Written August 8, 2016, at 7:57 a.m.
We Happy Few may not live up to it’s trailers just yet, but I think the beta released on Early Access shows that it’s going to be something special.
The game is set in the fictional British town of Wellington Wells in an alternate history 1960s where an Orwellian government keeps the people in a constant state of happiness with a drug known as “Joy.” Those who stop taking their Joy, or “Downers, “as they’re known, are hunted and brutally killed either by the police or mobs of their fellow Joyed up citizens.
The inhabitants of the richer areas Wellington Wells are fantastically creepy with their blank, white masks and immutable cheeriness and walking the edge of this society between a delirious, idyllic fantasy world and a brutal, decaying police state where the people splashing in puddles in the streets can turn into a mindless, bloodthirsty mob in an instant is a really uncomfortable place to be.
The game was released on Steam Early Access and Xbox One Game preview this week. And has you play as Arthur Hastings, a ‘Redactor’ with the job of censoring newspaper articles who decides to confront his painful memories rather than continue using Joy to bury them. When he realizes the world without the influence of Joy is much more different than he realized he decides to escape, and this is where the game begins.
The game has drawn a lot of attention not only for its successful Kickstarter last year, but also a trailer at this year’s E3 that really caught people’s interest. However, after seeing it, the Early Access release may not quite live up to your expectations.
While the trailer shows some heart poundingly tense moments and a vibrant world that blends elements from some of the best and most well known dystopian fiction, the game itself is actually a somewhat slow urban survival, crafting experience with a surprisingly flat, lifeless world that marketplaces like Steam aren’t exactly lacking at the moment.
It’s clear the developer is holding back the story and refraining from really getting into the meat of the game right now. It’s actually reassuring to see that there is a very solid foundation of gameplay that the story is going to be laid over but after a year of waiting to dive right in I don’t think this Early Access version is going to scratch most people’s itch just yet. It’s not a bad game right now, it’s just not the game people have been waiting for.
The developers have already discussed multiple game modes that they plan to add, including a story mode with a choice of three characters. I think this is really where We Happy Few is going to grab people. While it seems to draw heavily from works such as 1984 and Equilibrium, there are actually some surprising story choices hinted at in the Early Access release that really piqued my interest and show that We Happy Few is going to very much be it’s own world and story.
It seems like even if you escape from the aggressively pleasant, technicolour world of Wellington Wells, it doesn’t change the fact that you’re escaping into a broken world. There is a hint in the game at some sort of resistance to the totalitarian government, but seeing the communities of Downers at the edges of Wellington Wells, it seems like society might be too far gone to change things.
I thought it was a little strange that the Downers were just allowed to live on the outskirts of the town and weren’t hunted by the government unless they appeared within one of the more stable, rich areas but when you start to see how they live it makes sense that they’re not really anything of a threat. It seems that reality is too much for people who stop taking their Joy, and they slowly slip into a sort of fatal despair or insanity as they shuffle around the crumbling ruins of their homes.
While the world without Joy is shown as horrific, there’s never really any possibility that Joy might be a better alternative. There’s a really telling sequence during the prologue where the protagonist, Arthur, is seeing the world without Joy for the first time and notices that his office is falling apart. The news stories he censors as part of his job pile up outside, never reaching their destination but everyone is too joyed up to be bothered by their slowly crumbling society.
Maybe the reason the Downers are allowed to live in their crumbling districts is because the functioning districts are barely keeping their own up and running, and it’s only a matter of time before they succumb to the same fate.
Maybe that makes the decision to not use Joy all the more poignant. It’s not just the decision to reject fantasy for reality. It’s the decision to face the fact you’re likely on a sinking ship and there’s not much you can do about it. When faced with such a reality, maybe Joy isn’t so bad after all…
We Happy Few is planned to remain in Early Access for the next six to 12 months while new features are added and bugs fixed as developer Compulsion Games collects feedback from players. With the lack of story features, repetitive procedurally generated locations and somewhat shallow survival gameplay.
It’s hard to justify jumping on board right now. Especially at the current price of $30. That said, there are definitely the makings of something really great here. It’s definitely one to keep an eye on and I suspect this is not the last you will hear of it before the full release.