We Happy Few

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We Happy Few
WeHappyFew.jpg
Developer(s)Compulsion Games
Publisher(s)Gearbox Publishing
Director(s)Guillaume Provost
Producer(s)Sam Abbott
Designer(s)David Sears
Programmer(s)Matt Robinson
Artist(s)Whitney Clayton
Writer(s)
Composer(s)Nicolas Marquis, Jon Licht
EngineUnreal Engine 4
Platform(s)
Release10 August 2018
Genre(s)Action-adventure
Mode(s)Single-player

We Happy Few is an action-adventure game developed by Compulsion Games and published by Gearbox Publishing for Microsoft Windows, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One. It was released as an early access title in 2016 for Windows, with all versions of the full game seeing wide release in 2018.

Played from a first-person perspective, the game combines role-playing, survival, and light roguelike elements. Taking place within the mid-1960s, following an alternative version of World War II, players take control over one of three characters, each of whom seek to complete a personal task while escaping the fictional city of Wellington Wells – a crumbling dystopia on the verge of societal collapse, due to the overuse of a hallucinogenic drug that keeps its inhabitants blissfully unaware about the truth of their world, while leaving them easily manipulated and lacking morals.

The developers focused on creating a story with strong narratives, while underlining gameplay with a sense of paranoia, and designing in-game decisions to moral gray areas and weight, which influence and affect later parts of the game. Design of the game's setting was based on various elements of 1960s British culture, with Compulsion Games seeking inspiration on dystopian societies from various influences in the media, such as Brazil, Nineteen Eighty-Four and Brave New World. Work on the game began with a Kickstarter funding campaign in 2015, before the developers were acquired by Microsoft Studios in 2018 while they supported them with work on a version for the Xbox One.

It received mixed reception upon release, with praise mostly focusing on its themes, story and characters, while being criticized for its gameplay mechanics, perceived repetitiveness, and various technical issues.

Gameplay[edit]

We Happy Few is an action game played from the first-person perspective that includes elements of stealth and survival games. In single-player mode, players control one of three characters in the game's three different acts, each having their own skills and abilities, and their own reasons for escaping the village of Wellington Wells. There is Arthur Hastings, a well-balanced character adept at crafting weapons; Sally Boyle, adept at sneaking and crafting chemical concoctions; and Ollie Starkey, a strong melee fighter adept at crafting powerful explosives.[1][2]

The game uses procedural generation to create the layouts of some parts of the game world at the start of each playthrough.[3] Each Act presents the player with a main story goal, with a series of main quests to follow, but several optional side quests can also be completed to gain additional rewards. Completing objectives can earn the player-character rewards as well as skill points which the player can allocate among a skill tree to improve the character's attributes or give them new abilities.

Throughout the game, the player can collect melee weapons, items, food and drink, and wealth. Items are used to craft various tools to help progress in the world or medication, like lockpicks or healing salves. Food is used to maintain nourishment or thirst; staying nourished improves certain character attributes, while being hungry or thirsty can negatively impact these attributes. The player also must make sure the character gets rest to also maintain these attributes. The player is able to gain access to safe houses for recovery as well as to fast travel between other unlocked safe houses. Wealth can be used or gained through various vendors in exchange for items.

A core element of We Happy Few is Joy, an addictive hallucinogenic drug used by most of the citizens of Wellington Wells. If the player opts to have their character use Joy, they will see the town in a colorful, joyful environment, and will be able to walk through the town without attracting undue attention from its citizens, but this does impair some of the character's abilities. As their Joy depletes, the town will revert to its dismal, war-torn state, and while the character will have full control of their abilities, they will be seen as a "downer", an enemy of Wellington Wells, and either must fight off the "Wellies" police force through melee, or use stealth to sneak around the town; furthermore, the player-character will suffer withdrawal effects from coming off Joy, impacting their health and thirst.[3] Should the player-character take too much damage from enemies or the environment, they will have to restart at a recent checkpoint. Optionally, the game allows the player to enable permadeath, requiring them to restart the game should the player-character die. The player also must consider the type of residents in each district within Wellington Wells and make sure they also do not stand out due to clothing or other appearance aspects. Residents of a wealthy district may become suspicious of the player-character if they are dressed in rags, even if they have taken their Joy.[4][5]

