Have you ever had one of those days where you’re so down in the dumps that you just can’t even imagine being happy? Where the smiles of the people around you make you think they’re seeing an entirely different world than you are? Well, in the town of Wellington Wells, every day is that day. Except the reason everyone around you is seeing a different world than you is because they’re all high on government-mandated psychedelic drugs. Oh, and they’ll try to happily bludgeon you to death with frying pans, rolling pins, billy clubs, cricket bats… anything they can get their hands on really.
We Happy Few, the new PC title by Compulsion Games (the slightly-off creators of the well-received 2013 title Contrast), is one of those unique games that comes paired with a premise that has very rarely been attempted. In a way, it’s a stealth game. But rather than lurking around in the shadows or becoming invisible through magic or being a ninja or whatever, the game proudly declares that you will be hiding in plain sight. A roguelike survival game that inexplicably does not feature zombies (well, not the shambling undead kind), We Happy Few challenges you to get to the bottom of the mysterious goings-on in the town of Wellington Wells, a “drug-fueled, retrofuturistic” 1960’s English village with a dark past, and to escape before the Wellies get their hands on you or you die of starvation. Whichever comes first.
Spoiler alert: the Wellies are going to get their hands on you. A lot.
Hiding in Plain Sight[divider type=”thick”]
The most noteworthy mechanic of We Happy Few, the mechanic that causes the game to stand out like a shining diamond amidst all the piles and piles of survival horror clones on the PC lately, is its stealth gameplay. Stealth, of course, is nothing new, but We Happy Few does things a little differently. It eschews common stealth mechanics for more of what I’m going to call social stealth gameplay. As mentioned before, you’ll be spending your time in Wellington Wells hiding in plain sight, trying to blend in with the locals with limited social interactions and by basically pretending to be a normal, productive and, most of all, happy member of society.
You are a “Downer,” you see, someone who has eschewed the state-mandated happy pills (called Joy) and are now seeing the world for the dystopian nightmare that it is. Joy is a drug that not only makes one happy but allows those who take it to forget the horrible things they’ve done in the past (particularly one capital-H, capital-T Horrible Thing that the people of Wellington Wells seem to have done during World War II).
This promises to make the game particularly poignent because not only will your character (Compulsion promises three specific Downer characters whose stories intertwine) be against society, but they will also be coming down from a mind-altering drug and remembering all of the horrible things that they and their society have done.
Fun, fun, fun!
The rest of Wellington Wells will see you as not just deviant but dangerous, and will do anything to keep you from bringing them down from their drug-induced high, so it’s up to you to convince the Wellies that you’re just as happy as can be. You’ll do this by not drawing attention to yourself and going about your dastardly Downer business in as inconspicuous a way as possible. In this way, the game promises to be interesting as simple acts that you normally don’t think about, be it jumping, running, standing still or looking at NPCs for too long, can have dire consequences.
Of course, you can also choose to take some joy to get the Wellies off your back as they seem to be able to sense your overall state of mind, but this can have dire consequences. The one time I overdosed on joy, I woke up the next day, starving and thirsty, back at my “base.”
Unfortunately, in the early, pre-alpha build of the game that I played, avoiding notice seemed somewhat easy to do with the right set of clothes and it started to feel more like a fashion-based stealth game rather than a socially-based one. It seemed like everything I actually did would piss everyone off, so not pissing them off consisted of basically just walking briskly from point A to point B without making eye contact with anyone as long as I was dressed for the section of town I found myself in. My social interactions (the most active of which involved greeting a Wellie with a hearty “Lovely day for it!”) seemed entirely superfluous as the Wellies seem to all but ignore me as long as I didn’t so much as look at any of them.
I have every faith that this mechanic will be further developed for the final release, but unfortunately I can’t comment too much on how it is implemented so far now. Which is a shame because it’s the thing about We Happy Few that I (and others following the game) have been the most excited to sink our teeth into.
Something’s Not Quite Right Here…[divider type=”thick”]
However, even as early in development as the game still is, what We Happy Few still managed to do very well is set the tone and atmosphere for the game world. I haven’t been so genuinely unnerved playing a game for a long time. Read: not scared, unnerved, for We Happy Few aims to tweak the “uncanny” senses, that feeling that something is just about right… but not quite.
The Wellies act in subtly “off” ways, walking around with just a little too much vigor, just a little too much bounce in their step. Their interactions are just a little too happy and robotic, as if they’re reading off a script without knowing what their motivation for the scene is.
This is complicated by the fact that different Wellies have different roles in the game. I didn’t notice much of a difference in the early build I played, but the little old ladies were certainly more nosy than the rest, who seemed happy to ignore my more modest transgressions (one little old lady called down a mob on me for just standing in an alley listening to a radio broadcast) and the constables are naturally more aggressive towards enforcement of Wellington Wells’ societal rules, though in the version of the game I played this seemed to only manifest in the fact that they had billy clubs and the fact that they guarded certain checkpoints between zones. The final version of the game is expected to introduce doctors who can detect you if your Joy levels aren’t high enough.
And, of course, their reactions to you acting suspiciously are more than a little menacing despite the fact that their actual words aren’t much more than gentle chastisements. “Do I know you?” is something the Wellies ask frequently when you start to stand out as “not right” to them and they might as well be saying “who the hell are you?” in the most suspicious way possible. “Are you feeling alright?” is spoken with less a voice of concern than one of accusation… and of course when you hear “you’re bringing me down!” you had better start running.
