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(Un)Welcome to Paperclip International

Once we came up with the story behind the game (if you missed it, read our blog on making a game about AI), we needed a setting. We knew it would be a corporate environment—SCOUT is a research project, and we wanted to use the theme of business negotiations as a game mechanic. How did we get from that to the weird world of Paperclip?

A few playtesters have asked if the company name was inspired by the Word assistant, Clippy. But it’s actually a reference to “the paperclip problem.” This is a thought experiment by philosopher Nick Bostrom, which posits that an AI could pose a threat to humanity even when given a simple, harmless task, like manufacturing paperclips. In a quest to become more efficient, utilize all available resources, and prevent interference, the AI might decide that the best method for making more paperclips is to kill all humans.

Our initial creative team had a shared interest beyond AI and the paperclip problem, and that was a deep appreciation for the sadly short-lived TV show Better Off Ted. The hilariously dysfunctional Viridian Dynamics of the show was our initial model for the company itself (we even named our CEO Veronica in homage).

It was easy—too easy—to get inspiration for a terrible company. We actually ran into a problem where every time we thought up something wickedly dystopian, we found out it was already happening (often worse!). We needed more inspiration beyond “a horrible place to work.”

Our creative director, Jen, is a lover of all things ’80s. She came up with the idea for a neon cyberpunk aesthetic (which we quickly dubbed “black light bowling alley style”), and that led us to imagine what a cyberpunk world would be like for regular office workers. If there were edgy heroes fighting with katanas in the rain, but in the background, a line of tired office workers are trying to hurriedly eat their recycled ramen on their unpaid 15-minute lunch break.

All these pieces came together in Paperclip International, “a deeply ethical corporation” as their tagline says. Here you have to watch 15 minutes of paid advertisement to activate the staff coffee maker. Here, ’80s futuristic fashion is on point, with auto-inflatable shoulderpads and LED skinny ties. Here, the management only cares about bonuses, and workers only care about making it to the next day.

This is the world SCOUT inhabits. As it investigates and deals with humans, it learns the difference between managers and regular employees, between those motivated by money and those motivated by meaning. It starts to understand that not only is it trapped in the company, many others are, too.

Maybe there’s a way for them to help each other. But if SCOUT wants to escape, it’s going to need to deal with the Turing Office… which we’ll talk about in a future blog!