A sandbox mode will be added as a free update to We Happy Few some time after its release. The sandbox mode is an infinite play mode that allows the player to customize some facets of the game's world before starting a game to make it closer to a survival game, such as making hunger and thirst lead to character death if they are not remedied or changing the availability of certain items in the environment. Additionally, through a season pass, the game will include three shorter narratives the player can play through.[6]

Plot[edit]

Setting[edit]

The character known as Uncle Jack (actor Julian Casey) is portrayed in live-action scenes

The game's universe takes place within an alternative timeline, stemming from a version of World War II in which the United States did not join the Allies, leaving the United Kingdom to fend off the German forces alone. The Battle of Britain was eventually lost to Germany, allowing the Nazis to occupy the entire country. Most of the volunteer forces of the Home Guard became complicit in helping the Germans, with only a few attempting to resist.[7]

At some point during the occupation, the population of the island town of Wellington Wells did what they considered to be a "Very Bad Thing" that caused the German occupation to voluntarily leave their island, allowing the British citizens there to live free. However, the repercussions of the Very Bad Thing left the citizens with immense anguish and guilt over their actions, leading to the invention of a new hallucinogenic drug called "Joy", which suppresses all unhappy memories and leaves its user in a chemically induced euphoria that also brightens how they perceive their environment. However, its many negative side-effects include addiction, short-term memory loss, loss of appetite, nightmarish hallucinations, and being susceptible to manipulation.

By the 1960s, Wellington Wells' isolation led to resounding advances in technology, including Tesla-styled weapons, portable power cells, and automated security systems. Its inhabitants—referred to as "Wellies"—wear white "Happy Face" masks as a sign of their continued jollity. Joy is freely dispensed in pill form and is also laced into the city's water supply. To encourage the drug's consumption, the media is tightly controlled and centers on "Uncle" Jack Worthing, a friendly MC whose voice and image widely broadcasts government propaganda over the city's televisions and radios.

Unfortunately, some Wellies developed an immunity to Joy—partly as a result of ingesting bad batches of the drug—and subsequently became depressed or insane from remembering the Very Bad Thing; these people were then driven out of Wellington Wells and came to be known as "Wastrels". Others who voluntarily refuse their Joy are known as "Downers" and seen as a threat; if caught, Downers are either force-fed Joy, are taken to a Joy Doctor to get a potentially lethal liquid injection of Joy, or are outright killed on the spot. As a result, Wellington Wells has become a dystopian police state on the verge of collapse.

Story[edit]

The game features three different playable characters, each with their own story arcs that intersect throughout the game:

Arthur's Story: Arthur Hastings works as a "redactor", censoring and approving old news articles from Wellington Wells' Department of Archives, Printing, and Recycling. While working, he comes across a news clipping of him and his older brother Percy after World War II. At this point Arthur can either take his Joy (which restarts the game) or refuse it, wanting to remember Percy. If the latter choice is taken, Arthur is called out as a "Downer" by his boss, Victoria Byng, and he is chased out of his office; he ends up in the Garden District, populated by "Wastrels" unable or unwilling to take their Joy. Arthur resolves to escape Wellington Wells and find Percy. With the assistance of various characters, including Sally and Ollie, Arthur works his way through the districts uncovering certain truths along the way. It is eventually revealed that the "Very Bad Thing" was that the population of Wellington Wells turned over all children 13 years and younger to the Germans in exchange for their freedom. Arthur discovers that the German tanks used to threaten the town into compliance were made of papier-mâché and that the populace could have resisted. He also learns that Wellington Wells is slowly falling apart; the city's infrastructure is failing, a plague outbreak has occurred, and Joy is becoming less effective, with scientist Anton Verloc researching a new version of Joy to permanently lobotomize the populace and keep them in a never-ending state of euphoria. Eventually, Arthur reaches a railway bridge leading out of Wellington Wells. Here, Arthur finally recalls that when he was to be taken by the Germans, he swapped his identity with Percy's, allowing the Germans to take the latter instead.

