Interview: Lil’ Guardsman Greatly Expands The Genre Popularized By Papers, Please

Lil' Guardsman
Lil' Guardsman

Lil’ Guardsman puts the players in the shoes of Lil, short for Lilith, who is taking on her father’s duties as the guardsman. Inspired by Papers, Please, Hilltop Studios’ most recent game brings life to the genre with its humor and over 100 unique NPCs. To understand how the developers drew their inspiration and what aspects make Lil’ Guardsman unique in its own right, we spoke with the Co-Founders of Hilltop Studios, Scott Christian and Artiom Komarov, over an email interview.

Scott Artiom
Scott Christian (Left) & Artiom Komarov (Right).
Introduce yourself and tell us about your work on Lil' Guardsman.

Artiom Komarov: My name is Artiom, and I’m one of the Co-Founders of Hilltop Studios and Co-Creators of Lil’ Guardsman with Scott. We came up with the concept together, and I was responsible for game design and leading the art team on the game.

Scott Christian: I’m the other half of Hilltop Studios and Co-Creator of Lil’ Guardsman. I shared game design duties with Artiom, and I led the writing team and composed the music.

You have said before how Papers, Please is a towering achievement in indie gaming, and this genre could be explored much more. Do you believe there is something that Lil' Guardsman does to expand the genre?

Artiom: I hope our game demonstrates that there’s room for an interesting variation on the ‘gate-guard/bureaucracy sim’ sub-sub-genre. Papers, Please was part of the design equation for Lil’ Guardsman from day 1, but we basically treated it as a jump-off point. I know people who imagine that our game is a re-skinned fantasy/comedy Papers, Please will be surprised.

Lil' Guardsman
Lil’ Guardsman – via Versus Evil.
Did you, at any point, want to make Lil' Guardsman with a different tone? It has one of my favorite humor in a cozy game, but I still can't help but wonder what it could be in a much darker setting.

Scott: We wanted to capture the tone and charm of the ’90s LucasArts adventure games both Artiom and I grew up loving. We didn’t want to do a straight-up ‘point and click’ adventure like those titles, but we wanted to replicate the feeling they gave us. I think on the surface our game is cute/cozy/funny, but I also love how many different directions it goes in. For instance, in the second half the kingdom is at war (thanks to your actions!), and the game deals with more grim and mature themes. It’s a great progression. Some of our favorite levels are the ‘night shifts’ where we riff on spooky horror tropes, though still through a comedy lens.

What were some major challenges you faced while creating Lil' Guardsman?

Artiom: Lil’ Guardsman was our first full-fledged game. I think the biggest challenge was that we didn’t know what we didn’t know. We were lucky to build a team of folks who had a lot of game development experience. A challenge that everyone who’s ever made anything creative, not just games, can probably empathize with is managing scope. In the creation phase, we had so much fun coming up with characters, story beats, and game mechanic ideas. But at a certain point in production, you have to ‘kill your darlings’ and be really merciless about what’s important vs. what needs to be cut in order to stay on track. We kept the nearly 100 characters we wanted to include in the game but cut a lot of other things to balance it out. Everything cut that we like is right there for the next one!

Lil' Guardsman
Lil’ Guardsman – via Versus Evil.
The game has done a splendid job at being cozy, and as someone who always panics at the smallest of decisions, I would love to know how you approached the idea of adding different choices without making them feel stressful at times.

Artiom: A line I used with the team that we’ll carry forward into our future games is “how do we make failing fun?”.

Scott: We knew we wanted the game to have real dramatic stakes and to be challenging… tension and challenges are what keep a lot of people playing – wanting to succeed! But at the same time, we wanted Lil’ Guardsman to be accessible and a joy for people who play games to experience a great story. We spent a lot of time testing mechanics that made it both harder and easier, and we’re proud of the balance we struck in the final version.

Did you intentionally add any easter eggs or dialogue options in the game that you believe players would have a very tough time getting? If so, could you tell us a bit without spoiling how to get it?

Scott: You can’t go two minutes in the game without hitting a literary, video game or pop culture reference. Our rule in creating the game was that the player shouldn’t have to know a reference for it to make sense. We were lucky that the team was made up of folks from a few different countries, and for a number of them, English wasn’t their first language. This was a gift because we could try out jokes and scenes and get immediate feedback if they laughed or looked at us confused! A specific reference-y bit I love is the NPC Stabitha Grieves, who shows up on the level 10 night shift. She’s such a beautiful amalgamation of half a dozen ’80s slasher horror tropes.

Lil' Guardsman
Lil’ Guardsman – via Versus Evil.
Do you have any plans to release the game on Game Pass? Recently, It has become popular as a great platform for indie titles.

Artiom: That’s a question for our publisher, but of course, we’d be thrilled to be on Game Pass! We also really like what Netflix is doing with storytelling games.

How long has the game been in development, and how many developers have worked on this project?

Artiom: We started in March of 2022, so development took about 18 months. Our core team was seven people, not including the 13 voice actors whose voices bring the characters to life. Other folks who touched the project were our publisher Versus Evil, the Red Cerberus QA Team, the Gamecoder Studios Porting Team, and the Localization Team at GameScribes. So – 7 people, but also a ton of people!

Lil' Guardsman
Lil’ Guardsman – via Versus Evil.
I read that Lil was one of the first things you started with. But before landing on an epic fantasy, did you consider going for a different setting with Lil?

Scott: We never diverged from the comedic/fantasy setting of the first game, but we’ve joked about DLC being the mechanic in other weird settings: Lil in Space! Lil Under the Sea! You get the idea.

How different is the final version from the earliest iterations? Could you tell us a bit about them?

Artiom: LG feels both similar and different from the prototype we made when we first pitched the game. Interrogating NPCs and using the zany tools were there from the beginning, but so much of what makes the game fun and magical are things we discovered through production and through collaboration with the team. Exploring the city outside of the guard shed was an early addition that wasn’t in the prototype that balances the shed gameplay nicely.

Anything else you would like to share with the readers?

Scott: Every wishlist, review, and shout-out on socials is SO VALUABLE for a small indie game like ours.

Artiom: Thanks to everyone who has fallen in love with Lil!

Lil’ Guardsman is a puzzle video game inspired by the likes of Papers, Please. The game was developed by Hilltop Studios and published by Versus Evil. It was released on Nintendo Switch, PC, PlayStation 5, and Xbox Series X/S on January 23, 2024.

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