Start with a pile of cardboard boxes, sitting on the floor of a bare apartment.
Or, start with an Atlas Roustabout Tug spaceship, hovering silently in the center of a galactic salvage yard.
And then get to work: cracking open the shell, going from order to chaos and back to order again.
In one sense Unpacking and Hardspace: Shipbreaker — both available for free with an Xbox for PC's GamePass subscription — are different games. In Unpacking you're a girl at different stages of her life, opening up her moving boxes and trying to get organized in each new home. In Shipbreaker you're a blue-collar spaceman, working off your debt to the Lynx Corporation by chopping apart old spaceships. One's a 3D first-person floater, the other is a 2D click-and-drag pixel-art indie game.
And yet, they scratch the same sort of itch.
The tasks aren't particularly difficult. Sure, there are the irritations. An ill-considered laser slice goes awry, explosively decompresses an airlock, and kicks you spinning out into space. Or you move in with your boyfriend, and he is more of the gamer/Dungeons and Dragons type of boyfriend, not the tidy iron-pressed-shirts type of boyfriend, so there is not a lot of room for your stuff amid the clutter.
But the satisfaction from these games don't come from overcoming challenges.
It comes from the ritual.
Everything has a place. You can be methodical. Ball the underwear up and put it in the top drawer. Fling the nanocarbon sheets and thruster caps into the processor bay. The toothbrush goes in the cup on the bathroom sink. Tether the aluminum skeleton of the ship to be pulled toward the furnace and melted down into slag. Collect all your stuffed animals and arrange them just so on your bed, as befits your backstory. Grab the computer terminals, depressured airlocks and — careful now — the currently melting-down reactor core and fling them into the stasis field of the salvage barge.
There's a moment when you've finally sliced away all the bolts and girders holding a panel into place and an entire metal bulkhead simply releases, gliding slowly, silently, weightlessly in space.
There's a moment when you set down a T-shirt and it automatically folds a neat square with a fwooomp, or you drop a video game cartridge on a stack in your living room with an almost tactile click.
There's the sense of discovery in popping open a new cardboard box or bobbing through the first airlock of a brand new research vessel to see what treasures await. At first, you make things worse — littering your living room floor with shampoo bottles, towels and tchotchkes. Or the zero-gravity salvage yard becomes something like a man-made asteroid field of half-disassembled engine rooms and cargo holds. But slowly you whittle your tasks down, room after room, compartment after compartment. Until the last spatula is in the drawer and the last titanium keel is discarded.
Initially I outright laughed when Gamepass added another game called Lawn Mower Simulator to their service. But on second thought, it makes total sense. Because mowing your lawn in real life is satisfying for some of the same reasons as Unpacking and Shipbreaker. You take hold of the jungle and you tame it.
Sometimes it's worth opening Pandora's box just for the joy of organizing the chaos it unleashes. ♦