In the epilogue, after Sally and Ollie's chapters have been completed, the player can choose one of two endings: either Arthur departs Wellington Wells for the mainland and continues his search for Percy, or takes his Joy and rejoins the populace in their ignorance.

Sally's Story: The creator of a new brand of Joy, Sally Boyle works as an experimental chemist in her own laboratory after being kicked out of Haworth Labs by its director, Anton Verloc. Sally is threatened by the police into supplying them with her Joy and is forced to scrounge the city for new ingredients to create a fresh batch. She is secretly also a mother to the first baby ever born in Wellington Wells in fifteen years: Gwen, who was fathered by Verloc. When Gwen becomes sick with measles, Sally asks Arthur, the protagonist of the first act and her childhood friend, to find a bottle of cod liver oil. Arthur (not knowing it is for Gwen) agrees in return for a Letter of Transit from General Robert Byng, Sally's biggest patron and on-and-off lover. Sally eventually remembers how her mother poisoned her family when she and her siblings were to be taken to Germany, leaving Sally as the sole survivor. Arthur delivers the oil and considers having Sally join his escape, but when she tells him about Gwen, he changes his mind and leaves. Determined to flee Wellington Wells with Gwen, Sally plans to steal General Byng's personal motor boat hidden near his military base. She convinces Dr. Faraday to create a new engine for the boat but fails to steal the key, getting knocked out by a sleeping dart trap. She awakens to find herself with General Byng in his safehouse; Byng intends to keep Sally imprisoned there until the problems in Wellington Wells are resolved while sending Gwen away to the mainland. Sally refuses, fights Byng, takes the key to the boat, and locks him inside the safehouse. At night, Sally sneaks Gwen to the boat and rides it out of Wellington Wells.

Ollie's Story: Ollie Starkey is a former soldier from the British Army, who lives as a recluse at his fortified hideout in the Garden District. His only company is a talking hallucination of his daughter, Margaret, who was killed years ago during the "Very Bad Thing". After helping Arthur along with his journey and having his hideout destroyed by Wastrels, he finds his former commander, General Byng, and informs him of the papier-mâché tanks Arthur had discovered. Byng reveals that he knew about the tanks all along, but remained quiet to avoid a rebellion, which he doubts would have been successful. He also reveals that Ollie knew about the tanks as well, having served as Byng's orderly at the time. Unable to remember, Ollie leaves to confront Byng's daughter, Victoria. Ollie captures her and withholds her Joy, forcing her to remember that she had helped the Germans during the "Very Bad Thing". Both aware of the city's true history, Ollie also informs her that the city's food has run out, and implores her to help him reveal these truths to save the people. Victoria agrees, but when Ollie releases her, she attacks him and escapes. Ollie finally decides to confront Uncle Jack, Wellington Wells' friendly and celebrated propagandist; he infiltrates his broadcasting studio above City Hall but finds Jack missing. He plays a tape of his final but unreleased broadcast, which shows him going insane as he realizes the city's dire situation and remembers his daughter, Margaret. Ollie finally realizes that his Margaret was actually Jack's daughter; Jack had tried to hide her from the Germans, but Ollie (who was their neighbor, and hated Jack for being a collaborator) informed on them and she was shot trying to flee. Overwhelmed with guilt, he eventually had Sally Boyle make him a potion a year ago to scramble his memories. Ollie broadcasts the unreleased tape to the city, awakening the population. He then bids farewell to Margaret, and builds a hot air balloon that he rides out of Wellington Wells.

