We Happy Few is the product of a strange alliance of genres and conceptions of how games work. Tracing the genealogy back on one side, like a weird Victorian map of species-creation, presents us with the roguelike genre in its first-person form: Eldritch and Sir, You Are Being Hunted spring immediately to mind. On the other side is the contemporary blockbuster narrative game of which Bioshock, for better or worse, gets to carry the banner. We Happy Few is the clear product of the inclinations and decisions that those genres bring with them, based on my time with what developers Compulsion Games are calling the game’s “Gameplay Alpha.”
Here’s the opening: Arthur Hastings experiences the events of the E3 trailer. He runs from the police, and instead of being profoundly dead after being kicked in the face, he wakes up in a safe room outside of the city. After a brief bit of tutorial by way of environmental design (can you find the items needed to craft a Pry Bar in order to get out of the starting area?) he pops up out of a hatch to find himself surrounded by ruined homes and wandering former citizens of Wellington Wells, the city ruled by those hopped up on the mind-controlling antidepressanthallucinogenic Joy.
From this point onward it is hard for me to tell what is procedurally generated and what is crafted for us here, and I’m impressed with this from the start. While Compulsion Games are currently very open that what we’re seeing in this Gameplay Alpha is the generative algorithm for creating the world, the story that I created through the few missions felt just as crafted and specific as anything in the outward periphery of a contemporary Elder Scrolls game.
In no particular order, I found a former medical professional who was standing in a pool of wastewater vomiting his heart out. I gave him a pill to help out with his nausea, and he asked me to help him clean the medical waste out of the pond. I picked up all of the dirty bandages and bottles from the water, and he told me where to get some treasure that he had buried. I wandered around until I found it, and when I dug it up there were some survival manuals that allowed me get better use from healing items.
This was a tight, explicit little mission, and (remarkably) it didn’t require me to kill anyone. I didn’t have to bludgeon fifteen sharks, or invade a home, or kill five people who had wronged someone I didn’t really know. In fact, during my entire time playing the game, I only experienced one mission where I had to hurt someone at all, and the person who asked for my help explicitly told me to hurt their enemies without killing them.
I did some other things, too, like rob a beehive to get honey in order to pay a toll to cross a bridge. I also defused some traps with rocks in order to dig up some war rations from the final days of World War II. Some of these instances contributed to a the grand plot of the game, which as far as I can understand it is to get back into the city, make my way through it, and escape down the river out to the rest of the world uncontrolled by Joy. Some of them did not. Some of them merely involved me standing and watching a man vomit while attempting to talk to him while being prompted to choke him out.
Choking people into an unconscious state is one of the tools at your control disposal in We Happy Few. So is beating someone with a cricket bat (deadly), or hitting them with a stick (hurtful), or thwapping them with a rock from ten feet away (annoying at best). Unaware of the communitarian or possessive tendencies of the homeless and disenfranchised living in the ruins of the first part of the game, I slept in a bed, and upon waking I had to brutally defend myself against an entire household of people who could not stand the idea of my sleeping in their bed. And then, of course, I did some full-on aggressive business.
We Happy Few follows the “immersive sim” idea of controls. It gives you as many options as possible, with an ample inventory, and it just lets you go. I can’t say that the game’s melee combat feels good in a crunchy, punchy way, but I also can’t say that it is supposed to. When defending myself or going on the attack, I constantly felt like I was barely scraping by, whether it was against armed enemies or people hanging around on the street. It’s a good thing, as combat does not feel like the intended goal of We Happy Few and in its current state I would rather take any other method available to me. As it is, running away at maximum speed after committing any social slight seems to solve most problems, and that’s really helpful for making the game both fun and easy to play.
For a Gameplay Alpha, We Happy Few is interesting and unique. It’s already beautiful to look at, and it seems like the designers and developers have a very strong idea of what kinds of interactions they want players to have with the game world. At this point in time, I have no major concerns or qualms about the game other than the fact that it is entering into Steam Early Access. I’ve watched Early Access Games from afar since the platform was formally introduced, and it seems that it is easy to be trapped between a vision for a game and what players want in their ideal version of the game. I hope that We Happy Few is able to stay true to their vision without giving into overcomplexity, a more extensive crafting system, or open-ended stories that lose the charm that is already well-established in the game.
Cameron Kunzelman tweets at @ckunzelman and writes about games at thiscageisworms.com. His latest game, Epanalepsis, was released last year. It’s available on Steam.