game and [bisexuality] part of my life,” says Brier. “Not including it seemed like a strange omission to me.

“It’s a game where you follow a character through the movements of her life and get to know her. Part of it is that she’s an artist. And part of it is that she’s queer. And part of it is that she loves stuffed toys, character elements, not defining characteristics.”

Dawson adds, “It shouldn’t feel like a twist. It should feel like a development.”

Everything is linked to the authenticity of the game, whether through the bisexual representation, the inclusion of sanitary products or the use of recognizable and relevant objects.

Added to this is the foley design. Recorded by Witchbeam sound designer Jeff van Dyck, there are 14,000 sound effects in the game including different objects and surface types. Each action in the game is not a single sound, but a collection of multiple sounds.

With so many objects and sounds, much of the development took place in spreadsheets. Dawson tried to automate the process as much as possible so that any changes to sprites or sounds could be cataloged and then integrated into the game to fill in the correct levels.

Brier says, “We had spreadsheets that kept track of which items appeared in which levels, which items were new in each level, and which items were repeat items, which were variations of existing items.”

For a game that seems so simple, there’s a lot going on underneath in both its narrative and its design. But it’s really that authenticity that resonated so well with gamers, something that was reinforced by the game’s release during the pandemic.

“We were concerned that people would get so tired of being at home that they’re like, ‘I don’t want to play a game where I’m at home,'” Brier said. “But no, it didn’t work out that way, people could understand.

“And I think because of the pandemic, a lot of people also had to go back to live with their parents or move from one country to another. And so a lot of people had recently had those experiences and seeing them reflected in the game felt meaningful to them. We get a lot of very heartfelt letters from people about their experiences with the game.”

The game was particularly popular on Twitch, where players invested in both gameplay and storytelling with their communities, creating a snowball effect.

“People watch other people play and say ‘oh, no, that makes me think about how I want to do it,'” Brier says. “And then they play it themselves. So you watch someone play the game on Twitch and it’s a fun experience because you learn a lot about them. Like people sometimes tell stories while playing.”

This means that by playing the game, players not only learn about the protagonist’s story, but also engage with the game, which Brier says is a difficult balance to strike.

“Ultimately, instead of being a weakness of the game where you feel like you’re being pulled in two directions, it ended up being a strength of the game, where you fill in information into the character that relates to you. , because you’re playing that character. But also, I can put those pieces of myself into her, and it becomes a part of her,” she says.

The game’s design was so successful that it inspired a whole host of imitators on mobile devices after its release. It was more demoralizing than flattering.

These games were copies that took the hard work of the team – from mechanics to item design, and even marketing copy – and simply reproduced it shamelessly. It even caused an unintended influx of Witchbeam mailing list signups, driving them up a price tier in MailChimp.

“It’s very demoralizing when someone says ‘this game looks easy to make, so I’m just going to clone it,'” Brier says. “There’s a lot more to this game than you think if you think you can do it like this.

“The good thing about Unpacking is that while it looks easy to replicate, it’s not because it pays so much attention to detail, and the narrative and everything is very carefully thought out. So you end up with that kind of hollow experience.”

The unboxing, however, is anything but hollow. It’s authentic and relatable, full of detailed craftsmanship. To have this recognized commercially, successfully and by BAFTA has been incredibly rewarding.

“It’s a weird game,” Brier says. “But at first when we started developing it, we thought it was really niche and it wouldn’t have a big appeal, but we liked it. And we were doing it for ourselves as a small project. parallel. And then it just sort of exploded, as we were working on it.

“It makes me feel like I have a place in this industry. Like there’s a place for people like me, in this industry.”

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