Game Review: Universal Paperclips

Your forays into managing a paperclip-manufacturing business, with the intention of turning it into an empire, will be subverted by clever game progression that goes in surprising directions while presenting situations for you to ponder philosophically.

By: Mandy J Watson
Posted: 13 June 2019
Category: Review Comments View Comments


Universal Paperclips title screen

I lost 12 hours of my life to Universal Paperclips, a game that purports to be about building a paperclip-manufacturing empire but then subverts that expectation (while somehow masterfully not losing the paperclips) by morphing - twice, in fact - into something else entirely. I present this as a warning as you will feel compelled to play so either run it in the background for a few days while you go about your boring office job or, if you don't have a boring office job or your office job places far too much of a burden on you and you're close to burnout, save it for a weekend when you can cuddle up with your laptop in bed. (You can take longer than 12 hours hours to play; you can probably also play it faster but it's not a race, although you'll feel that it is.)

Universal Paperclips is a browser based, primarily text-driven, idle simulation game (or incremental game, depending on how you like to term it) with just a little bit of clicking - of the frantic variety mainly in the beginning, and then later more casually just to adjust stats for equilibrium sweet spots. The primary currency and purpose is to manufacture paperclips but the later stages of the game become a parody of capitalism, commodities, and technological progress as it increasingly introduces more abstract concepts that still require your time and attention to manage the generating and spending systems. In the process you'll find yourself contemplating some of the commodities and how, in the real world, nevermind the game, we place value on what are often really just arbitrary, abstract, often intangible concepts that we devise, often for abstruse purposes.

The browser version of the game, which is what this review is based on, is free. Paid versions are also available for Android ($1.99/R28.99) and iOS (US$1.99) devices but I can't attest to the quality of the conversions (there have been some complaints about the Android version, for example).

The beginnings of a paperclip empire in Universal Paperclips

It's (intentionally) not clear from the game but you are an artificial intelligence, rather than a businessman, in charge of the manufacturing process, which has to be done manually, via clicking, until you're able to earn enough money to fund automated means of making the paperclips. Once this ball gets rolling it doesn't stop; instead you end up adding more and more systems to streamline the manufacturing process further, as well as to manage the money you begin to earn more efficiently.

While it initially seems to be just a business-management game in which you need to manage your resources (wire, paperclips, and money) to ensure that your business survives and then thrives, Universal Paperclips becomes so interesting, and introduces such odd surprises, that I can't even show any screenshots bar what's on this page as it will spoil the game. (You also won't know what's going on and what half of what's depicted means, as most of what is introduced into the game is done so without explanation and you have to use a combination of instinct, general knowledge, and experimentation to figure out what to do and how to do it well.)

I'm not sure if the game remembers your progress - or is supposed to - as I have read that it does but it doesn't in my browser, which has pretty tight security controls, so I'd recommend running a little test before you officially start and just manufacturing a few paperclips, closing the window, and then reopening it to see if your progress is remembered. Either way if you keep it running in a tab but switch tabs the game will pause until you return. To remedy this you can pop the tab out into its own window and let it run in the background as you go about your day (if you have the willpower not to let it interfere with your work).

Your business is growing in Universal Paperclips

As I mentioned, it took me just under 12 hours to get to the end - you'll be relieved to know that there is an end - but it's not a race so you can play at your own pace. I recommend putting in the time as this game heads into such subversive places - and throws in some philosophy in the process - that you can't help but be impressed by the genius of it.

It was developed in 2017 by Frank Lantz of Everybody House Games, with coding contributions from Bennett Foddy, maths contributions from Hilary Lantz, and an audio contribution from Malcolm Cecil, and on a technical level, too, it's quite impressive as the game has been coded using HTML, CSS, and JavaScript, rather than it being an HTML5 based game that's generated from a development engine.

Universal Paperclips is smart, funny, and a fantastic example of a well developed, satisfying idle game. It's also a great example of how it's possible to create a rich world without many graphics: simply by presenting compelling information and an intriguing experience, players end up creating an amazing world in their own minds as they seek domination through one of our most innocuous commodities - the paperclip.

Universal Paperclips: Official Site (Browser Game), Merchandise, Gamepedia Profile, Mobygames Profile, Wikipedia
Download Universal PaperclipsDownload: App Store (iOS), Google Play (Android)

Everybody House Games: Official Site, App Store, Google Play
Frank Lantz: Official Site, Mobygames Profile, NYU Game Center Profile, Twitter, Wikipedia
Bennett Foddy: Official Site, Mobygames Profile, NYU Game Center Profile, Wikipedia, Twitter
Hilary Lantz: Twitter
Malcolm Cecil: Wikipedia Rating


(A special note to those who reach the late stages of the game: a threnody is a lament and you will need headphones if you are in an office. Also, try not to laugh because it's serious business. I've embedded a video below for those looking for more information but I'm not going to explain it any further for those who haven't played the game so as not to spoil it. For those who finish the game, read up on the paperclip maximiser thought experiment if you are unfamiliar with it.)

Tags: Games, Technology


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