There’s a reason why dystopian futures make excellent templates for consumable media. They tap into our fears whilst simultaneously piquing our curiosity at “what if” scenarios, as the storyteller conjures up whatever nightmarish scenario pops into their head in order to mess with ours. Films, books and television have long taken advantage of the near future to create chilling, often believable tales. The games industry is no exception, as the success of Deus Ex, Papers, Please and Half-Life 2 can attest.
We Happy Few aims to sit amongst these glorious titles, channelling the Bioshock series by way of Equilibrium and The Prisoner. You play Arthur Hastings, a newspaper clerk in the fictional English town of Wellington Wells who has been working there since World War II ended. Germany has won at a great cost to itself and Britain, and the town’s population was forced to commit an unknown act of unspeakable horror during the occupation. Like most of the population since those events, Arthur has been kept placid by a drug named Joy. This pill causes hallucinations, presenting the world as a bright, colourful place and masking the rot beneath, as well as letting the townsfolk forget the atrocity they committed. You step into Arthur’s shoes on the day a bitter memory brings him to his senses, and he decides not to take his allotted Joy. As the reality of his world hits home in stark fashion (the Joyful image of his work colleagues hitting a piñata and eating the contents morphs into them gorging on the intestines of a dead rat), he is spotted as a “Downer” and forced to flee from the security force known as the Bobbies. It’s up to you to navigate him safely through the world, and try and recall what happened in the town.
The introduction of Arthur’s environment is an uncomfortably dark satire. Joy can be read as an analogue of smartphones, or social media, or anything hollow and ultimately pointless that we cling to in order to give our lives meaning. The grim reality of the day-to-day drudgery is brilliantly captured in the repetitive tasks Arthur undertakes, redacting newspaper material that could be deemed offensive. His awakening and the horrors of having to face what life actually entails are similarly sinister, opening up the potential for a narrative tour de force that would have made Patrick McGoohan proud.
Imagine our disappointment then, to enter the picturesque town of Wellington Wells, and find ourselves in a sandbox survival game. The about face is severe enough to give you whiplash, and the superficially beautiful houses and English cobbled streets soon reveal themselves to be cookie cutter environments, filled with the same containers and housing the same bunch of crazy townsfolk. These loons will either ignore you, or start wailing on you if you get too close and happen to be wearing the wrong clothes. In order to fit in, you need to look the part - so crafting and wearing a spiffy new suit when you’re wandering in an area inhabited by wastrels will make you conspicuous and prone to attack. Whilst we’re handed vague quests as we scout around the town, completing them is a frustrating endeavour. At one point we’re directed to a vegetable patch filled with wastrels, who immediately set upon us as we have our weapon - a tree branch - drawn. The quest failed immediately. After smashing them unconscious, we were then able to speak to another chap who hadn’t attacked, but who needed us to open a chest for him. Whether this was the original quest or a new one is unclear, as the journal didn’t specify either way. Similarly, we were instructed to look out for a jogger making laps of the town, and incapacitate him. After hitting him on a couple of circuits as he went by, we were informed that quest also failed, but with no explanation as to why. We Happy Few is procedurally generated, although it isn’t clear whether the quests are static. Either way, they left us more confused than enlightened.
The game has been in Early Access for a few months now, and whilst we’ve noticed a number of differences since its initial alpha release, the core gameplay has stayed almost the same since our first foray into the town. Crafting consists of scavenging items from around the town until a new recipe pops up in our menu, then consuming those items to make the shiny new toy - be it clothing, medication or weapon. Combat is unwieldy and makes the likes of Oblivion feel majestic in comparison. There appears to be nothing stopping you from braining everyone you meet into a pulp, which is certainly freeing but the cost to the overall story is unknown. You can recover your health at a safe house or by using healing items, but you also need to keep tabs on your hunger, water intake and tiredness; there are so many different status levels to monitor that at times the initial world you were introduced to feels like an entirely separate game.
It’s entirely possible that the folks at Compulsion Games could turn We Happy Few around for its 2017 release, if they decide exactly what kind of game they want it to be. The narrative could be compelling, but not if the brunt of it is steeped in micro-management and other less enjoyable tasks. This is one game where we’d prefer not to need Joy to see us through it.