While its story centres around a world engulfed by the manufacture of uplifting drug ‘Joy’, even before release We Happy Few had a better recipe on paper than anything in its fictional world: Take a splattering of BioShock’s masked splicer world; add a distinctly English post World War II alternative-reality feel; and finish with a pinch of dystopian literary influences. What could go wrong?
Unfortunately it wasn’t a simple masterplan for success, and a long, misguided and ever-changing development process has left its mark on what has ended up being a disappointedly underdelivering end product.
To understand the final game, and indeed what went wrong for its maker Compulsion Games, you need to look at the history of the production. The brainchild of Compulsion’s Creative Director, Guillaume Provost, We Happy Few arrived quietly in 2015 with a beautifully quirky kickstarter. Backers soon came on board with his vision of a survival horror dystopia fuelled by depression, masks and drugs.
Crucially, as initially shown at PAX East 2015, this was to be set in an entirely randomly-generated open world, made by Compulsion’s smart map generation worldbuilding machine – and even planned to recreate each map every time you died – a huge leap for such a small developer.
Backers soon became alpha testers and loved the environment, but demanded much more depth and narrative. As a result, the most severe survival aspects were shunned in favour of a deeper story, not least driven by a slightly deceptive and glossy five minute introduction ‘gameplay’ trailer debuted by Provost at E3 2016. As Matt Robinson, Compulsion’s Technical Director retrospectively put it: “We realised we were in a lot of trouble, that wasn’t really what the rest of the game was going to be like.”
Behind the scenes, Compulsion were indeed in disarray – the small development team simply couldn’t keep up with their hype and own ambition, especially with the potential pivot from a procedural-generated world to a story-driven single player campaign. Strangely, despite internal promises to underplay the game, Compulsion doubled-down, and decisions were made to partner with Gearbox Software – and provide a move from fan-lead indie game to a full-blown expensive retail title.
By the time We Happy Few came to nearing fruition two years later it was a much different product from the independent Kickstarter that fans were promised. A showcase eventually followed at E3 2018 and an Early Access beta shortly after. Unfortunately – despite a further acquisition by Microsoft’s Xbox Game Studios – that’s where the game lingered for nearly two years in its unfinished, confused state.
So, as a player, how does We Happy Few actually fare? The ride initially seems intriguing as you take on the persona of tired-of-life ‘newspaper article censor’ Arthur Hastings in the strange quintessentially English 1960s village of Wellington Wells.
The soundtrack is great, filled with The Beatles and Kinks-esque songs written especially for the game, and the world – at least when filled with ‘Joy’ – vibrant, colourful and full of well drawn caricature characters. It’s fair to say though that those players without any prior knowledge or context of the game may be left wondering what genre of gameplay they’ve entered into. The first five minutes – a largely unchanged intro from the 2016 E3 debut – depicts pseudo drug-fuelled dreams, mask-wearing characters complaining about “downers”, and comical but frightening police chases. By the end of the opening sequence it seems, despite the cartoon world, everyone is out to get you.
You’d be forgiven for confusion – at this point it seems clear that stealth is the only answer to survive this world, which is a strange juxtaposition to the fanciful visuals on screen. Weapons and health items can be crafted, but resource is limited, and there is no logical linear path ahead of you.
Luckily there is lots to discover, and the dreamlike state and unknown world fuel the excitement of the initial few hours of gameplay. The early quests are much as you would expect: gathering small objects for NPCs that are easily signposted. Much like Bioshock, along the way you will find plenty of loot amongst bins, bathrooms, postboxes and a variety of other vessels – not all of which will become immediately useful, but can be crafted with later.
Aside from quests, the backstory is fleshed out through flashbacks activated in certain areas, as you slowly begin to piece together what to make of Arthur and his current situation. These work well, if also slightly confusingly with their mixed timelines and additional characters.
Having built a toolkit of useful supplies, learnt some crucial combats moves (for the times stealth just isn’t enough), and activated the first of your safe houses and quick-travel hatches, you are pretty much free to explore.
