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I'm happy Unpacking made me cry

Movies make me cry. TV shows make me cry. Books can make me cry, I absolutely blubbered during a book just last year. Those videos of teenagers asking their stepfathers to adopt them make me cry.

But videos game rarely make me cry.

Red Dead Redemption has the distinction of being the first game I remember sobbing to. I remember just sitting with the controller in my hand, the game waiting for me, and frozen in sadness.

But few games go there for me. You can probably determine a few reasons why. A lot of games focus on shooting or survival. Many focus a lot on gameplay design and loops long before a story is squeezed in between. Whatever the reason games just seem to avoid the tear-jerking zone for me.

Then I played through Unpacking.

Spoilers for Unpacking below, it's only a few hours to get through and I recommend it!

If you haven't played Unpacking, allow me to fill you in. You're in charge of opening and emptying the contents of several moving boxes. Piece by piece you place each object in its proper spot until finally moving on to the next level. Quickly you'll discover that the game is unraveling a narrative. Beginning in a young girl's room you're now moving into a college dorm, then into an apartment with a roommate, and then into a boyfriend's apartment. This is where you hit a wall.

He didn't have room for the good knife OR the rice cooker, what a bad boyfriend.
He didn't have room for the good knife OR the rice cooker, what a bad boyfriend.

Unlike the previous homes, there are few spots for your stuff. Games and books might be stacked or shoved wherever they fit. Kitchen gadgets that were just the pride and joy of your kitchen counter are now all awkwardly on the kitchen island. And your college degree can't be hung on any of the walls forcing your to stash it in the closet or under the bed. It feels alienating. Isolating. As the player you understand this relationship, despite all the promise of cohabitating, will not work out.

It's an emotional roadblock that gets bookended by the next level, moving back home. The full layout of the home can be seen but you're limited to a bedroom and shared bathroom. Your digital life is back to square one and it feels demoralizing.

You move out again into a sparse apartment. However, the following level just repeats and now all your carefully placed things are being joined by someone else's carefully placed stuff. And then there's the final level.

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The experiences in Unpacking are probably not universal, but the feelings are. Feelings we all can understand. When the character moves in with her boyfriend it strangely feels lonely and alienating when it should be a loving and accepting moment in her life. When she moves home you feel the bittersweet sense of defeat and relief woven together.

And the final level is a home. A full home, with an office, dining room, and nursery. Unpacking the baby's things and neatly preparing for all the love, joy, and happiness in the future for this burgeoning family makes me well up just thinking about it.

Not because it's sad, but because all the emotions and misfires the character suffers make that final move feel like a real home. Those things we keep around us that share our weird journey reflect where we've been and Unpacking tells us none of those feelings are unique to us. A weird sense of comfort that loneliness, futility, and unsureness are all shared.

I cried because sadness can feel isolating. I cried because Unpacking, to me, is about how sadness isn't the dead end it fools us into believing. We all share these basic common links and somehow that makes our journey a little bit less lonely.


MLB The Show is Second-Rate Baseball

MLB The Show has had a feature called ‘Moments’ in it for years now. The idea is to put you in the moments that make baseball exciting. That full count, two outs, bases loaded home run that every little leaguer dreams of.

There’s a laundry list of these moments in the latest entry and one, in particular, has Fernando Tatis Jr. (if you don’t know he’s an incredible talent playing with the San Diego Padres) hitting a grand slam. It was a controversial and memorable moment from last year and you get to recreate it. Except not really.

I played my at-bats, tried a good half dozen times, grounded out, struck out, and then finally lifted a long fly ball to left-center. The left fielder got under it but it wasn’t enough: home run. Then immediately into a post-game screen. Tatis’ digital counterpart just made it past second base, the announcer had just called it a home run, but I didn’t get any moment to celebrate. The game was showing me a full post-game screen for a single at-bat and was already guiding me back into menus.

The Show didn’t let me enjoy the Moment. It was already leading me along to the next one. Earn more fake credits, open more packs, just keep moving.

I moved on to create my Diamond Dynasty team. A version of the alternative fantasy draft every sports game seems to have now. Create a dream team by opening packs of random players and use that team to grind out more packs, credits, or whatever else to slowly put together your perfect team. The Diamond Dynasty mode has several ways to use your team or other smaller fantasy teams you put together but don’t keep, to keep grinding away moments, games, and credits. It’s a slog but if you’re dedicated you can spend hours putting together a great team.

The problem is everything is a grind. Road to the Show is a create a player mode where you start on draft day and work your way up to the big leagues and hopefully the World Series. Unlike Diamond Dynasty there are no credits or boosts. You just play over and over again, slowly increasing dozens of attributes like hitting for contact against right-handed pitchers, or plate discipline, or arm accuracy until the game decides you’ve played enough and are promoted. It’s a slog but if you’re dedicated enough you can finally make it and play alongside your favorite players.

The problem is it’s just another long grind. Everything in this game is a series of bars or tasks, slowly ticking upward. You aren’t playing baseball for fun or experiencing the moments that make the game a “you had to be there!” kind of experience. It’s all toil and labor. I threw a perfect game in AAA with my player, a game later they mention it once and I'm back to the grind with little fanfare or care.

Baseball often sucks to watch. It’s three or more hours long. It has long stretches without any hits. And the current baseball product has more strikeouts, more breaks, and more nothing than ever before. It can still be fun though.

It’s those moments you remember with friends over and over again. Gibson’s 1988 home run with two bad legs. The Rays Game 162 comeback against the Yankees to make the wildcard. They are moments that make you feel a part of something. MLB The Show recognizes that and fails to spotlight it.

Maybe it’s fantasy sports and how some fans care less about home teams and more about an assortment of stats from around the league. Maybe The Show has pushed too far into loot boxes and left baseball behind.

Maybe I’m an old man yelling at clouds. Regardless I feel a deep disconnect from MLB The Show. What was once a celebrated franchise has followed the well-worn path that NBA 2K, FIFA, and Madden all have traveled. The enjoyment and passion for the sport have been overwhelmed by mechanics and menus.

MLB The Show doesn’t feel soulless, it feels like the soul is being drained from it. I hope this is a sign of transition as we move into new hardware and not of a general decline. Because what’s left here isn’t what baseball is about.