And then there’s the other Downers. My first interaction with a Downer was in the poor part of town amidst the buildings that lay in shattered ruins from some unremembered war. I had just started playing the game so I was just getting my feet under me when I saw a man standing up on the top of a staircase in a ruined home. Not wishing to be rude (and curious about how I could interact with him), I walked up to him. Across the shattered remains of the upper floor of the room, however, I saw a woman walk out from around a corner. She stared at me for a moment and suddenly began to say in a loud, almost-robotic voice, “TIME FOR TEA. TIME FOR TEA” as though she was accusing me of stealing her first born.
As much as I like tea, I was having none of that and walked briskly away.
The Downers in the ruined parts of town, which show the shattered remains of homes that were supposedly destroyed in Nazi air-raids during World War II, act a little more “normal” (though with the typical sluggish depression usually seen in the homeless), but have their own idiosyncrasies and often seem more mentally ill and broken than unreasonably happy like their better-off Wellie counterparts.
In this way and many others, We Happy Few truly evokes an unsettling atmosphere that urges you on and makes you feel decidedly unsafe even in moments when you aren’t strictly in danger. Despite the fact that I was relatively unmolested and safe walking briskly through town, I felt like things could go wrong at the drop of a stylish, 1960’s piece of British hat. And that speaks to truly masterful atmosphere building. I have no doubt that the mechanics will be polished and expanded to a near shine by the time the game reaches its final build; it’s the setting, the atmosphere, and the premise that make it spectacular now and well worth watching.
A Downer’s Gotta Eat[divider type=”thick”]
Of course your goal of escaping Wellington Wells won’t be easy, nor will it be quick. Conservatively, your quest for salvation will take days and, forgetting the immediate risk of being found out and subsequently flogged by the Wellies, your more long-term concern is the passage of time. Because this is a survival game, so of course there are hunger and thirst mechanics.
Unfortunately for you, this isn’t one of those namby-pamby wilderness survival games where you can scrounge around in nature and eat berries and twigs and poor, murdered animals. The brush of Wellington Wells seems entirely un-nutritious (though that, again, may be due to the early build of the game) and useful only for hiding in. This means that you have only one source of food: other Wellies.
No, you’re not a cannibal, you monster, no wonder society hates and fears you. Unfortunately, what you are is a thief… or, at worst, a murderer. While water is generally pretty easy to come across in one of several outdoor pumps scattered throughout the ruined portions of town, food is decidedly less so.
The Wellies have food. But they’re not willing to share with the likes of you, you filthy Downer. So you’re either going to have to break into their houses or kill them for it. And if they’ll call the cops to bludgeon you to death for standing in one place for too long or running down the street, they’re definitely not going to take too kindly to you breaking into their house for a pot of stew or punching them in the face for an apple.
There are other differences between We Happy Few and the various other survival games on the market as well, the most obvious of which is that you feel an immediate sense of urgency. There are several abandoned bunkers scattered throughout town that you can find and call home but you won’t be building them up with stoves and refrigerators and other modern amenities that will keep you going while you explore Wellington Wells at your leisure – at least there was no sign of being able to furnish your base in any way in the early build of the game I played.
At best you can use a couple of crafting stations to make a few things you couldn’t make in the field and keep an ear to the broadcasts from WW’s own on-air personality, Uncle Jack (who adds a delightful bit of black humor to the whole affair), and store your ill-gotten goods in a series of various containers so you won’t run out of inventory space. It’s possible that you will gain the ability to create furniture items in the future, but this may run contrary to the game’s purpose: to constantly keep you moving.
Maybe this is just my own personal playstyle talking, but I tend to be a little languid in survival games, trying to make myself as self-sustaining as possible before becoming active, so this change of pace, this forcing of a more active role, seems to create a more frantic feeling of constantly ticking down time.
You’re On Your Own[divider type=”thick”]
We Happy Few is not a game that proudly boasts that it will not hold your hand. Even after several hours playing the game, I have a niggling suspicion at pretty much all times that I’m doing everything wrong. But that’s part of the appeal of the game, learning its intricacies by doing rather than through long and tedious tutorials. It is a game that challenges you to be observant, to determine what the Wellies around you are doing so you can try to emulate them and, of course, to realize what you’re doing wrong to avoid raising their ire.
We Happy Few is also a game that challenges you to explore and find your own way to achieve a very distant and nebulous goal: escape. How and when you do that is left entirely up to you. Sure, you could run through the streets, murdering anyone you find (when no one else’s looking, of course) and taking their food and water to sustain you. Or you could sneak, true stealth-fashion, through the alleys and brush, observing and waiting for your chance to get through Wellington Wells to your destination (wherever that may be) in the dead of night. Or you could simply try to fit in, walking through town with a fake smile on your face and a “Lovely day for it!” on your lips… perhaps with a little Joy to help improve the act.
It’s always difficult to preview a game in the earliest stages of playability as it is hard to judge a game based largely on what isn’t there yet and ultimately, even in this early build, I got the feeling that I was barely scratching the surface of what the game had to offer. But allow me to say that so far, We Happy Few is looking well on track to give us that unsettling, dystopian thrill ride that they promised when they began their kickstarter. And you don’t need a dose of joy to be happy about that.
Lovely day for it!