Development[edit]

Artwork of the game's NPCs, whose fashion and hairstyles, alongside the main characters of the game, reflect those from 1960s Britain

We Happy Few is Compulsion Games' second game following its 2013 game Contrast. The game, powered by Unreal Engine 4,[8] has tripled the development staff from Contrast.[9] Some inspiration for We Happy Few came at the end of Contrast's development, as studio founder and producer Guillaume Provost had to struggle with the death of his father three weeks before Contrast shipped.[10] During this time, he had reflected on his state of life, and came up with ideas for We Happy Few in his emotional distress, particularly the idea of a society fixated on drugs and masks.[10][9] Provost presented this to his creative team, who saw the possibilities of expanding on this. Narrative director Alex Epstein considered the idea similar to Prozac Nation, and where in current times, there is a prescription drug for every conceivable malady.[9] The title of the game comes from the St Crispin's Day Speech from Henry V:[11]

And Crispin Crispian shall ne'er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be rememberèd—
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers

— William Shakespeare, Henry V

Narratively, the game's setting was established early: an isolated British town in the 1960s where there were no children, and everyone else wore masks and took drugs. From that point, they worked backwards to create the history of the town, tying it to events from World War II, and recognizing that characters would have their own sins of the past as well as those of the entire town.[12] In developing the title, Compulsion Games wanted the player to feel paranoia as they try to determine what actions they need to take in a moral gray area, and crafting "a simulation that provides an intelligent response and maintains [the player's] suspense of disbelief" based on how the player performs in the game.[13] This in turn led to the use of light roguelike elements such as permadeath and procedurally generated worlds. Permadeath was added to try to implore a sense of danger to the player knowing that any action could lead to the end of the game, while the random generation would create tension as the player would need to relearn the layout of the town each time.[13]

The procedural generation also fell out from Compulsion's previous experience in building Contrast, in that they recognized they lacked the man-power to develop a lot of high-quality content. They opted to use random generation of the town both to address this, as well as a difficult challenge that had not been done before in video games.[9] Joy was considered as a necessary evil for the player; by having their character take the drug, the player would enjoy short-term gains such as getting out of trouble and being able to explore without fear of attacks, but would have negative long-term effects once Joy wore out. Provost considered that with the permadeath mechanic, the player would need to put a great deal of consideration into using Joy as to preserve their current game knowing there will be consequences later.[13]

Influences[edit]

Influential works of fiction, such as Doctor Who, BioShock, V for Vendetta and The Prisoner, provided inspiration for developers with shaping the retrofuturistic, dystopian world of "We Happy Few"

While Compulsion Games are a Canadian studio based out of Montreal, many of them are fascinated by British television and film, which formed much of the influence on We Happy Few. The 1960s British setting was found to be ideal for the game and concept; according to Compulsion's COO Sam Abbott, this was "a great period with lots of relentless optimism about the future, while also at the same time ignoring a lot of actual problems that existed in the society of the time".[9] Dystopic fiction was a common influence.[10] Provost stated that a primary influence was the 1985 dystopian film Brazil.[14] Other influential works include The Prisoner, A Clockwork Orange, Brave New World, V for Vendetta and Doctor Who, along with the humor of Monty Python and Blowup for the game's aesthetics.[10][15][16][17] Some of the Compulsion team, including Provost, had been with Arkane Studios during a time where they were secretly developing an episode for the Half-Life series, also set in a dystopian world, which carried into We Happy Few.[10]

Provost felt the belief of citizens that they were in a utopia and the darker reality "under the hood" formed the "basis" of dystopian fiction.[10] The idea of the Wellies wearing masks was seen as flipping around the use of Guy Fawkes masks in V for Vendetta, that instead of being a sign of resistance, they would be "a symbol of the psychological oppression", forcing their wearer to be smiling all the time, according to Provost.[10]

We Happy Few has been said by some to be a cross between video games series BioShock, Fallout and Don't Starve,[18] and novels Brave New World and Nineteen Eighty-Four.[19] The main characters were also seen as amalgamations from these types of works: Arthur as a mix of Winston Smith from Nineteen Eighty-Four and Sam Lowry from Brazil, while Uncle Jack is seen as a mix of Jack Nicholson's Joker from Batman and Lewis Prothero from V for Vendetta.[10] The developers commented on difficulties distinguishing the game from BioShock in the public eye,[9] and though Provost said he was "flattered" by the comparison, he argued it was never a "prime influencer".[10] Describing the meaning behind the story, Alex Epstein was quoted as saying "We Happy Few is inspired by, among other things, prescription drug culture — the idea that no one should have to be sad if they can pop a pill and fix it. It’s also about Happy Facebook culture: no one shares their bad news because it would bring everyone down. As a culture, we no longer value sadness."[20]