The sense of mixed, unsure reality never quite leaves you though, as you encounter interconnected islands housing everything from destitute plagued zombies to alternate-world WWII fighters. The humour throughout is largely on point, taking key notes from British classics of the era such as Monty Python, with many of the characters and quests also having absurd names.
As for the overarching story of the world, We Happy Few wears its influences firmly on its sleeve, combining a balance of Aldus Huxley, George Orwell’s ‘1984’, and many cues from Shakespeare – the title itself comes from the famous St Crispin’s Day speech from Henry Vth – alongside nods to MacBeth, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and King Lear amongst others. Several of the side characters fall into various tropes from these fictions – notably the ever-present ‘big brother’ Uncle Jack, and faded rock star Nick Lightbearer – and as such become quite memorable. You’ll also spot a plethora of references to the era, including nods to the aforementioned work of The Beatles with ‘Prudence’ and ‘Mr Kite’, to name just a few.
Most people going into the game will be aware that We Happy Few is a three-hander in terms of narrative, and Arthur’s interlinking stories and subplots with future controllable characters Sally and Ollie form a big part of your destiny as you move through the world.
Each character has their own traits, and different skill system upgrades and edicts that can be obtained by completing tasks. These are much as you would expect, from better stealth to rucksack upgrades, and such like. One nice touch, in addition to the quick-travel system between safe house hatches, is the ability to store all crafting loot in your pneumatic stash, freeing up room for more immediately required items on your person.
A Flawed Reality
While all this sounds fun, the much-maligned flaws of the game quickly become apparent. The worlds that seemed infinitely explorable soon become repetitive – especially with identical NPCs littered throughout – as does Arthur’s limited ability to only slow walk, interact with a couple of stock phrases, and very occasionally climb in right angles like he’s in Tomb Raider II.
While a relatively novel idea in a game of this type to have machine-generated maps and worldbuilding, it leads to major issues. Goals on the map can become eons apart, and – coupled with the lack of sprinting without certain edicts – can lead to an infuriating amount of time spent travelling.
Add into the mix that only a very small percentage of these buildings are accessible, most simply being a facade and nothing else, and it becomes nothing short of monotonous and tedious at times. God forbid you go ‘around the back’ of any of the streets in Wellington Wells’ Hamlyn Village – you literally get trapped walking for minutes stuck between the edge of a cliff and repeating 2D frontages.
Similarly in this confusing world, there is, of course, no way of using any real life online guides to help you – everybody’s in-game map is different. Worse, players have reported regular occurrences of maps generating without certain key elements (the crucial ‘Shady Dealer’ being very commonly missing), making some areas even harder and no way of you knowing if it’s your specific playthrough, or the game in general.
Unfortunately, the glitches don’t stop there – during the elongated beta period many were reported, but even now (well over two years after 1.0 release at the time of writing), most players will run into hovering NPCs, invisible objects, missing textures and glitches, and often purely bewildering AI. Finding multiple identical old ladies wrongly spawning in Sally’s house, or other off-limits buildings, has almost become a running joke amongst fans.
Compulsion Games themselves have since readily admitted they were resigned to the fact there were some bugs so complex they didn’t have the time or resource to fix, and critics and commentators haven’t been kind. It’s such a complicated mess that while you can’t look up directions or a full walkthrough, you will almost certainly go online at some point just to try and understand the ‘rules’ of the game world.
One Rule For You
These inconsistencies in the gameplay make it impossible to know what’s wrong at times. Clothing, in particular, has a huge effect, but differently across the various playable characters. It’s often unclear what uniforms you need to find to rectify near instant death situations if you wander into the wrong area dressed ‘incorrectly’ – and having a non-linear approach makes this a frustratingly easy occurrence.
To be frank, it’s a fair assessment to propose that even the developers didn’t understand what the quite what the game world laws were themselves were by the time it launched, such are the inconstancies. It would be frivolous to list them all, but when you have multiple items and tools that are virtually useless (Sally and Ollie, for example, can still pick up blueprints for tools and chemistry items respectively that they can’t actually create) – it becomes a wholly confusing experience.
