What to Expect From We Happy Few
Jack Matthams looks at what to expect from We Happy Few and the controversy surrounding the game.
Back in 2016, Compulsion Games released an early access version of quite possibly one of the most depressing and uneasy games of the last decade. Since then, We Happy Few has progressed down a path of funded development, drawing both excitement and controversy on its way to a mid-2018 release date. As this draws near, it’s worth having a look at the central themes it possesses, and how Compulsion Games manages to blend the unique aspect of the dystopian genre with the mechanics of the video games industry. Spoiler: it’s an uncomfortable ride.
We Happy Few establishes an alternate timeline in history, one where Nazi-German occupation of Great Britain took hold following a victorious World War II effort. The fictional town of Wellington Wells became central to some kind of scientific apocalyptic event, which drove the citizens into a downward spiral of guilty depression. This led to the development of a new drug, Joy, something that, quite literally, made their problems vanish into thin air. Or at least that’s what they believe.
When the full game is released, players will be able to explore the failing society of Wellington Wells from the perspectives of multiple characters, but the aim will always be the same: resist Joy at all costs, survive and escape. There’s a certain irony in the fact that avoiding Joy requires consuming it on occasion, but that’s a trope of science fiction from the very beginning. Frankenstein’s monster was born from many but became isolated. Wells’ Time Machine furthered the paranoia of communism rather than quelling it. Even Doctor Who plays on elements of witnessing disasters in time, but being unable to prevent them. We Happy Few is no different and focuses on escaping a drug-fuelled nightmare rather than succumbing to it.
It didn’t go without controversy, however. The Australian Classification Board refused to classify the game, deeming it beyond 18+ due to the suggested messages of drug dependency and reward. It’s a valiant notion, but misses the point: We Happy Few is presenting a message of independence from a drug culture, not acceptance of one. To quote Compulsion Games’ Narrative Director Alex Epstein, “as a culture, we no longer value sadness”, which is an uncomfortable truth. People would rather take drugs and hide their emotions than talk and discuss them. It’s a sad reality, but reality nonetheless.
Now, of course, We Happy Few is not the first to follow a narrative line of dystopian, drug-fuelled collapse. It has drawn comparisons to Bioshock, and it’s easy to see why. Joy and Adam are practically one and the same, and rather than a hallucinatory world where everything is happy, Bioshock presents a world of overzealous power and freedom. Both, however, emphasize the lack of morals in a defunct post World War II advanced society, whilst toying with the idea of scientific advancement through unethical experimental acts. George Orwell’s 1984 had a big hand in creating both, and although Compulsion Games may deny any influence from the 2007 hit, it’s hard to really believe that’s the case.
Gameplay wise, We Happy Few follows a simple and formulaic survival thriller format with a unique twist. You leave your safe house, find loot to build weapons and gear, avoid the eyes of those who would class you as a ‘downer’ and try to get through the city districts to escape. The unique twist comes in the form of using Joy to blend in. The world will change as you take it, becoming a much happier, peaceful place, before collapsing in on itself as you come down to reality. Changing the world aesthetic to further your goals is an interesting mechanic, but it remains to be seen whether it can hold up to what is really quite a simple and rather oversaturated design of looting, surviving and replacing broken gear.
The survival elements are also interesting to consider: having to scrounge for food, water and a place to sleep has hardly been a success in gaming history outside of hardcore modes in various open-world titles. Whilst niche indie games like Don’t Starve has done well, there’s only so many different ways you can tell someone to adhere to the basic functions of the human body. After a while, it tends to become a drag and can pull away from the narrative experience, something We Happy Few absolutely cannot afford.
It’s been in development for a while, but when the release does eventually come about, We Happy Few may find itself stuck in the expectations of past years rather than current times. It needs to find its niche, and hope the gaming world isn’t tired of dystopian survival games by then. And, even if it is successful, Compulsion Games will find comparisons to Bioshock hard to avoid, no matter their desires.
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