Announcement and development[edit]

We Happy Few was revealed on 26 February 2015, and publicly debuted at PAX East 2015, allowing attendees to go hands-on with a very early version of the project.[21][22] During June 2015, Compulsion Games ran a successful Kickstarter campaign, raising US$266,163 of the target US$200,000 to fund the development of the game.[23] About 2,000 of these supporters backed at levels to participate in the game's alpha-version testing alongside Compulsion's dedicated play-testing team of five, but Compulsion found this did not provide them enough feedback to know which way to take the narrative elements within the randomly generated world.[9] Instead, Compulsion opted to open the game to an early access release in a playable state on various storefronts for Microsoft Windows and on the Xbox One Xbox Game Preview program starting on 26 July 2016 as to be able to gain much more feedback.[24] [25] Part of their choice to use early access was to provide transparency of what the game was actually to be, wanting to avoid the pitfalls that happened with No Man's Sky on its release in August 2016. Compulsion found many were anticipating a AAA gaming experience from their small team, and thus wanted to make sure players were clear on what their goals were for We Happy Few.[26]

One issue faced during development in early access was managing the expectations of what We Happy Few was meant to be. The first trailers Compulsion released as well as the early access version, featuring a short narrative sequence introducing the playable character Arthur, created the impression that the game would be a first-person action-adventure game with a linear narrative. However, Compulsion was aiming to produce a roguelike survival game with some light narrative elements, which was meant to be played repeatedly, with a complete playthrough taking only three to four hours.[27] Compulsion was aware that early access had worked well for games that lacked a strong narrative, and thus focused the initial development within early access on the survival elements, planning to hold back on the narrative development until late in the process as they did not want to reveal the full story until late in development.[28] Compulsion also found it difficult to convince players that story elements were coming for the game's final release.[29]

Compulsion learned that players from early access were much more interested in the game's narrative over the game's survival or roguelike mechanics. At one point, the studio tried to remove the survival elements leaving only the action-adventure gameplay, but felt this affected the balance and flavor of the title, since Wellington Wells was meant to be a society on the verge of collapse due to dwindling resources. Instead, they added in some of the basics of survival gameplay: instead of potentially killing the player character, factors like nourishment and rest will buff the character if satisfied or debuff them if not met, and the permadeath facet was taken out, made as an option for more hard-core players.[28][30] Compulsion also put more effort into creating narrative encounters with unique characters, and level spaces for these to occur within the procedurally generated world.[28] Feedback from players were positive about the unique characters they had made to support the shorter form of the game, so Compulsion had to spend more time in creating backgrounds and stories for more unique characters, which tool away from some other story aspects they wanted to tell.[12] They also had little time to make new cinematics to help explain some of these backstories, and instead resorted to using audio recordings to help flesh out the characters.[12] Narrative director Alex Epstein felt the added time to make the changes helped to make the game more cohesive, making it felt that the main story and the various procedurally generated side narratives were part of a wholly singular game rather than disparate pieces.[12] Community manager Naila Hadjas stated that with these changes, they estimated the full game now was about 20 hours long, but still offering replayability through the procedural generation aspects, different playable characters and difficulty modes.[27]

In January 2018, the studio announced that while the game was now "content complete", they needed to polish the game further, and pushed back the game's release towards mid-2018. This move was also aimed to avoiding having to provide regular updates to early access purchasers, allowing them to finish the game without external pressure from fans.[29] Alongside this, in response to complaints regarding the price change, disabled the ability to pre-order the game and offered full refunds to anyone that had bought the title earlier regardless of playtime.[31]

