We Happy Few

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We Happy Few
Developer(s) Compulsion Games
Publisher(s) Gearbox Publishing (PS4)
Microsoft Studios (XONE, Windows)
Director(s) Guillaume Provost
Designer(s) David Sears
Programmer(s) Matt Robinson
Artist(s) Whitney Clayton
Writer(s) Alex Epstein
Composer(s) Nicolas Marquis
Engine Unreal Engine 4
Release 10 August 2018
Genre(s) Survival
Mode(s) Single-player

We Happy Few is an upcoming indie survival and adventure game developed by Compulsion Games and published by Gearbox Publishing for Microsoft Windows, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One. Released as an early access title in July 2016 on Windows only, all versions of the full game are intended for release on 10 August 2018. 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.

Played from a first-person perspective, the game combines role-playing, survival, and light roguelike elements. 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 60s 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 June 2015, before the developers were acquired by Microsoft Studios in June 2018 while they supported them with work on a version for the Xbox One.



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 an alternative version of World War II in which the Final Solution occurred much earlier, but with catastrophic consequences for both Nazis and Jews. As a result Germany establishes a second German Empire that successfully invades and occupies Great Britain, gaining control over the British Empire, while continuing its war across Europe.[1][2] During the country's occupation, Britain is contaminated as the result of a chemical-warfare experiment gone wrong, forcing the inhabitants of the fictional island city of Wellington Wells to do something terrible in order to survive. Although this succeeds, it subsequently fills the inhabitants with immense anguish and guilt over their actions, leading to the invention of a new hallucinogenic drug called "Joy" - a drug that suppresses all unhappy memories, leaving its user to exhibit immense joy and happiness, but subjects them to decreased recognition of moral and long-term consequences, and leaves them easily manipulable.

Widespread use of Joy led to the transformation of the city into a dystopian society, in which its inhabitants, referred to as "Wellies", wear white "Happy Face" masks as a sign of their continued jollity, and are subjected to regular use of the drug within their food and water. In addition, dispensers of the drug were also established across the city within "Joy Booths" - telephone box-like booths. The city's isolation from the rest of the world, after the end of the German occupation, led to resounding advances in technology, including Tesla-styled weapon systems, mobile power cells, and home security systems. While those immune to the drug were forced out into the waste and left to subsequently go insane after being unable to forget what they did, becoming known as "Wastrels", those who stop taking Joy are dubbed as "Downers" upon being discovered to be off the drug, and become pursued by locals and the city's police. Any Downer that is captured is then either force-fed the drug, or given a liquid administration by a "Joy Doctor", in order to reintegrate them into society.

As the game's story takes place within the city during the mid 1960s, much of the aesthetics, clothing, furniture, technology, and most interior architecture used in the game, are influenced by 60s British culture. Such examples include cobblestone streets being painted with psychedelic colours, and trash bins featuring a design resembling that of Doctor Who's Daleks. Other elements of Britain incorporated in the design include specially designed takes on traditional red telephone boxes and mailboxes, and building exteriors retaining their "quaint English" architecture.


The game features three different playable characters, which affects the prologue of the story. Arthur Hastings, who was available since the game's initial alpha release, works as a censor to remove offending stories in newspaper archives of Wellington Wells. After coming across a story about him and his younger brother, he decides to forgo taking his Joy pill, which causes him to see the state of Wellington Wells for what it truly, and becomes hunted as a "downer". Another character is Sally Boyle, an assistant to one of the doctors that created Joy, and now works as an "experimental chemist" for the General, both which are trying to take back Wellington Wells. Ollie Starkey is the third character, a former soldier that has refused to take Joy for years, revolting against the system, but otherwise tries to stay hidden from the other citizens. Each character has unique skill sets to work their way through the game: Arthur is proficient with melee weapons like a cricket bat, Sally can sneak around and inject guards to put them to sleep, and Ollie is an explosives expert.[3][4]


