We Happy Few has come to fruition in a unique way. Compulsion Games first captured attentions in 2015 with its creepy, atmospheric trailers, also launching a successful Kickstarter campaign to fund continued development of its dystopian title. The following year, the game launched on early access programs for both the PC and Xbox One. It was a procedurally generated, roguelike survival game, intended to be relatively short and replayable. Only, the world Compulsion had built was too alluring. The people wanted more, being particularly fond of the game's quirky characters and the player's interactions with them. And so We Happy Few has evolved over time to become a substantial story-driven adventure. At launch on August 10th, the game will follow three very different playable characters that, for one reason or another, don't fit in with their ever-jolly neighbors.
We Happy Few is set on the island of Wellington Wells, somewhere off the west coast of England. The inhabitants speak in a drawl common to Somerset and surrounding counties, though the local police force are cockneys, because all bobbies are born and bred in East London, apparently. It's more fun that way. It's the swinging '60s, but not as we knew it. America never got involved in World War II and Germany bested Britain. The implication is most of the country descended into ruin while Wellington Wells surrendered, enduring German occupation for several years. Not Nazi occupation, mind. We Happy Few does use the concept of alternate history as inspiration, but the complexities of the conflict aren't really part of its story.
One day, the Germans pulled out, which the residents of Wellington Wells call "the victory." Nobody really remembers how that came about, though, but not to worry -- everyone's happy now. They wear masks that show they're always smiling, and take a drug called Joy that keeps spirits high and perceptions favorably altered. Wellies and Wellettes thrive on this artificial joviality and chemically induced memory loss. Joy is a part of daily life, and if you don't take it, you're labelled a Downer. And nobody likes Downers. They're hunted, driven out of the comically stylized, neon town to the neglected countryside to survive amongst the Wastrels -- vagrants who can't take Joy anymore after coming into contact with a bad batch. They are just as cruel and, without pills to suppress their unwanted emotions, consumed by a sense of guilt.
Where did all the children go?
This is almost too much information, because Compulsion Games is hoping to do something a little different to other single player, story-driven titles. The aim is not to handhold the player, instead letting them discover the lore of Wellington Wells through the eyes of the game's three protagonists. "I guess you could call it a novelistic approach," Narrative Director Alex Epstein told me. "We want you to discover stuff. We're not just telling you everything, we're not pushing the story at you. You'll pull yourself into the story." He likens it to life; much of what you learn isn't taught to you directly, but if you pay attention, you get it.
We Happy Few drops you immediately into Wellington Wells as Arthur, a redactor at the Department of Printing, Recycling and Archives -- the game's equivalent of the Ministry of Truth in George Orwell's 1984. An article that crosses his desk for potential censorship features him and his brother as kids, triggering him to neglect his routine dose of Joy. And so his search for the long-lost sibling he once swore to protect begins, with him as an exiled Downer.
Later the player takes on the role of Sally, a Wellington Wells socialite. Epstein describes her as "adorable and charming and tiny and bubbly and sparkling and she's famous. She's a celebrity." But it's all a front. She has a secret she must protect at all costs, or face deadly consequences. When an addict breaks into her home and the threat of exposure becomes all too real, she must maintain her place in society while dealing with this ever-present danger.
The other playable character, Ollie, lives in the ruins of a train station, out of town with the Wastrels and his only friend, the imaginary Margarette. A veteran soldier, this "mad Scotsman" uncovers an unpleasant truth about Wellington Wells' Victory Memorial Camp. His memory is shot, so he can't recall whether he always knew and is therefore partly responsible. While digging into his past is his personal quest, he also might be the only person that can dispense this uncomfortable truth to the crumbling society in Wellington Wells.
We Happy Few uses a backdrop of dystopian tropes -- an alternate history, mood-altering drugs, state censorship and more -- to explore a story built around "memory and denial," as Epstein puts it. Slowly, you learn more about Wellington Wells through the struggles of a few of its residents, all of which are outsiders in different ways. But none are special, they are just your windows into this world. As the player, you have to contend with the fact everyone in Wellington Wells, including you, lies. Arthur, Sally and Ollie interact at important points, but the encounters differ depending on the eyes you're looking through. "We all remember things not how they happen, but how it suits us to remember them," Epstein mused. Under the influence of Joy, you also perceive things differently. In that sense, it's up to the player to figure out the truth of it all as they traverse the three characters' storylines.
While We Happy Few was always intended to feature an overarching story tied to the breakdown of society in Wellington Wells, it's morphed into a more linear title compared with the survival roguelike early access players will be familiar with. Epstein told me putting it out there was a good opportunity to test mechanics, but that Compulsion wanted to save the expansive narrative for launch. "We went from a more systemic game to... 'This is an adventure.' We fleshed out the story," he said.
Still, it's a mixture of stealth, crafting and combat, and the world remains procedurally generated in part. There are places you have to visit to advance the story, but these handcrafted locations will be placed within automatically populated open worlds. Various side quests that expand on the lore of Wellington Wells will appear in different playthroughs, too, so there's a hope replayability will continue to be a draw of the game.
Death isn't permanent, and the survival mechanics are a little more forgiving than they once were. Hunger and thirst, for example, will only debuff your character, not spell an untimely end if you can't find food. Each protagonist requires you to approach the game in different ways. Arthur, for example, is basically invisible. As long as you're dressed appropriately and don't act out, you can quite easily walk the streets without drawing unwanted attention from the Joy-guzzling crowd.
Sally can also conform, though given her status she doesn't blend into the background. Being a petite Wellette, combat is not her forte, but she's a master chemist who often only needs a syringe to solve her problems. Ollie, however, sticks out like a sore thumb and he can't take Joy on account of it making him ill. He's a bruiser, being most comfortable with a heavy weapon in hand. But as a big, powerful guy, he lacks speed and stamina. Depending on who you're playing, you'll have to adapt your strategy and rely more heavily on some mechanics than others.
We Happy Few has gone through an abnormal development cycle that's seen the game change significantly since it first hit early access programs. Even at a time when multiplayer titles are dominating the conversation, Compulsion is content that it's got something special on its hands. "You're not going to come away from Fortnite feeling sad, or troubled," Epstein said. "I think we're doing some things that I haven't seen done in video games." Talking about the way the story progresses, he said: "We have a lot more faith in the player's ability to interpret information, rather than having to have it all spelled out."
It's fair to say that We Happy Few has been highly anticipated for some time, and there's no better proof of that than Microsoft acquiring your studio before your new game even launches. Compulsion is one of five companies Microsoft snapped up last month in an attempt to rectify its first-party problem. The last big-name game from a Microsoft studio was Rare's Sea of Thieves, and that's been met with a lukewarm response due to a lack of any great depth. We Happy Few isn't really a first-party title, though. Development is all but complete, Gearbox Software remains the publisher and there are no plans for the game to feature on the Xbox Game Pass subscription.