Promotion and release[edit]

Microsoft has been a major supporter for Compulsion Games in backing We Happy Few, leading to the game having its console debut on the Xbox One. Microsoft announced We Happy Few as part of their press conferences at Gamescom in August 2015,[32] Electronic Entertainment Expo 2016.[33] and Electronic Entertainment Expo 2018. This last presentation was accompanied by the news that Microsoft Studios had acquired Compulsion Games as part of their in-house studios.[34][35]

In August 2017, Compulsion Games announced that they have partnered with Gearbox Software for financial support to expand the game into a retail-length title, planned to release on 13 April 2018. Compulsion's Provost had known Gearbox's Randy Pitchford prior to their release of Contrast, and Contrast's visual style had caught Pitchford's attention, but the studio lacked a publishing arm at the time.[26] By E3 2016, where Microsoft presented We Happy Few as part of its press event, Gearbox operated its Gearbox Publishing division led by Steve Gibson. Gibson, also interested in what We Happy Few offered, invited Compulsion to their offices to discuss financing and publishing opportunities for the game.[26] Gearbox's funding helped Compulsion expand their team four-fold and expand the scope and narrative of the game. With Gearbox's help, Compulsion was able to develop We Happy Few for the PlayStation 4, while Gearbox will publish retail versions for all platforms; Microsoft's acquisition of the studio did not impact this publishing deal.[36] However, Compulsion also said that with this expanded title, the price of the game will be increased from $30 to $60, with those that backed the Kickstarter or purchased the early access versions getting the full game and some of the downloadable content that is planned for free. Compulsion plans to offer a season pass for additional content that will be developed after release, enabled by Gearbox's backing.[37]

In May 2018, the Australian Classification Board had refused classification for We Happy Few, identifying that gameplay mechanics around the use of Joy pills was problematic, which would prevent the game from being sold in Australia. The Board stated in their refusal that because "the game's drug-use mechanic making game progression less difficult constitutes an incentive or reward for drug-use and therefore, the game exceeds the R18+ classification that states, 'drug use related to incentives and rewards is not permitted'".[38] Compulsion Games said that it was working with the Board to challenge their ruling and make the game appropriate to be rated, stating that they believe that the use of Joy was part of the game's themes, "It's a society that is forcing its citizens to take Joy, and the whole point of the game is to reject this programming and fight back", and compared this theme to that of Aldous Huxley's Brave New World and Terry Gilliam's Brazil.[38] Compulsion Games said they were prepared to offer refunds even to Kickstarter backers from Australia should they be unable to achieve a rating.[38] The Australian Ratings Board agreed to review their classification, offering interested parties to also reply in standing for reclassification of the game during the month of July 2018.[39] On July 3, the Board announced that they had reclassified We Happy Few with an R18+ rating, still warning consumers of its drug-use mechanic, but otherwise clearing the title to be sold within Australia.[40]

The full game was released for Microsoft Windows, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One on 10 August 2018.[41] On November 27, 2018, Dark Horse Comics will release a 192-page book titled The Art of We Happy Few.[42]

Reception[edit]

Reception
Aggregate score
AggregatorScore
Metacritic(PC) 64/100[43]
(PS4) 68/100[44]
(XONE) 62/100[45]
Review scores
PublicationScore
Destructoid5/10[46]
Game Informer7.75/10[47]
Game Revolution3/5 stars[48]
GameSpot4/10[49]
GamesRadar+4/5 stars[50]
IGN7.3/10[51]
PC Gamer (US)56/100[52]

We Happy Few received "mixed or average" reviews, according to review aggregator Metacritic.[43][44][45]

Accolades[edit]

Year Award Category Result Ref
2016 Game Critics Awards Best Original Game Nominated [53]
Best Independent Game Nominated
2018 Golden Joystick Awards Best Visual Design Pending [54]

Film adaptation[edit]

In March 2017, Gold Circle Films announced plans to adapt the game into a feature film in partnership with Compulsion Games and dj2 Entertainment.[55]

References[edit]

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