Many ideas start on paper, few go on to be made of it. Yet, when brothers Henry and Fred Hoffman, the duo behind Norwich-based Newfangled Games, sketched their level ideas for a new platformer and then began manipulating the A4 sheet in their hands, Paper Trail was born.
The top-down puzzle adventure employs a spatial manipulation mechanic, allowing you to fold its planes and merge its sides to solve puzzles. You play as Paige (get it?), a budding academic leaving home for the first time to pursue her studies, spurred on by this unique ability.
“We were thinking of ways we could manipulate the world, and randomly, we tried folding the paper,” says Henry Hoffman, CEO and designer. “This immediately caught our attention as the front and back worlds would merge neatly along the edge of the paper.”
From there, the brothers paired the mechanic with a concept for a puzzle game they describe as “mechanic-driven design,” citing formative inspiration in the likes of 2008’s Braid . The team has spent most of the past three years perfecting the game in development.
The world is set on pieces of paper, with levels on the fronts and backs of the sheets: folding merges the two levels. “You can then seamlessly pass through the rift where you’ve folded paper, as if you’ve also folded space and time itself,” explains Henry. “It’s like the classic scene in [the movie] Event Horizon, where Sam Neill stabs a pencil through a folded piece of paper to explain how wormholes work – only as a game mechanic.”
What results is a Monument Valley-style design, with a similar panel puzzle-solving to 2017’s award-winning Gorogoa. Within this paper world unfolds a story of growing up in a small town and leaving to follow big dreams. “It’s only through Paige exploring her strange ability to fold the world that she develops the courage to run away from home, to leave her life behind, and ultimately, for her parents to come to terms with the new reality,” says Henry.
It’s not far from the setting up of the studio itself – originally started in a Brixton basement flat (“unfit for human habitation,” says Henry), and now in the team’s growing indie studio in Norwich. “My brother and I both relate to the themes around growing up in a rural town and needing to leave people behind to try to follow our dreams,” says Henry. “I just don’t think we’d ever have expected to be doing it together.”
The visually distinct art style, meanwhile, is about more than looking pretty. “It’s intrinsic to how the entire game functions,” says art director Fred Hoffman, who faced similar design challenges in his work on the highly rated 2016 puzzle game Hue. “The perspective was one of the first things we had to work out. Early on, we had the game function more like a side-on platformer, but we moved to a compromise between side-on and top-down, which allowed us to design intricate puzzles, but also tell a visual story.”
There’s a playable demo available now, but there is still much to reveal. “In the full game, we have fully voiced foldable cutscenes, and the characters have more narrative weight,” says Henry. “We’re excited for players to realise the game isn’t just puzzle after puzzle, and that there are characters with interconnected relationships and very story-driven cutscenes between the environments”. A collectible system, which involves finding origami animals to unlock achievements, has also yet to be shown, but is designed to cater to fans looking for extra replayability and challenges.
The game, out next year, has picked up awards at the Taipei Game Show and Reboot Develop, leading to partnerships with Netflix to bring the game to iOS and Android. Plus, perhaps the most discerning critics of all have been coloured impressed. “We were very surprised to have an editor from the British Origami Society magazine come and play the game,” says Henry. “They were very complimentary, even though I’m sure we had committed some origami faux pas in the game.”
• Paper Trail launches on Steam, Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4/5, and Xbox Series X/S in early 2024.