Secret Shelf: Paper Trail is the perspective puzzler folding back to brilliant basics

Secret Shelf: Paper Trail is the perspective puzzler folding back to brilliant basics
Images via Newfangled Games

Written by 

Joseph Kime


28th May 2024 09:26

Sometimes in the gaming industry, it’s easy to feel that it’s kill or be killed, especially as many small creators don’t have many options in terms of platforms.

We’ve seen it frequently before - indie games can finally get their time in the spotlight as increased attention can take them pebble-steps towards appearing on Steam’s front page, until an industry giant stomps into the room and blasts them back into the shadows. Not all games are created equal, after all, no matter how unfair that can feel.

There are workarounds, though, like taking to TikTok to promote it or fighting desperately for attention for the project on whatever it is that Twitter has become this week - but if they’re lucky, a small team can find a solution. They can be unavoidable, and impossible to refuse.

This is the approach that Paper Trail seems to have taken, perhaps by accident, and in developing a puzzle game with sincere charm and packed with so much love, the team at Newfangled Games has created something almost impossibly infectious.

Paper Trail is taking the perspective puzzler back to basics

A laser fires in a rectangle in Paper Trail.
Click to enlarge

Perspectives in puzzle games in recent years have come under the lens after the success of Superliminal, and now as devs follow suit in the point-of-view genre with Viewfinder and Screenbound, it’s practically established as an all-new subgenre - but Paper Trail is doing things differently. It’s taking its gorgeous, tactile puzzle-solving antics to practically every platform you can imagine.

Paper Trail is simple from the outside - you are on one screen, and you need to get to the other by folding a paper world, streaked and splattered with watercolours, into a traversable avenue. There’s a lot more that hides under the skin of Paper Trail to make it work, though, and it’s taken a lot of minds to make that happen.

It’s the first time for me, in my 15 years of making games, [to have] ever self-published a game, so it’s been a crazy learning curve,” Henry Hoffman, CEO of Newfangled Games tells GGRecon. “We’re doing it on PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X, Switch and then iOS and Android with Netflix, and then PC and Mac on Steam. So it’s a s**t-ton of work and it’s uh… it’s been a lot of plate spinning.

We’ll forgive the team for the exhaustion of developing for so many platforms because Paper Trail is very much a labour of love. Combining the efforts of Hue developer Henry as a first-time CEO, his artist brother Frederick and a full team underneath, Newfangled Games has managed to put its heads together in just the right way to make a game that works for every platform, even if the game itself had every right not to.

The concept of folding paper sets to create new walkways and solve puzzles seems like an idea that works for some, and not for others, with the click-and-drag opportunities on PC and simple tap controls on mobile seeming to be the smartest approach. It hasn’t stopped the team from working tirelessly to make it all work, though, as Hoffman reveals that every platform has its advantages that feed into Paper Trail.

We started dev on a keyboard and mouse, so that’s kind of ingrained into the DNA of the game, but it was about a year into the project where we were like ‘oh, we’ve kind of stumbled across something special,’” he says.

We didn’t want to lean too heavy on a virtual cursor - we use the analog stick in order to grab and fold the paper. We did a few things that made it feel more native and less like a cheap, or a PC-into-gamepad input. We’ve got this big, wobbly cursor that responds to the physics of moving it around, so it feels very tactile.

Paper Trail's development was better together

An effigy of a bird roars ablaze in Paper Trail.
Click to enlarge

Game development takes a while at the best of times, especially with a small team like Newfangled’s - but the game is launching on practically every platform supported at this moment, is coming with thirteen languages supported at launch, and they’ve done so with such quality that they’re getting rave reviews out of the gate. And it still took the team only four years.

It seems like a short amount of time when considering the rest of the industry, but in real terms, that’s longer than many will spend on any given project.

It definitely feels like a big deal just because it’s been our life for four years,” Henry says. “It’s funny, I made a game before this called Hue, and I think that only took me about three years at the time. It felt like I’d attached my entire identity to that game, and when it shipped I was like ‘what do I do now? It’s out in the open. It’s done. I didn’t know what to do with my hands, basically.

