In We Happy Few, Compulsion Games’ new dystopian title, the citizens of Wellington Wells take a mood-boosting drug called Joy, that makes everything beautiful. If you’re on Joy, the sun shines more brightly, the flowers are more colorful, and music follows you wherever you go. But even a brief look under the glittering façade shows you that Wellington Wells is falling apart.
The effects of Joy are a good way to describe the experience of playing We Happy Few. Like a Wellingtonian, you’ll be entranced at first as you uncover the stories of three unlikely rebels. Then you start to see all the cracks in the game that tries to be an odd mix of survival, roguelike, and RPG. We Happy Few has a lot to say, but does it so disjointedly, and the failure of the game’s genres to come together makes for a frustrating, glitchy experience.
In We Happy Few, you first assume the role of Arthur Hastings, a quiet, average white collar sort working as a government censor. He grew up in England during World War II, which, in this reality, the Germans won. Somehow, though, the island chain of Wellington Wells got its independence. The people seem at peace, but that mood-booster, Joy, is mandatory, and it wipes out memories so that Wellingtonians don’t remember what they had to do for freedom. People who refuse to take Joy are shunned as “Downers” and exiled to the shanty towns of the surrounding, bombed-out islands.
While going through a stack of old newspapers and redacting the undesirable, Arthur stumbles upon a story that reminds him that he had a brother, Percy. But Percy isn’t in Wellington Wells anymore. What happened to him? Is he even alive? Arthur goes off his Joy in order to remember, but his coworkers quickly discover he’s a Downer. That launches him into a desperate quest to both find Percy and get out of Wellington Wells without being dragged back to the smothering embrace of Joy. Along the way, he comes across Sally, a brilliant chemist with a lot to hide; and Ollie, a gruff, Scottish soldier who’s haunted by the ghost of a dead girl. Sally becomes the player character for Act II, and Ollie takes the helm for Act III.
Most of us got a first look at We Happy Few with the alpha version, which Compulsion Games released in 2016. That build focused much more heavily on survival elements, like avoiding starvation and crafting weapons with bits of metal and wood. Each island, or “holm,” was procedurally generated. The alpha was fun for a while, but the story was thin (Sally and Ollie’s stories didn’t yet exist), and permadeath made exploring the holms a frustrating mess.
The version that Compulsion Games released this year is a big improvement on the alpha in some ways. The writing is sharp, the storylines are intricately plotted and the ugliness of life in a drugged-up dystopia is palpable through the screen. The gameplay, too, is better. If you run out of food or water, you don’t die; you just get major stat penalties. Shelters scattered throughout the game let you consolidate your inventory and craft bombs, medicine, and tools.
But We Happy Few is still lacking in several key areas, and this makes it a tough sell…especially for $60, a bigger price tag than the game originally advertised, and something that many of the game’s Kickstarter backers have taken issue with.
How Much for a Piece of Goddamn Linen?
First off, We Happy Few has more bugs than a mosquito swarm. Here’s a handful of the ones I encountered:
- Characters standing in the middle of chairs/tables/benches, or levitating, or sitting on nonexistent furniture
- NPCs that come out at the wrong time of day
- Quest markers that don’t let you interact with them
- Items that disappear from your inventory
- Loading screens that never load anything
- Doors that don’t work
This was occasionally funny, like when a housewife levitated above the door of a sex club and started reading the newspaper at three in the morning. Mostly, though, it was just irritating.
Since We Happy Few came out, the developers have fixed some issues. Many more continue, though. While I don’t mind a glitch or two, it’s hard to recommend a game that doesn’t just have handfuls of glitches – it has heaps. This would be excusable if the rest of the game’s mechanics were fun. They’re not, though, and a few nearly made me scream with frustration.
The official release kept the alpha’s procedural generation. Areas are randomly generated, and so are loot, crafting ingredients, and recipes. Now that the game has the set story structure of an RPG, though, certain items become plot points. If you can’t find them… too bad. For example, I’m stuck playing as Ollie because I need to craft a padded suit to progress the plot, but I don’t have enough coarse linen.
Dear reader, I have killed over thirty innocent people just on the off chance that they have coarse linen in their homes.
I have run marathons around all the holms, looking for coarse linen. I would go see if the shopkeeper has some, but the map I got doesn’t seem to have a shopkeeper. I could fart around the holms as Ollie, picking up random sidequests until – miracle of miracles! – I find coarse linen, but why? It just isn’t fun.
Apathy Towards Thy Neighbor
The game’s primary mechanics, stealth and combat, aren’t much fun either. That’s because encounters become routine after just a few hours.
