PAX East Preview: We Happy Few

Denial. Drugs. Dystopia. We Happy Few explores the disturbing theme of government-mandated utopia and the consequences of daring to rise above (or fall below, in this case). I had the opportunity to sit down and preview We Happy Few with the game’s mastermind (and Compulsion Games’ founder), Guillaume Provost.

The game takes place in Wellington Wells, a city located in the southwest of England in 1964. In 1933, this world deviated from our own, and the Germans successfully invaded and occupied England during World War 2. Most of England is rubble, as is a fair part of Wellington Wells. However, during the Occupation, the Wellies all had to do A Very Bad Thing. To calm their anguish and guilt and forget what they’d done the Wellies invented Joy, the miracle happiness drug.

Compulsion Games

We, the player, get to play as a Downer (one of three) — we went off our meds, Looters. And the rest of the Wellies really, really hate us for it. They’ve sequestered us — banished, really — to a scary offshoot of Wellington to dwell among the Wastrels (those are the Actual Crazies in the world). As a Downer, we have choices to make. How are we going to interact with a world that wants us to fall in line, when we have other things to accomplish? We Happy Few allows for players to make those choices in meaningful ways, with each quest allowing for a number of different tactics to complete the tasks at hand. 

It’s necessary to blend in, depending on the social expectations of the zone you find yourself in. Wastrels look, well, wasted and shoddy — you’re expected to look and act the part. No Joy allowed here. Keep violence to a minimum. Don’t steal. Or, you know, do all of that and watch the mayhem unfold. Similar expectations are required by the Wellies: look sharp, act Joy-full, and don’t step a toe out of line, because the moment that you break their (insane) rules, you’ll get a hatchet in your back… speaking from experience, it’s not a fun way to go through the game.

You need to keep yourself alive in this decidedly broken world (a la Flood in the Flame), so we have to be mindful of proximity to water sources, food, and scavenging materials. The crafting system gives players access to items that are difficult to find in the world, particularly medicine. All it takes it one run-in with a Wastrel, Wellie, or police officer to send a girl into the wild looking for medicinal plants. (No, not that kind.)

All three playable characters intertwine with one another.

This is Compulsion’s second game; their first, Contrast, was a title that was dear to my heart when it was released a couple of years back. Hell, I stood in line for close to a half hour just to play it at PAX Prime. The team, originally only seven, grew significantly after Guillaume and the studio’s art director, Whitney Clayton, determined the direction they wanted to take this new title in. Once Contrast was finished, launched, and well on its way, Guillaume asked Whitney what she’d like to create next.

It was a Brave New World dystopia that won out, with heavy British mod influences from the 1960s. Early conceptualizing meant flying out to London and capturing bits of inspiration from homes that hadn’t changed much since the swinging ’60s. But it wasn’t until the first live shoot with Uncle Jack, the TV personality that you can see peppered throughout the game, that the team had a definitive tone and mood for the game. We Happy Few has also pulled significant influence from, of course, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, A Clockwork Orange, and a number of films from the 1960s.

After a successful Kickstarter campaign last year, Compulsion’s process has been to include the community in each iteration of the game’s progress, taking feedback and feature ideas from those who are hungry for the game’s success. The questions that have driven much of the project have come from a place of creating meaning: how do we create meaningful stories? How do we meaningfully create a large worldscape without compromising the integrity of the player’s experience or introducing additional months (and years) to the development cycle?

The development team has devised a way to procedurally generate the landscape that the players interact with, allowing the engine to reuse assets in meaningful ways without it looking either haphazard or obvious. So, while the major touchpoints of a zone remain consistent, the rest of the zone is tiled out with procedural buildings, denizens, and flora. The result is a world that feels hand-drawn and fresh, no matter where you go.

A willingness to explore dystopia through the lens of collective delusion is what will keep players like me — hungry for lore and stories that question societal norms — tuned in for more. I’m ready for my happy pills… and the rebellion that ensues shortly thereafter.

We Happy Few is slated for early access this summer, with a full release for Xbox One, PC, Mac, and Linux at an undetermined date.

(Original Post: The Daily Crate)

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