There’s a benefit to holding a game close to your chest before its launch to ensure it matches your own personal vision for it - but for the first time, Henry wasn’t doing it alone. It simply wasn’t an option to keep it for himself until the time felt right anymore.

It feels like there’s much more of a sense of community, and it feels like if one person is burning out, someone else can step in and it feels like we’ve all got each other’s backs. I was working 18 hours a day [on Hue], locked in my basement, whereas now we’re coming to work and all hanging out.

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It’s good news that Henry has had some support, because though the surface-level simplicity of Paper Trail makes it perhaps one of the most accessible games on the market right now, actual development proved the complete opposite of the game’s concept.

It was an absolute nightmare,” Henry laughs, recalling the creation of the system that allowed for the paper-folding gameplay. “When I first started, I was doing all of the coding myself, and I’m like, a bad programmer essentially. I’ve tried to build the folding, and I rebuilt it four times at the beginning of the project, coding it from scratch every time.

Since Gonzalo Ceciliano de la Peña joined the team as a programmer, though, the 3D mesh building has thankfully entered the hands of someone who doesn’t have to manage an entire team as well as guide the ethos of Paper Trail, and it has reached the satisfying, haptic conclusion of the gameplay model found in the game today.

It’s telling of just how dedicated Henry is to the project that he was willing to keep this up and send fold builds to the recycle bin so many times, just as much as it is of the incredible grind it’s taken the whole team to take Paper Trail from concept to conclusion - and it seems to be paying off nicely.

Out of Newfangled Games' hands - and into ours

A boy folded from his living room to sparkling space in Paper Trail.
Click to enlarge

Paper Trail is a charming project in and of itself, but it’s telling of something much larger. As a self-contained game, it’s a remarkably slick and polished accomplishment that offers intrigue that doesn’t wear its concept down until after the credits have rolled, and one that can be enjoyed by anyone, and from anywhere.

Equally, it reminds us that studios, even with fewer resources than the AAA giants, can make anything happen with enough work.

Take for example Here Comes Niko, the charming cosy platformer by solo developer Stijn Van Wakeren, and the first subject of the Secret Shelf series - its aesthetics and attitude made it a perfect choice for the Nintendo Switch library, but though it was only a month’s difference, its Nintendo debut trailed behind its Steam release to make it feel as though it had its roots on PC until Super Rare Games offered it the deluxe treatment later on.

Paper Trail, through the help of its small team and sheer belief that the game’s structure can work anywhere, has made it just as far, coming to, without hyperbole, whatever platform it is that you play games on. And boy, does it deserve to be there.

Newfangled Games has a structure in place to ensure that it can keep making games even if Paper Trail is a financial flop, which is fantastic news, but if there’s any justice, it won’t be.

It has already more than proven to be a game with enough ingenuity to take a simple concept and transform it into something far better, and it has proven the value of Newfangled Games enough to mean that even if their next five games are absolute stinkers (we can all but assure you that they won’t be), they’re still going to deserve to be a team worth keeping an eye on.

We’re glad that the Newfangled team was there because something tells us that CEO Henry would have found a way to make the game even without their support, perhaps to his own detriment. And after all, though Paper Trail might bear chunks of his identity like Hue once did, but from what we can discern, it belongs as much to us as it does to Newfangled Games.

Like Hue, it’s out of his hands once again - and we couldn’t be happier that Paper Trail has found its way to ours.

Joseph Kime
About the author
Joseph Kime
Joseph Kime is the Senior Trending News Journalist for GGRecon from Devon, UK. Before graduating from MarJon University with a degree in Journalism, he started writing music reviews for his own website before writing for the likes of FANDOM, Zavvi and The Digital Fix. He is host of the Big Screen Book Club podcast, and author of Building A Universe, a book that chronicles the history of superhero movies. His favourite games include DOOM (2016), Celeste and Pokemon Emerald.
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