It was a pair of nail clippers that got me. In a game of seeing a person’s life through unwrapped objects, there are so many things that can strike you. These clippers came out of a box in the bathroom, and I threw them in a trash drawer along with some perfume, a razor, and a few hairbrushes.
What surprised me was how clear the clippers were – how clear everything was. It is essential for the game that this packet of pixels is recognizable at a glance as nail clippers. The way pixel art stays out of the world the story builds and manages to watch wonderfuk makes unboxing such a hit.
So how did this blend of aesthetics and realism come about? I had the chance to talk to Angus Doolan, Unpacking’s lead pixel artist. He lives in Brisbane, Australia. And he tells me it all started with a cup.
Initially, creative director Wren Brier created a simple mug. The whole scale of the game is based on how big of a cup she could make. It is played on a grid after all – an object can only go on one square.
“The art style is designed so you can represent a cup, so what if I have to draw something that’s smaller than a cup handle?”
For Doolan, that meant things like nail clippers had to be designed in an abstract way.
“If you really look at nail clippers, they’re absolutely giant and very short. Not the same dimensions as real nail clippers,” he tells me. There was a double challenge in Unpacking – the team had to make the objects look like real recognizable objects while still being functional as a block in this grid structure.
“The first thing is to decide representatively, what is a cup?” Doolan says. “What did people recognize as a mug – basically a cylinder with a hole in the middle and the handle. Having a mug without a handle may require you to put into context for people. The less it looks like the thing that ‘they have to recognize as more you have to infer what it is by other methods.
“If you take out a cup with a handle, you will easily recognize it as a cup,” he continues. “Then you pull out another cup that doesn’t have a handle, you’re going to realize that’s a cup too. So the process is just thinking about the thing, this object that people recognize, and then trying to draw that. Because with pixel art, you have limits as to what aspects you can really portray.”
The different states of each element were also a significant challenge for Doolan and the art team, given the isometric nature of your perspective as a player. With his background as a pixel artist working mostly on platformers, having to adapt to that perspective was actually the most satisfying challenge for Doolan, because you can’t just change the angle of a drawing and expect it to look as good as the original. .
“Isometric isn’t intuitive for me. Things had to be right, because the player can just click to spin an object, kind of like they could play an animation of the spinning object. So if things were inaccurate, it would immediately become apparent that the item was fake.”
It took a lot of technical knowledge on Doolan’s part to spin the designs convincingly with the perspective of the game, which is more important than you might think when trying to visualize a toaster in the apartment of your boyfriend.
It’s done brilliantly. You can read more on Doolan’s site where he created a Tutorial on measurement isometric in pixel art. The amount of effort is staggering, considering how natural everything feels in the game.
Unboxing looks so simple, with its cute little pixelated versions of basic household objects. But it’s much more than that, and the challenges overcome by Doolan and the entire art team are an unsung element of Unpacking’s runaway success.