Players operate from a first person perspective, and can initially begin the game with an interactive prologue upon selecting their character, allowing them to go through the events that happened after their character stops taking Joy, until their eventual escape to the outskirts of the city; in the game's alpha, players can only use Arthur, but can opt to see the prologue, and even opt at the beginning of the section to use the drug, which leads on to one of the game's "bad" endings as a result.[5]

Beyond the prologue, players have the freedom of exploring the city's open-world environment and the various districts that make up Wellington Wells during the day and the night, although at the beginning players are restricted to one district and must complete tasks that can help them unlock new areas. To escape and win the game, players must complete a series of important tasks before a certain amount of time is surpassed and the social collapse is triggered. The game features the option of permadeath, which is employed by default but can be switched off: if the player is killed, captured, incapacitated, or fails to escape in time, the game is over and players must start from the beginning.

Players can also employ a further option that puts them into a dying state upon running out of health, rather than instant death, whereupon healing must be done before any more damage is taken. The inclusion of roguelike elements means that Wellington Wells is recreated differently upon each procedural generation of playthrough, meaning that a place visited before by the player in one playthrough, may not be there in another.[6]

Survival in the game's environments includes blending in with the surroundings and people, while exploring homes and buildings to acquire items, melee weapons and sustenance, along with completing tasks, some important, that range from investigating something suspicious, repairing an item in the environment, to assisting one of the locals, with players having access to a journal to keep track of tasks (referred to as "Encounters") that they have found in the environment along with in-game lore, documents and crafting recipes, and a map that highlights places of importance as well as areas connected to active Encounters.

As characters explore, scavenge, fight and solve problems, they will slowly become tired, hungry and thirsty, represented by on-screen icons and a status menu screen, and will need to rest, eat and drink respectively to avoid suffering from negative effects; being exhausted, for example, reduces the amount of stamina they have for physical exertion. Eating contaminated food and water can sometimes confer negative effects, such as food poisoning, which has to be treated before it gets worse, while certain items found in the game can confer a small positive effect for the rest of the playthrough, such as being less detectable when sneaking or doing more damage in combat. Players can rest in beds in the environment, but more safely in underground safehouses found across the city, of which one is available for use at the start of a playthrough and others must be located when going further afield.

Items found in the game, either lying around or within containers (a chest of drawers, for example), have various uses, depending on what they are; along with food and containers for water, characters can find restorative items, objects that can be used in melee combat, clothing to help blend in within the different districts, and ingredients for crafting. Players can further purchase items from vendors from finding money in the environment or selling items that they have.

The amount of items that can be carried is limited, though players can drop anything they don't want or store it in a personal stash that is accessible within the safehouses. Expansion packs found in the environment can increase a character's inventory space, the number of weapons that can be carried, and the wallet spaces (quickslots) for usable items. However, most items players carry have a finite number of uses before breaking, and crafting is essentially important for survival. Items found often can be used to craft something useful, including tools, restorative items, and stronger melee weapons, provided players have enough items upon finding or learning about new recipes. Crafted items can then be used while exploring the environments; creating lockpicks, for example, allows the lock on a door or container to be picked.

Exploration is unsafe, as characters must ensure the locals of each district do not detect that they are not one of them, by both looking and acting accordingly so as to blend in. Each district of Wellington Wells has its own distinctive look in clothes and various customs, which players must account for or risk being attacked; for example, one district may be occupied by wealthier inhabitants, who will grow suspicious if they find a character is not dressed in expensive clothing.[7]

One notable aspect of avoiding suspicions is through finding Joy pills in the environment and taking a measured dose of the drug. While under the influence of Joy, characters witnesses the town in a much brighter and colorful vision, until the drug wears off, at which point everything will become darker and grittier, while their character will become more hungry and thirsty. The use of Joy can sometimes be useful for getting around obstacles, but staying off it too long can cause them to suffer a hallucinatory vision of a butterfly that they will chase, while taking too much can cause them to be knocked out and awaken back at their safehouse, both of these factors losing them time towards escape.[8]

However, the risk of discovery can rise if characters perform unnatural actions such as stealing items, being in areas they are restricted from, or attacking locals. Such action will raise suspicions, as well as being found to not be under the influence of Joy, and failing to hide bodies. If discovered as a "Downer", locals will attempt to either capture or kill the character, leaving players with the choice of either fighting back with various melee weapons such as cricket bats and metal pipes (though with the risk of being swarmed), using certain items to incapacitate them, or attempting to escape and hide from them until they resume normal activities.

