We Happy Few’s Fledgling Dystopian Survival Experience

Punch ups are a reglar occurance for me

We Happy Few [official site] is, I think, the only survival game with permadeath whose conceit has intrigued me enough that I’ve wanted to stick with it in spite of the insistence that humans lose water at the rate of your average sieve and that anyone can build advanced machinery with enough scavenged scrap metal. That said, I’ve just died for the sixth time and I’m feeling ever-more like the desperate and downcast character I’m playing.

We Happy Few is Compulsion Games’ current project. Its world is the city of Wellington Wells, where a perky, authoritarian bubble called Hamlyn is separated from World War II ruins known as the Garden District by a series of bridges and security checkpoints. The checkpoints are designed to keep Downers – people who aren’t taking their happy pills (“Joy” in the game parlance) – on the ruined side of the river. The idea is to find a way from the ruins where you spawn to the other side of the river and then figure out a way to escape.

In terms of influences I’ve seen a lot of mention of Bioshock, but having never actually played that game (look, I have a real issue with needles) I’m thinking of it more in terms of the original run of The Prisoner and of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. Individuality and dissent are what you’ll be punished for, whereas maintaining the appearance of fitting in will enable you to do better.

As Compulsion’s Kickstarter states, “This isn’t stealth – this is hiding in plain sight. We Happy Few is a game about blending in, while you look for a way to escape.”

At the moment I have access to a pre-alpha build and my blending in has been going atrociously.

When I spawn it’s in this little underground shelter with a bunk, a crafting table, some lockers and a little plant. A radio plays a good morning message from creepy Uncle Jack. Jack is the face of Wellington Wells, his image plastered across screens and his voice emanating from radios as you explore. There’s a singsong children’s hour quality to his shows which is undercut by a viciousness as he tells jokes about Downers. That’s the tone that the game is generally aiming for, this performance of happiness which papers over something sinister.

Jack of all stations

As per the Kickstarter:

“Located in the southwest of England in 1964, Wellington Wells is a city haunted by the ghosts of its recent past. In 1933, this world deviated from our own, and the Germans successfully invaded and occupied England during World War 2. Most of England is rubble, as is a fair part of Wellington Wells.

“However, during the Occupation, the Wellies all had to do A Very Bad Thing. To calm their anguish and guilt – and forget what they’d done – the Wellies invented Joy, the miracle happiness drug, that obviously has no side effects whatsoever.”

In terms of survival game mechanics and systems what you’ll see, certainly at first, is fairly standard. You can collect leaves from little pink-flowering plants to make health potions, you can also collect bottles which can be used to hold water by investigating rubble piles, checking beside couches, looking in wardrobes and so on. Water can then be purified using charcoal – you might want to do that on the perky side of the river as the water comes pre-dosed with that mood-altering Joy I mentioned earlier.

A long drink of Joyless water, please

Having engaged in a punch-up you can staunch bleeding with bandages (either picked up whole or crafted using alcohol, cloth and adhesive). There are also blunt instruments to be found which will aid you in combat and other curious items like an electronic lock-buster and the intriguingly named “anti-future device”.

In my most recent playthrough I spent a lot of time in the ruins of the Garden District attempting to find coloured pills. I was hoping that if I took a combination of them (perhaps in combination with the craftable psychotropic syringe which prevents Joy overdoses) I’d be able to fool a scanner which stood on one of the bridges to Hamlyn. I couldn’t find enough of them to try out my theory but did keep getting into fights with fellow Downers all of whom appeared so indoctrinated that my Joy-lessness incited violence in them despite their own grubby misery. Eventually I’d burned through my bandages and was getting hungry so I decided to risk the security point anyway.

I had such high hopes

The policemen let me through – great! Well, great until the siren started to go off. Apparently I was still an obvious Downer and needed taking down. I scarpered towards an alleyway between shops thinking I’d probably have to fight one bobby at the most (this is not my first dash for Hamlyn). I wasn’t so lucky this time. Two of the monstrous law enforcement professionals had kept pace and I couldn’t survive their truncheons.

At that point I called it quits, but a previous playthrough had been more profitable. I’d made it through one of the other checkpoints with more resources and had only had to kill one officer. After that I spent a night skirting the rainbow-coloured streets, rooting through bins that look like upturned carnival Daleks for alcohol and trying to stay out of sight of the police. As dawn broke I decided to try to blend in. I think I overdosed on Joy which meant my screen went really weird for a little while and then everywhere I went people were shouting at me.

