In We Happy Few, It's a Scary World For Those Who Don't Conform

By Marc Caccamise,
On Tuesday, Compulsion Games’ We Happy Few will be releasing on the Xbox One through the Game Preview program. While it won't be a finalized project from the onset, players will still be entering what I would describe as one of the more unsettling environments that I've experienced in a game as of late. On top of the very prevalent social divide that separates the game's citizens, there are other factors in play that leave palpable feelings that things have gone very awry in this alternate universe. And based on my time with the demo at E3, it's clear that there's much more here than meets the eye.

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We Happy Few takes place in the fictional English city of Wellington Wells in 1964. In this dystopia, the town’s citizens are subjected to a mandatory drug known as Joy which suppresses unhappy memories and replaces them with a pleasant, imaginary perception of their surroundings. Those who refuse to take their dosage are referred to as Downers and are approached with extreme hostility from anyone who is on the pill.

My demo began with the segment shown at Microsoft’s E3 conference. Arthur Hastings, one of three protagonists in the game, is a redactor who removes unhappy stories from the newspapers. When his dosage of Joy runs out and he refuses to take another, reality begins to set in. Like the realization that his co-worker has been gone on “summer vacation” for quite a long time. And, of course, that the “pinata” that the staff are joyfully beating is actually a rat whose “candy” is now being ingested. When the others discover that Arthur is off his Joy, he is forced to flee underground where his goal of escaping the town begins.

After emerging from the underground hideout, it became clear that We Happy Few is really a tale of two cities and two livelihoods. The outskirts of the main hub of Wellington Wells is in complete ruin. In this alternate universe, the Germans successfully invaded and occupied England during World War II, leaving most of the country in rubble. Buildings are largely destroyed with looted interiors, the streets are disheveled, and the area is filled with other Downers who are now seeing the true reality of the world around them. It's fairly evident that this is to be perceived as the slums of the city and that Downers are on the lowest peg of this society's ladder. Their attitudes are miserable and hopeless, which matches what you would imagine to be the case of someone in such a scenario. In complete contrast, just across the river is a far more civilized portion of the city. Buildings are intact and full of bright, futuristic interiors, the streets are colorful and inviting, and there are altogether more joyful and upper class vibes. But, of course, things are far more sinister in this part of town, especially for a Downer.

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In order to actually reach the more pleasant parts of the city, you'll have to pass through security checkpoints that are meant to keep Downers out. This plays into a key concept of We Happy Few where the player is continually encouraged to blend in and hide in plain sight. Both the security, known as Bobbies, and other citizens who are on Joy, will pursue and attack you if it's discovered that you're off your Joy. Cameras and security sensors are also littered throughout the city, which adds an extra layer of surveillance to your movements. Fighting back is always a valid option if you're discovered, but the survival aspects that are in play, such as stamina, hunger, health, and thirst, may inspire the act of fleeing and hiding instead.

We Happy Few is best described as a narrative-driven roguelike survival game. Wellington Wells is procedurally generated, meaning each journey into the city will offer a different experience from the last. Each of the three protagonists also begin their stories in different situations and will interact with the world through varied means. Surviving the perils of the city will be made easier through scavenging for supplies and crafting helpful items after their blueprints become available. And you'll probably need many of these items, especially on the harder difficulty, where permadeath means losing everything and starting anew. For those who aren't looking for such a challenge, an easier difficulty results simply in respawning at a hideout.

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You wouldn’t be alone in finding comparisons between the vibes of We Happy Few and the BioShock series. It was one of the very first talking points that I brought up to Compulsion’s Founder Guillaume Provost on the show floor, and he openly discussed the team’s awareness of the existence of such a tie. But those similarities are simply coincidental he claimed, and instead referred to actual inspirations behind the game, such as the movies A Clockwork Orange, Brave New World, and Brazil.

Although the game will be releasing in a few days, its initial presence as a Game Preview release means that it will be a work in progress. While you will be able to play through and "beat" the game in a sense, if you're someone who values a game's narrative more than other aspects, you may want to hold off before jumping in. Compulsion's goal for Game Preview is to hammer out the finer aspects of the gameplay, based in part on the feedback that they receive from early adopters. The game's narrative and most of the cutscenes will take a backseat in these early stages and are not expected to be fully fleshed out until further down the road with the game's full and final release. For those who are eager to get aboard and watch the game grow, however, the cost of entry will be $29.99.
Marc Caccamise
Written by Marc Caccamise
Writer of news, features, and reviews for TrueAchievements since June 2013. Discovered the incredible world of video games at a young age with Desert Strike: Return to the Gulf, and haven't looked back since. Outside of gaming, I'm usually found reading up on various history topics or rooting for the lowly Buffalo Bills and Sabres.