Even one of the most simple aspects of the game that should’ve been locked-in from the beginning, the stealth, is woefully implemented. Accidentally upsetting one stranger can enrage whole angry mobs, but yet sitting on a seat (or better still, in a ‘Bully‘-inspired rubbish bin) after committing the most heinous crime renders you completely invisible.
Similarly, basic concepts such as health and time aren’t completely thought through, and bear hangovers from the original stealth version of the game. The passing of time, despite the game counting the number of days, has no effect on the player (bar different laws during daytime and nighttime), and as such you can sleep multiple times in a row to recover your health fully.
Likewise, early-on in a playthrough if you happen to brush past a plague-ridden person and catch the disease, you’re basically condemned to death as the game gives you no information on how to craft the correct cure. Juxtaposed to that, later, once you have figured out how to craft simple and readily available healing or medicated balms, you can pretty much survive anything. There just seems to be no balance to the many variants the game system has you control.
Even the act of crafting is itself a mess – the sparse workbenches and chemistry sets seem to be a necessity, but you soon realise that most items can be crafted (or clothes changed) from anywhere, regardless if you are actually at a workbench, or even your pneumatic tube which holds the ingredients.
It makes the gameplay a thankless task at times – you can’t help but have several “I wish I’d known that earlier” moments, and far fewer moments of the joy – both in-game and literally – of discovery and reward.
While there’s lots to like about We Happy Few, the whole game has failed to recover from its mid-development pivot – and the hallmarks and scars are obvious in the final product.
With a strange mix of stealth and violence, it’s all too clear that what once was a game that Compulsion anticipated players to have a short, but repeatable experience playing, hasn’t translated into a long narrative-driven story. You are left with a quest-lead playthrough put on top of a random worldbuilding machine that wasn’t geared up for events to happen in a certain order.
Perhaps Compulsion Games would’ve been better scrapping what they had behind the scenes and starting again, rather than trying to build on a platform that, while great, wasn’t built for this new purpose. Much like the infamously ‘repurposed’ Hilary Clinton / Donald Trump Disney animatronic, there’s something disturbingly ‘off’ about the end result.
A telling, and brutal insight comes from Compulsion Games’ Senior Programmer, Lionel Barret de Nazaris: “You are like a detective two weeks after the crime. The body is on the floor, it’s rotten, a lot of people have trampled the room” in his incredibly honest behind the scenes interviews.
Headline features, including the flagship drug ‘Joy’ and its stunning visual effects, unfortunately become lost amongst the gameplay confusion. Other now-futile remnants remain, which only serve to add to the complexion. Hunger and sickness have highly visual meters, and the crafting of remedies for both seem to be integral to your quest and lifespan, but in reality are a mere distraction. Most players will complete the game with hundreds of collected items that they will simply never need or use.
In short, the mechanics of the game world are far below par – and although the initial process to skill-up is fun, once you work out the foibles, it soon becomes a tedious experience. Even the aforementioned seemingly crucial ‘Joy’-taking and its enforced comedown is just overcome by hiding for minutes until the negative effects wear off.
For a game so indebted to BioShock, it’s strange that We Happy Few didn’t take the one thing that truly makes the world of Rapture so great – the player choice and gameplay balance. Bioshock has shown how this can work – while a fairly linear game, the choice of weapons and ‘plasmids’ mean any player can craft their own way of tackling the world. Unfortunately, We Happy Few just doesn’t strike that same balance.
While the postmodern world of Wellington Wells is, no doubt, an interesting place to spend time with its unique mix of dark humour, quirky characters and drug-fuelled colourful exterior, it’s such a shame there isn’t the gameplay to match. By the third time you are playing ‘Simon Says’ – yes that really is a thing – the joke wears thin and it soon becomes a chore.
Some nice DLC and sandbox modes do add a bit of extra longevity – notably the continuing rock star story of ‘Lightbearer’ – but there’s just not enough to justify full game price for the main title.
Is it worth picking up on Xbox Gamepass, or on sale? Yes – just be prepared for a frustrating, if occasionally entertaining, experience.