We Happy Few provides two ways to resolve a situation: violence and stealth. Violence, as the loading screens constantly suggest, is a last resort. The people you’re whacking with lead pipes are your former neighbors, and you should think long and hard before taking a life. Consequently, the game encourages stealth, and it scatters hidey-holes all over Wellington Wells for Arthur, Sally, and Ollie to use.
Every stealth encounter, though, goes the same way. If people see you where you’re not supposed to be, they start screaming and waving weapons. But all you have to do is run until you see a trash can, or wardrobe, or stand of tall grass. Hang out there for a minute or two, and everyone will have forgotten you were ever there.
As you might imagine, this gets very, very boring.
A day into the game, I started killing anyone who challenged Arthur, former neighbors or no. Different weapons are supposed to have different effects, but in practice, it rarely mattered. We Happy Few’s combat system is uninspired, so all it takes is a few jabs with a random weapon to kill someone.
The real problem is one of empathy. We Happy Few doesn’t have many NPC models, so most of them look the same. There is Generic Office Worker, Generic Policeman, Generic Fashionable Woman, Generic Downer in a Hat. At one point, I alarmed a group of Generic Old Ladies, and they chased me down the street, screaming identical lines of dialogue.
We Happy Few is about the dangers of conforming. But in making all its characters look so alike, it undermines its own premise that every Wellingtonian is your former neighbor. Instead, they’re plasticky-looking models and little more.
A Brave New Bioshock 1984 Slouching Roughly Towards Bethlehem
We Happy Few’s one great strength is in the writing of its three main characters, Arthur, Sally, and Ollie. However, the overarching narrative is almost top-heavy and derivative enough to send the whole story crashing down.
First, the good stuff. All three protagonists are genuinely flawed but likable figures with superb voice acting. Arthur is a shy, dry-witted everyman forced into extraordinary circumstances. Flashbacks show his relationship with Percy, who appears to have been autistic, and it’s as realistic and quietly heart-wrenching as any family drama. By the end of Arthur’s arc, I wanted to find Percy just as much as he did.
Sally’s story, which is the best of the bunch, shocked me and nearly made me cry. Her childhood friendship with Arthur dissolved long ago, and though she’s now the smart, pretty, fashionable toast of Wellington Wells, her guilt and loneliness weigh heavy on her. Sally is a superbly written character who shatters one video game trope after another. To say anything else would be to give away major spoilers, but seriously – Sally is worth the cringey gameplay.
Ollie, who was Sally and Arthur’s neighbor years ago, distinguished himself as secretary to the great General Byng during the war. The crimes that he had to cover up ate away at his mind, though, and Ollie now hallucinates a young girl named Margaret, who is with him at all times. Like a Shakespearean hero, Ollie is brave, intelligent, funny, more than a little crazy, and prone to yelling speeches at random passersby. He also has diabetes, which I’ve never seen represented in a game before.
Inhabiting these characters’ minds is a joy (no pun intended). But the worldbuilding of Wellington Wells is not.
If you think that the concept behind We Happy Few sounds familiar, you’re right. The setting is a mashup of dystopian clichés and literary allusions, and it rarely coheres. The game is about an alternate reality in which Germany won World War II (like The Man in the High Castle) and English citizens now live in a highly-regulated police state (1984) where they take mood-altering substances that make them happy and oblivious (Brave New World), but those substances have serious, society-altering consequences (Bioshock).
In addition, the script is peppered with references to Yeats, Keats, and Shakespeare. The title itself is a reference to a classic monologue from Henry V, in which the young king rallies his troops on the battlefield by calling them, “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers…”
The nod to Henry V is supposed to be ironic – Wellington Wells lost on the battlefield, and its happiness is a fragile fantasy – but that reference, like the rest, doesn’t do much work to elevate the story. A good allusion expands and connects a piece of art with those that came before it. In We Happy Few, the constant allusions just come off as annoying, like that dude with a manbun and a vape who won’t stop quoting Derrida.
We Happy Few: Not a Happy Gaming Experience
We Happy Few is an ambitious game. Compulsion Games clearly had a grand idea in mind, one where surviving the dangers of a dystopian England meshed perfectly with exploring the meaningful stories of the people who live in that world. Sadly, the game that came out in August feels half-baked, and the ideas a little raw and undercooked.
It’s a shame, because the progression from alpha to the full release showed how well the team at Compulsion Games can respond to testing and feedback. If they’d gotten another crack at development, maybe We Happy Few would have been better.
But it seems like Compulsion Games didn’t get the time they needed. What we’ve received instead is a few bright spots of brilliant storytelling between the sheer boredom of jumping into trash cans over, and over, and over again.
DISCLAIMER: We Happy Few review code was provided by Compulsion Games. The opinions expressed in the article above have not be affected by, dictated or edited in any way by the provider. For more information please see Girls on Games’ Code of Journalistic Ethics.