E3 2018: We Happy Few is Dark Yet Charming

Back in 2016, Compulsion Games began an early access on a new indie survival adventure game called We Happy Few. Published by Gearbox Publishing, the game will launch on PlayStation 4, Xbox One and PC on August 10. This unique game seems to blend certain elements from Bioshock and Fallout without the lunacy involved with both, but incorporates a strange sense of charm. Set in an alternative universe following World War II, the inhabitants of this fictional British city known as Wellington Wells are all on a hallucinogenic drug that keeps its citizens happy but unaware of the destruction around them. The area is heavily policed as the game features such a dark undertone that will throw you off from the charm and how colorful the world can be even though it is grim. We played through a demo at E3 2018 and spoke with the producer on the game Sam Abbott about this world and its design.

We Happy Few is played in first person with a focus in the 1960s British Culture, even though this is an alternative universe after WWII. The final game will feature three different playable characters, but the demo focused on Arthur Hastings. Hastings has no fighting skills as players will punch and block and try to craft the occasional pipe to handle enemies. Stealth plays a part in the game too. There was one point in the demo where you had to fight for survival in a pit with people watching. The mechanics of combat are wonky, but it’s designed like this on purpose. With so many elements driving the direction of We Happy Few, we asked Abbott about the premise of the game and how it originated. “I think one of the things we’ve done with both We Happy Few and our previous game Contrast, we tried to address quite dark themes but it’s almost subtle,” Abbott said. “It sounds strange, but we’re video gamers and we’re most used to getting hit on the head with things but we want high stakes and serious things happening. We kind of present in a strange, jovial way because our art style is quite stylized and there’s usually a lot of humor. We are talking about a society that’s literally starved to death. It’s quite horrific when you think about it. It’s appalling but we are trying to satire some sort of issue in society that’s approachable.”

A lot of thought went into these elements to create such a unique atmosphere. Abbott mentioned that you can take these into consideration or just play the game. “You can just enjoy the game, as well, if you want to,” Abbott said. “We started with a few key motives: drugs, dystopia and masks. It sounds a bit strange. Also a procedurally-generated city, because no one had really done that before and it sounds like a great challenge. We had long debates about that. We thought about what setting would be cool and Whitney our art director defines the art logic as a generation that was optimistic about the future while forgetting their past. So we tried to make an alternative history. We incorporated drugs as taking your pill to forget your past and deal with society. We try to draw all things together and then they build together.”

With a game that has a focus on hallucinogens and trying to forget your past, obviously addiction is something that can be brought up. We asked Abbott about the game having any underlying tones for addiction. “I think that’s a topic that a lot of people will think about when they play through the game. There’s a central mechanic which is about taking Joy. Joy is the fictional drug that everyone takes to be happy. You go through cycles of Joy and you take it and feel great and you’re slightly more powerful like I wanna go hit that guy in the head over there and you take it. At the same time, you’re doing the same thing everyone else is doing so you blend in. The world changes as well so you have a visual representation of what it’s like to be on this drug. But it lasts for a short time and after that you go into a withdrawal so as you take more Joy, you enter a cycle and will slowly develop memory loss. If you take too much, you begin forgetting about your past and while your characters are trying to stop that, it draws a lot of attention.”

As a personal take that was mentioned above, the world feels like a blend of Bioshock and Fallout. There are other inspirations that drove the idea of We Happy Few. We asked Abbott where these inspirations came from. “The inspirations for the game started quite small,” he said. “We looked at the procedural nature of the survival and rogue-like gameplay. So Don’t Starve, Original Rogue and at the same time we wanted melee combat systems. So with that we looked at Dead Island. Other references were focused on specific mechanics or UI flow or something like that. So for example, the stealth systems are a little bit of Deus Ex and Thief. From there, it grows and you receive feedback. The survival mechanics changed because we went away from the early references we had based on player feedback.”

We Happy Few will feature a variety of well-implemented mechanics with almost primitive combat. The world and story will be the compelling part because it provides such a strange feeling and this was just through the demo. Abbott mentioned that the game will eventually take you to modernized cities that aren’t so destroyed with technology that isn’t useful. From what we played, the game can be summed up as a beautiful tragedy.