I haven’t worked out yet if that was because of the overdose – whether there’s an optimal level of Joy that other citizens can detect – or perhaps I wasn’t interacting correctly. I seemed to incur the wrath of an elderly lady on a disproportionate number of occasions and had to scoot for the relative safety of a shadowy grass verge. I’ve since discovered that she’s supposed to be incredibly nosy, although I’ve not worked out how to counter that yet. Perhaps scuttling away like a fugitive is not my best blending in tactic. On that playthrough I managed to get into someone’s home although that seemed to irk them and I ended up being bashed to death on the street as I backed away. In another I was advancing on a locked gateway to Hamlyn armed with lockpicks and electronic lock busters eager to try out my skills and ended up bashed to death by two women with rolling pins.

There should also be an element of social stealth in navigating Hamlyn to aid me once I’m over the river from what I know about the game. By that I mean waving at people and interacting in a perky but unfocused manner so as not to draw their attention but, having managed to paint a target on myself in virtually all situations I haven’t yet encountered it. After the police checkpoint and the kicking in the street trying to feel out those systems feels like a risk to my life that isn’t worth taking. Instead I’m resorting to skulking and running away because I’m afraid of being killed by a mob again.

The streets are paved with, uh, rainbows.

We Happy Few is only in pre-alpha at the moment which means many elements of the game that I’ve encountered might well be tweaked or altered, while absent features and items will be added. Bugs like a water bottle not appearing in my inventory will also hopefully be ironed out so I don’t die of dehydration while a notification onscreen informs me that I now have water. With that in mind, I’d say this is the most I’ve enjoyed a survival game because the theme is interesting and feels like it works with the survival idea in a way that isn’t just about aimlessly pitting you against an abstraction of a body. A few runs in I was starting to lose patience in the familiar way I do with pretty much all survival games – curiosity about later game experiences dulled by deaths and restarts and scavenging and punching – but I still had ideas I wanted to investigate. I think I’ll go back for another poke around with the next update.

10 Comments

  1. walrus1 says:

    The more see of We Happy Few the more I like it. If I was a bit braver I might break my never fund Kickstarter rule and throw them some money.

  2. MrFinnishDude says:

    I don’t like when games are reviewed too early. Sure you can always reason to yourself that the game will get better, but your subconscious will still label it as a bad, unfinished mess of a game, greatly lessening the interest to get it when it’s a good game.

  3. melnificent says:

    I was doing so well on not backing kickstarters too. I think it was the Uncle Jack Kickstarter video that pushed me into “backing” territory.

  4. gayreth says:

    This isn’t a criticism of the game by any means – on the whole it looks wonderful, and I don’t want to be a dirty gun-jumper – but one thing that I hope isn’t a thing is that the sub-textual groundwork is there for a tired commentary on psychiatric medication, with the Joy pills and the Downers and so on. I’m not saying that the game even necessarily swings it’s story/setting into that direction (the game isn’t even out yet), or that if it does, that it handles it poorly (it’s not out yet), or that games can’t explore such aspects of life (because that would be silly), just that I hope it’s not so.

    • dsch says:

      What would it look like done right?

    • ffordesoon says:

      Based on what I’ve seen of the game, you needn’t worry. Those already against psychiatric medication might fall prey to confirmation bias and assume the game is speaking out against it, which is a shame, but it’s a necessary risk of playing with pharmaceutical imagery. The reality is that Joy is a “What if?” plot device which creates an interesting gameplay dynamic, much like the plasmids in Bioshock. The game does not appear to be arguing for or against real medication.

  5. J. Cosmo Cohen says:

    “I’d say this is the most I’ve enjoyed a survival game…”

    Besides Sir, You Are Being Hunted, right Pip?

  6. Ross Angus says:

    I suspect that the fun in a lot of survival games is working out how to survive. Figuring out what each inventory item does and discovering methods of avoiding adversaries or combating them. This aspect of these games doesn’t really interest me.

    I have to admit, I was hoping for more of an action adventure. This is a really interesting world and I’d prefer to work out what was going on, rather than simply game the system. But I suspect this might not be my sort of thing.