While mulling over my after-game options in God of War, I turned to the ol’ Game Pass to keep myself occupied. When I picked up The Pedestrian, I also downloaded a few other smaller games that I had wanted to play or heard were worth trying. Two of them rose to the forefront: Firewatch and Unpacking. What follows is my quick rundown of both.
Campo Santo’s Firewatch (2016) is a game I remember as one that added to the “walking simulator” debate of the early to mid-2010s. Such titles – The Stanley Parable, Gone Home, What Remains of Edith Finch, and so on – questioned and challenged the traditional notions of “video games.” They were games that put story far above action, to the delight of some and the dislike of others. Having played all those games I just mentioned, I will admit that some are better than others, and I don’t know that I liked Firewatch as much as any of them.
Firewatch presents to the world Henry, a guy who takes a temporary job as a fire lookout in Wyoming. Before choosing such an isolating position, he was married and lived a life (set by a few player choices) at the crux of which his wife, who developed dementia early in life. Once Henry starts his new job in an old fire lookout tower, his one and only source of communication is with another, more experienced lookout named Delilah. Throughout the game, Delilah essentially serves as the “quest giver.” Henry follows her orders to check out certain goings-on in the park, some fire-related some not, which prompts most of the game’s action. Henry’s exploration leads him into a mildly suspenseful mystery that unknowingly involves both himself and Delilah.
Going into Firewatch, I recalled that the game had been critically acclaimed, well reviewed, and was an award-winner. In retrospect, I wish I had known nothing, because it might have led to having lower expectations. But, while I was disappointed in the game’s overall story, I enjoyed most of the Henry’s journey. The quieter moments of conversation between Henry and Delilah about themselves and their lives were great, real, and grounded. Henry’s own flashes of discovery in the forest were great too, and I became invested in his emotional and physical wellbeing. The gameplay was smooth, the graphics were easy on the eyes, and I can at least say that the game didn’t overstay its welcome. If you keep your hopes tempered, Firewatch isn’t a bad way to spend a couple free hours.
Even though I’m not the best at social media, I couldn’t ignore a little game called Unpacking (2021) that seemed to infiltrate my feeds earlier this year. Described by its developers, Witch Beam, “Unpacking is a zen puzzle game about unpacking a life.” That’s pretty much how everyone described it, too. Well, after the likes of God of War, I figured a letting in a little zen would be a good thing, so unpack things I did.
Unpacking follows the story of a person of the players’ choosing who moves to different abodes between the years 1997-2018. Each move to a different room/dorm room/apartment/house represents another year in this person’s life, and with that comes the accrual of various possessions old and new. There’s no narrative, but the game provides text for each stage that briefly describes the protagonists’ stage in life. There’s also lovely and very chill soundtrack to keep one’s ears busy while figuring out how to best populate each new space with things and stuff. As the person progresses through life, their living spaces become larger with more rooms, and sometimes smaller with less space. Sometimes they live alone, and sometimes they are with someone. The challenge is to figure out how to incorporate everything from clothing and stuffed animals to dishes, shampoo, and game systems into whatever space(s) is available. Once you’ve put everything you think it should go, the game highlights stuff in the wrong spot, and you have to go back and refigure accordingly. Put everything away properly, and onto the next stage you go.
If I have but one gripe with Unpacking, it’s only thanks to my addled brain. As it went, the game was a little less zen-like than I had hoped, mainly because I didn’t recognize all the objects in play. The game is beautifully rendered in high-resolution pixel art, and you can zoom in and out of any given screen, but that never seemed to help me tell the different between a water bottle and a bottle of soy sauce. A few objects in the game remained totally unfamiliar no matter what I tried to make of them. If I made it through Unpacking all it’s because I at least remembered when those “weird” things (I swear to this day one of them looked like a box of french fries!) were supposed to go thanks to previous stages. Putting all that aside, Unpacking was a pleasant, touching, and surprisingly engaging game. It can be completed in just a couple hours, though it’s worth stretching its zen-ness into a couple sessions, especially when you can’t help but wonder why in the world someone would want to keep an old box of french fries.