The danger present from discovery is further heightened in areas where the local police are present; not only are Bobbies more dangerous should they uncover the character as a Downer, they must also be avoided at night as they enforce a curfew from dusk to dawn and use special headlamps to scour an area. In addition to possible conflicts with locals, players can also encounter traps in some areas, which can be either avoided, disarmed, or re-purposed to target locals and Bobbies if the player deems it necessary.


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

We Happy Few is Compulsion Games' second game following its 2013 game Contrast. 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.[9] 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.[9][10] 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.[10]

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".[10] Dystopic fiction was a common influence.[9] Provost stated that a primary influence was the 1985 dystopian film Brazil.[11]

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.[9][12][13][14] 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.[9]

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.[9] 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.[9]

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"

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.[15] 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.[15]

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.[10] 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.[15]

We Happy Few has been said by some to be a cross between video games series BioShock, Fallout and Don't Starve,[16] and novels Brave New World and Nineteen Eighty-Four.[17]

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.[9]

The developers commented on difficulties distinguishing the game from BioShock in the public eye,[10] and though Provost said he was "flattered" by the comparison, he argued it was never a "prime influencer".[9] Describing the meaning behind the story, Narrative Director 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."[18]

The game, powered by Unreal Engine 4,[19] has tripled the development staff from Contrast.[10]

Promotion and release[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.[20][21]

On 4 June 2015, Compulsion Games started a campaign on the crowdfunding site Kickstarter, seeking US$200,000 to fund the development of the game.[22] The campaign ended one month later on 4 July, having collected US$266,163 from 7,433 backers.

Microsoft presented We Happy Few as part of its press conference during Gamescom in August 2015, announcing that the title will have its console premiere on the Xbox One, and that it use their Xbox Game Preview early access program.[23] Microsoft also featured the title at their conference during the Electronic Entertainment Expo 2016.[24]

The early access version of the game was first released on 26 July 2016 for Microsoft Windows via Steam, GOG.com, and the Humble Bundle store, and for the Xbox One via the Xbox Game Preview. Compulsion Games notes that this initial version lacked some of the story elements they expect to have in the final game but will be added over time.[25]

Compulsion Games opted for early access as to gain more feedback from players on the procedural elements of the game; prior to this, they had only five dedicated playtesters and about 2,000 Kickstarter backers with alpha-release access, but this was not giving them enough feedback to know which way to take the narrative elements within the randomly-generated world.[10] 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 the game's narrative. Early access worked well for games that lacked a strong narrative. With We Happy Few, Compulsion could not reveal the full narrative as they progressed within early access, and held back on the narrative development until late in the progress. This caused the game to appear to those in early access one more focused on the procedural generation gameplay elements. Compulsion found it difficult to convince players that story elements were coming for the game's final release.[27]

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, We Happy Few is to be released on the PlayStation 4, and Gearbox will publish retail versions for all platforms. 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.[28] 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.[27] 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.[29]

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'".[30] 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.[30] Compulsion Games said they were prepared to offer refunds even to Kickstarter backers from Australia should they be unable to achieve a rating.[30] 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.[31] 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.[32]

We Happy Few was presented during Microsoft's Electronic Entertainment Expo 2018's press conference, along with announcing the game's release date on 10 August 2018 for the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One consoles; this is also the date they plan to have the game leave early access on Steam. This was also accompanied by the news that Microsoft Studios had acquired Compulsion Games as part of their in-house studios.[33][34] Microsoft's acquisition of the studio did not impact the publishing deal made with Gearbox for distribution of We Happy Few.[35]

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. The film being released in 2019.[36]


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