We Happy Few is a creepy, fascinating game that gets lost in its own ambition - Kogonuso

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Aug 11, 2018

We Happy Few is a creepy, fascinating game that gets lost in its own ambition



I usually don’t finish games I start because the ending often feels like a culmination of something I’ve been working toward for hours and consequently already understand. So I’m impressed that We Happy Few, the second game from Canadian studio Compulsion Games, kept me obsessively hooked to the last moment. Less impressively, I was so obsessed because I just wanted the game to be what it had promised, not the thing I’d been playing for the last 28 hours. We Happy Few is a unique piece of dystopian worldbuilding. It’s also frequently confounding, occasionally miserable, and eventually lost within its own ambitions.

The colorful, creepy We Happy Few is set in a British town called Wellington Wells in an alternate 1964, where a non-Nazi “German Empire” won World War II after America chose to remain neutral. While under German occupation, the people of Wellington Wells did something terrible — so terrible that they chose to erase their memories with a euphoric hallucinogen called Joy. A couple of decades later, Wellington Wells is a groovy, rainbow-hued high-tech police state where being a drug-free “Downer” is illegal and every respectable citizen sports a permanently smiling mask. The town’s infrastructure is falling apart, a plague is infecting residents, and the outskirts are filled with Joy-resistant “wastrels.” But nobody is rude enough to mention all that, if they notice at all.

The game’s primary character is a weedy censorship bureau employee named Arthur Hastings, who goes off his Joy when a newspaper story dredges up old memories of his long-lost brother. But it’s divided into acts featuring three protagonists with different gameplay styles. After starting with Arthur, it shifts to his childhood friend Sally Boyle, a stealth-focused chemist who is secretly (and illegally) raising a baby. It ends with the story of his old neighbor Ollie Starkey, a military veteran who prefers brute force and hallucinates the ghost of his young daughter. The characters’ stories intersect, but each is seeking redemption for a different all-consuming regret, while trying to survive a world where regret is a mortal sin.

We Happy Few draws from the classics of British dystopian fiction, evoking The Prisoner’s saccharinely sinister Village, Brazil’s euphemism-cloaked retro-futurism, Brave New World’s drug-fueled faux-utopia, and 1984’s Oceania with its constantly rewritten past. But it has a singularly creepy sort of bucolic coziness. Your characters literally know everyone in town by name, since the game generates (extremely, archetypally British) names for every single bystander, enemy, and corpse.
"Characters treated gravity as more of a suggestion than a law"

Wellington Wells’ repressive oligarchy runs the town from a handful of brutalist monoliths, but the most common threat is random citizens who will spontaneously attack you for things like wearing the wrong clothes in the wrong district. A torn suit in a fancy area reminds citizens that something is wrong, and a fancy suit in a wastrel district reminds outsiders of what they’ve lost. The whole town is on a collective mission to forget, and if you anger someone, they will furiously insist that you “get happy” while bludgeoning you to death.

A lot of encounters are darkly, absurdly funny because they involve characters acting out a charade of normal life in a practically post-apocalyptic landscape. This goes a long way toward making We Happy Few’s high-concept setting tenable. The game reveals the town’s atrocity early on, but it elides most questions about how Wellington Wells established its super high-tech society and what the rest of the world looks like. This is a solid bit of narrative discipline, so it’s too bad that most of the game is such a mess.

We Happy Few initially launched as an “early access” sandbox survival game in 2016, while the team worked on a story-focused campaign. The final product rests awkwardly between a gritty scavenging simulator and a Dishonored-style sneaky immersive sim. I hit a workable balance of story and survival early on, but the survival parts soon became annoying busywork locking up the story. Sally fights primarily by spraying or injecting enemies with drugs, which means every single takedown requires expending limited resources. Ollie is ambiguously diabetic (the game simply calls him “unwell&rdquo, so I limped around, slowly assembling a bee-proof suit for collecting honey that he could inject with a scavenged syringe. That is the kind of video game crafting shorthand that sounds increasingly ridiculous as you actually type it out.

Wellington Wells’ residents are alternately so inhumanly stupid and so inhumanly agile that mastering its simple stealth mechanics and clumsy melee combat feels pointless. My PC copy of We Happy Few also glitched constantly. Characters treated gravity as more of a suggestion than a law, and I had to abandon or restart quests because objects had disappeared or important characters had stopped reacting. And trying to fix bugs by reloading an auto-saved checkpoint creates a catch-22 because you have to quit to a main menu to load a save, but quitting overwrites the autosave with your latest progress.

But the biggest problem is that We Happy Few runs far, far too long — especially because it approaches Arthur, Sally, and Ollie’s acts as one interlocking narrative. Arthur has the most extended and revelatory arc, and his story bookends the game, which sets up Ollie and Sally’s acts as tangential.
"The game loses control over its own plot"

The overall framing puts a strange, borderline misogynist spin on Sally’s section. Arthur and Ollie are both atoning for clearly harmful choices they made during the occupation, and their arcs follow a defined pattern of remembering a minor transgression, going on a journey of redemption, and coming to a far more horrible revelation about themselves. Everything we learn about Sally, though, suggests that she’s trying to atone for entering relationships with abusive men. The narrative structure paints this not as unreasonable self-loathing, but as loosely equivalent to Ollie and Arthur’s decisions.

I don’t think We Happy Few is actively trying to draw these equivalences. The game just loses control over its own plot and worldbuilding as it progresses, to the point that I’m not even sure whether some strange moments were bugs, and whether some storytelling choices were intentional or not. A few of the scenes that different protagonists share with each other, for instance, change script or location depending on who you’re playing. The map of Wellington Wells changes between characters as well. This is probably the result of narrative streamlining and Compulsion’s reliance on procedural generation because it doesn’t serve a clear purpose for the plot.

Eventually, We Happy Few managed to push me into a state where I simply constructed an alternate version of the game that was intentionally confusing and nonsensical, from the fetch quests that amounted to grabbing an object 10 feet away from the quest-giver to the moment everyone’s eyes turned red and the sky teemed with orange lines. (Unless that actually was intentional?)

I doubt this was supposed to happen, but it’s somehow appropriate: while my version of the game might not be real, at least it makes me happy.
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