Unpacking is more than meets the ears. The chillwave puzzle game, developed by Brisbane-based Witch Beam and out this week for Switch, PC, and Xbox (via Game Pass), apparently features a whopping 14,000 individual Foley sound effects. No, that’s not a typo.
Foley sound effects, for those who don’t know, generally exist in the background, meant to replicate the everyday sounds of real-life objects and actions. They’re most often used in layered audio tracks for film and television, to give a lifelike aural texture to soundscapes. Foley artists, for instance, often get creative when trying to recreate such mundane sounds as fabric rustling when a character shifts in a chair. When they’re done well, you don’t even notice their implementation.
They’re a common device in video games, too. If you’re ever heard the crunch of footsteps trudging through snow in a winter level, that’s the result of well-integrated Foley sound effects. (One common technique: Putting cornstarch in a leather pouch.) If you’ve heard the crackle of fire in a fantasy game, that is, too (sometimes achieved with cellophane). And Unpacking—I cannot emphasize this point enough—features thousands of them.
Following Unpacking’s release, fans quickly took note of the depth in the game’s audio track. One tweet, by Francesco Del Pia, a senior sound designer at The Chinese Room (Dear Esther, Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture), summed up the reaction quite well:
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The 49-second clip shows the player picking up a can of not-Febreze and placing it on various surfaces: a desk, a table, a mattress, the carpet, the lid of a toilet tank, the tiled bathroom floor, the cushion of an armless dining room chair. What’s more, the sound noticeably changes with every placement, the same way placing a can of real-world Febreze on a real-world table twice in a row won’t make two identical sound effects. Listen to the clip on repeat, and there’s an almost ASMR-like quality to the audio loop.
That’s the result, as Witch Beam’s Sanatana Mishra clarified on Twitter, of Unpacking including more than 14,000 .wav files (a common format for audio files). Mishra told Kotaku via DM that much of the credit belongs to Witch Beam’s Jeff van Dyck, but he by no means worked alone.
“It actually became so overwhelming that we hired Jeff’s wife, Angela van Dyck, who also has expertise in this area, to work on the sounds for months,” Mishra said. “The workload was simply too immense without additional help.” (Jeff told Kotaku in an email that Angela did “the majority” of the work.)
The workload behind Foley effects is often enormous, and the process can take many forms. Sometimes audio designers will approximate a specific sound effect via creative methods, as mentioned. But other times, they’ll use the object itself, record how it really sounds, and edit the audio file to discreet perfection. Mishra, who didn’t get too deep into specifics, indicated that Unpacking features a ton of the latter.
“Everything really does start with physical objects if you want that satisfying, correct, and playful sound,” Mishra said.
In any case, it’s the result of cumulative months of technical work—recording, editing, layering, and keeping track of multiple spreadsheets—spread out over three years, by van Dyck’s count. Everything was recorded in a soundproof room, allowing the audio team to easily add reverb to replicate the echo you find in rooms like kitchens and bathrooms.
“The fine tuning process was tedious as you can imagine—literally placing each item on each surface and deciding if it needed tweaking,” van Dyck.
Unpacking’s Foleys are particularly well-done, and their spot-on implementation is no doubt a major reason as to why this little puzzle game with a big heart has already resonated with so many players as a startlingly real-feeling, if pixelated, nostalgia trip. (Guilty as charged.) At the game’s launch party on November 3, Jeff and Angela gifted two items used for the Foley effects—a Rubiks cube and a mannequin—to Unpacking creative director Wren Brier.
“It was a heartwarming moment,” Mishra said. “And a great reminder of just how much goes into every small part of creating a game like this.”
Update, 5: 35 p.m. ET: Changed text to reflect comment from van Dyck.