The Happy History
Even though altering and deleting history is a major theme of We Happy Few, the game published by Gearbox Publishing has a unique one. Announced in early 2015, We Happy Few became the child of a successful Kickstarter campaign led by its developer, Compulsion Gaming, later that year. Released into Early Access in 2016 as a short survival game, it was well reviewed and left players wanting to learn more about the story. Although creating a strong narrative was not the original intentions of Compulsion, the developer listened to its supporters and the current game was born.
The Sad Story
As an early disclaimer, We Happy Few is far from a kid-friendly game. There are many curse words, drug representations, and sexual references throughout that add to the story, but make it a strictly adults-only experience. I played the game on the original Playstation 4 and had a great time.
My first impression of We Happy Few is that it is extremely dark. The setting is 1960s England in what I’m sure was once a cute settlement called Wellington Wells. Self-described as a “retrofuturistic England”, the story begins with the main protagonist, Arthur, hard at work redacting articles from 1940’s newspapers. It becomes clear pretty early that England was defeated by Germany in World War II, and the people have created a societal facade by turning to happy pills, Joy. These pills are a major theme in the game and cause the people to feel a fake happiness to allow day to day living. Joy also suppresses any bad or depressing memories of the world pre-WW2. After spotting an article of himself and his younger brother, Percy, Arthur is faced with the first decision of the game: to take a Joy pill, or to not take a pill. If he chooses to take the pill, roll credits, game over. If he fights the addiction and tosses the pill bottle off the table, the adventure begins.
As the story progresses, you play as three different characters: Arthur, Sally, and Ollie in an intertwining narrative that is as beautiful as it is interesting. You discover in segments not only the history of each character, but also pieces of the altered fictional history of England’s fall to German at the end of World War II. With each new quest comes new information about each character, and you develop a real sense of what drives and motivates them in their journey. Emotional video clips and cutscenes caused me to become attached to the characters, even if they made bad decisions or were forced to hit an innocent person with a shovel.
We Happy Few really touches on some important issues such as government corruption and control. In one scene, Arthur is heard telling his little brother that Germany seems to be losing the war to Russia. Percy is confused, because the radio has been reporting victories. Arthur points out that each victory is closer to Berlin and deduces that the media is lying. There are also many other themes and feelings to be discovered and experienced.
One of the greatest parts of the game is the humor. Many characters seem to have accepted their fate with some very dark humor, and many pitfalls of even modern-day society is mocked and joked about. A favorite moment is when Arthur is confronted by a policeman about where Bobby Hickinbotham is, for whom Arthur claims to be replacing. Arthur mentions he is at the Reflux Club, again, which is where people partake in secret fetishes. The policeman responds with a veiled threat and offense, letting Arthur know that Bobby Hickinbotham is engaged to his sister! Ha! Another moment is a long drawn out quest to fix a bridge, and the solution ends up being, turn it off then back on. There are many funny and twisted scenes such as this that are greatly complemented by the marvelous art of the game.
The artwork of We Happy Few does a great job of achieving the look and feel of the 60’s, without historical accuracy. The animation creates a comedic yet creepy feeling, with characters having painted happy masks and extremely large eyes. Wellington Wells itself has a certain sense of charm for a war torn, bomb ravaged area. Only certain buildings have been fixed up, and the world looks differently depending on your character’s state of mind.
The Joyful Gameplay
We Happy Few is a first-person adventure game with an interesting take on survival. Throughout the game, you take control of three different characters with unique abilities and traits. After completing main and side quests your character is awarded with skill points to spend to improve combat, stealth, and super-duper. While you must keep an eye on your vitals such as health, stamina, and joy levels, many other factors go into gameplay. Your levels of hunger, thirst, and rest must be adequately restored throughout, or your stamina is negatively affected. Some areas are only accessed after a dose of Joy, but too much can cause an overdose, and suffering Joy withdrawal in public will get you chased by the locals and policemen(bobbies). There is also a simple crafting system that allows you to make health items, pry bars, lockpicks, and weapons.
One of the most important aspects of the game is stealth. Your character is consistently in unauthorized places and trespassing or being out after curfew are grounds for attack. Machines and bobbies can spot you, and due to sheer numbers of police and machines I was running and hiding in many occasions before finding my way through certain areas. Even simple things such as climbing, jumping, or running in public will annoy locals to the point of violence. There are many choices for interesting weapons, from umbrellas to frying pans, yet combat is a little sloppy and I it was hard to find success early. Your options in a fight are swing or block, and I found myself in many standoffs holding block and staring at my adversary while he did the same. If a mob is formed, defeat in battle is inevitable, and I spent a great deal of time running until I could find a place to hide.
Wellington Wells allows plenty of exploration and side quests and has a fun system of fast travel the become extremely helpful when you start uncovering the full extent of the map. Fast travel areas are unlocked by solving some clever puzzles to clear an area and open a hatch used for fast travel. There are plenty of quests, main and side to keep you entertained for many hours.
The Bad: An Unhappy Few
I am well aware of some complaints people have of this game, but I have very few. The first is the extremely long load times. Load screens had creative artwork and helpful tips, but I soon had to entertain myself or fold some laundry as I waited for the game to load. I typically despise a game with long drawn out tutorials, but I certainly notice when there isn’t one. There were virtually no lessons in gameplay, and it took a lot of navigation to learn the tricks of the game. As I mention previously, the combat is sloppy and repetitive, and running so often gets annoying after so much of it. The implementation of hunger, thirst, and fatigue is fun, yet the negative effects of neglecting them were barely noticed when I faced adversity. I would like to see the need to eat and sleep play a more vital role in the gameplay, but I enjoyed it nonetheless. My last complaint is the number of glitches in the final product. Errors are expected in early access games, and every game can be victim to an online video clip of a glitch, but We Happy Few had them often and numerous. From being unable to scroll to the bottom of my journal, to the floating Miss Minturn that I had to save from a Joy overdose, there were many annoying instances where the game did not load properly, or something was amiss. However, this took nothing away from the great narrative and I had a great time playing the game.
My Happy View
Overall, I am very pleased with my purchase of We Happy Few. By the time I am done I will have entered well over 20 hours into gameplay and feel I easily have received my money’s worth. I bought the exclusive edition, but it does not seem necessary to have a great time with the game. I recommend it to any players who enjoy interesting and creative stories with extremely entertaining characters. If you are tough on glitches but still want to experience the game, catching it on a sale would never be a bad idea.