We Happy Few Is About Social Conformity – PAX East 2016

Alex Epstein hadn’t worked in video games for too long before landing the gig as lead writer for We Happy Few, an impressive title I just played at PAX East 2016. Epstein mentioned that he loves, loves, loves The Last of Us. Naturally, I then wondered how he felt about other modern classics, like say, Bioshock. He told me that while it was very good he didn’t engage with the characters like he did with Joel and Ellie. The irony is that We Happy Few is very much a game whose world and narrative is resting on the shoulders of 2K’s masterpiece. So, Alex, would ya kindly reconsider?

 

A Kickstarter project just two years ago, We Happy Few is one of the most intriguing premises I’ve seen in awhile. In an alternate reality, set in 1964 England, there lies a secret shame. In 1933, in this version of the U.K., the Germans successfully invaded and occupied England during WWII. So, most of England was bombed out, like the town of Wellington Wells. But during this Occupation the citizens did something awful. They needed to forget, and forget they did. By inventing Joy, the miracle happiness drug.

So everyday the citizens of Wells drink a dose of Joy, which keeps everyone happy, docile, and completely in the dark about what exactly happened all those years ago. Did this mean some alliance with the Nazis took place? Perhaps. For now though, (by that I mean, the demo) big revelations will have to wait. Luckily, there’s plenty to do.

 

As you move around in this tiny village in first person, you only know you are white, male, and a Downer, one who doesn't always take their meds. I was told there will be at least two other Downer characters, but in the demo it’s only this man, who speaks nervously about his fellow citizens. You see, if the player decides not to keep taking Joy, locales will become suspicious.

Oh, and by the way, everyone in this world wears a chilling porcelain white happy-face mask. But very quickly, their literal masked emotions turn agitated. And no matter if they’re a little girl or a police officer, they become full on psychotic. That’s what happens when you keep the town medicated. Another unsettling side effect? Loss of appetite. Everyone is lanky, undernourished, and spindly.

 

Gameplay-wise, you can craft items, search containers, and fight by any means necessary. Then again, you could just to make nice by taking enough Joy and indulging others with your fake kindness. That’s the theme, according to Naila Hadjas, the head of Compulsion Games' PR. We Happy Few is concerned with social conformity—the limits we put on others and ourselves to maintain order, no matter how fundamentally wrongheaded. If you keep taking Joy, you’ll get more lightheaded, you’ll see rainbows and you might even skip to work.



 

Lead designer Guillaume Provost who made Contrast has a rich eye for period detail that gets slightly tweaked. Like Bioshock, there’s a real sense of awe on display when it comes to architecture. There’s also shades of Everybody’s Gone to Rapture in being trapped (at least early in the game) in a small European village. One key component that is different from Andrew Ryan’s jaunt in Rapture, however, this game seems to take place when, regardless of how weird, the community is still alive. Not well, obviously, but alive.

 

This was a fascinating game to preview. I look forward to the beta that will release this summer.