We Happy Few: Wonderful Setting, Tired Structure

We Happy Few [official site] is a singleplayer, first-person survival game, set in an alt-history, 1960s-esque England in which the well-to-do all scoff ‘Joy’ pills to ensure an ordered society, while the less fortunate ‘Downers’ are locked out and left to live in squalor and madness. You play as Arthur, a clerk off his pills and starting to glimpse the stark truth of things, and cast out among the Downers as a result. There, you must craft and fight to say alive, and find a way to some presumed better place.

Strange timing. There am I thinking, “hey, We Happy Few owes quite a bit to Sir, You Are Being Hunted,” and then Big Robot (headed by Jim Rossignol, formerly of this parish) only go and announce their new game. The cosmic ballet continues.

From the nightmare-England aesthetic to the rotten food and gonzo gadgets, it’s hard to imagine that We Happy Few’s creators are not familiar with m’esteemed colleague’s last game. Truth be told though, singleplayer survival oddity We Happy Few has a great many influences, most of them not so much worn on its sleeve as painted in rainbow colours across its entire body.

BioShock, Dishonored, Minecraft, STALKER, Brazil, The Prisoner, 1984. Fine touchstones, thematically speaking, and combined into a half-bleak, half-lurid world of danger and oppression. What a wonderful, darkly beautiful setting – and then of course it goes and gets a crafting game nailed onto it.

A crafting backbone makes commercial sense, of course – one need only glance at the Steam charts to see how popular collecting rocks and building hats is. I’m concerned that its increasing status as the go-to school of design for amazing game-places risks denying us the opportunity to truly appreciate them.

To play We Happy Few is to be constantly nagged by hunger, thirst, sleep and health meters, and to be lost to rummaging through bins and collapsed dressers rather than admiring the attention to detail and snarky socio-political commentary of its vision of a nightmare alt-70s England. In other words, perhaps it’s too inspired by BioShock for its own good.

We Happy Few is, primarily, a game about building bandages and lockpicks out of found junk, in very familiar fashion. Fortunately, it applies some structure to it – hooking some crafting tasks to specific quests which will then enable progress to a new area or elicit a reward from one of its many cracked NPCs.

There’s a sense of purpose to it beyond ‘stay alive / max out the tech tree’ – that purpose being the twin goals of escaping from the hell you have been cast down to, but more importantly getting a glimpse of how the other half live in the locked-off later areas.

This is an early access build, with more ‘story’ and alternate playable characters promised for later on, but while such additions are an enticing prospect, I’m not entirely sure they’re what’s most-needed.

When We Happy Few sings as opposed to just standing around doing familiar things, it’s because it’s presenting vaguely Dishonored-esque multiple solutions to a problem. Two different, locked-down bridges from the poor area to the rich area, for instance, with choice over which you will find a way over and how.

An underlying choice between stealth and violence, deception and chaos. Using dress, psychoactive drugs and machines to convince a policeman that you are One Of Them rather than one of those horrid poor folk on the other side of the bridge, for instance. These options are few and fleeting, but WHF’s voice is clearer when they are presemt.

My overriding sense as I play is that this is a game I want to like, a game which feels as though it has been constructed out of my own pop-cultural interests to such an extent that it surely, surely will please me. I keep playing, waiting for the penny to drop. Waiting to see if there will come a time when every excursion to a new part of town or to find a key component to get over the bridge is not characterised by drip-feed maintenance of basic needs.

Screwing up a stealthy incursion into a tumbledown house occupied by crazed Downers and finding myself in a haphazard fist-fight – yes, OK, pretty creepy. Having to divert from a trip down a road I’ve already been along ten times because my character needs a drink and a snack – no, irritating.

When did ‘survival’ become ‘needing to eat every five minutes?’ WHF is not the sole culprit, let alone creator, of this approach, but, speaking personally, I worry that I’m hitting saturation point on this stuff. What is the point of a beautiful game-world when the reality of it is ceaseless bin-diving?

Early days, early access, and I hope that WHF’s later explorations are more in the vein of disguise and deception, of problem-solving rather than inventory management. As it stands, it presents a great concept, this divided land of the poor and their struggles and the rich and their happy pills, then doesn’t seem to quite know what to do with it. It looks wonderful and feels sinister, and for the most part sounds it too (the lead character’s propensity to speak in book quotes gets old fast) – there is much to build on here. This slightly unhappy one hopes it does so.

We Happy Few is available, in Early Access, now.

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  1. Dudeness says:

    It reminds me also a lot of movies like THX 1138 and Logan’s Run, particularly A Boy & His Dog : link to youtu.be

  2. LionsPhil says:

    Good review. Disappointing, if paradoxically predictable, that it’s not a better game. What a waste of a setting. :/

  3. wallybreen says:

    “When did ‘survival’ become ‘needing to eat every five minutes?’”

    Such a great question, and speaking as someone who loves survival mechanics, one that I truly wish developers would start asking themselves. How many calories a day do game designers think humans have to consume? How many calories do they think walking through a door burns?

    It’d be great if hunger, thirst and rest were something you’d have to tend to once in a while, and something you can put off if need be.

    • Razumen says:

      That’s one thing I hated about Don’t Starve; not only the endless grind of constantly picking stuff up, but apparently to stay fed I have to eat the equivalent of a powerlifter’s weight in rabbits in order to stay alive each day.

      I get that some people derive a certain pleasure in min/maxing their time usage in order to get the most efficient method and order of gathering, but to me, it was all just so tedious.

    • jonahcutter says:

      Last time I played Subterrain it did a pretty good job with the eat/drink/sleep needs. These needs basically hung in the background and could sneak up on you if you ignored them completely, but weren’t a constant junkie’s need for another fix every few minutes. Sleep even synergized well with crafting. You’d pop a recipe into the 3d printer, go sleep for a spell to get your needed rest, and come back out to your item completed.

      It’s still a survival game about dodging/fighting monsters and searching bins. But it made trips back to your home base to rest and replenish more part of the rhythm of the game than overall drives themselves. Unless you completely ignored them, then they would properly weaken you and threaten your stability.

    • Baines says:

      The feeling on the developer side is probably that “realistic” pace for hunger and thirst would largely negate it as a game mechanic. You can go around 3-5 days without water, depending on weather and activity. You can go three weeks without food.

      We apparently don’t know how long humans can go without sleep. Mice apparently die within a month. Fatal familial insomnia tragically shows that people can live half a year with absolutely no sleep (which itself will be coming after months or even a year or more of decreasing sleep, and generally deteriorating health.)

      We do know more about the symptoms of sleep deprivation, which is what most games care more about. (Few games have you die from lack of sleep. Instead, they force you to fall asleep, which can lead to unavoidable death by other causes.) One article lists the following timeline: At 24 hours, you have the cognitive impairment of a 0.10 blood alcohol level. At 48 hours, you are experiencing microsleeps, involuntarily (and without conscious awareness) falling asleep for periods that can last between a half-second and a half-minute. At 72 hours, you are likely experiencing hallucinations. What games model is closest to microsleep, though games tend to drop the “micro” part and simply force the player into sleep until attacked or rested.

      Games would probably be more concerned with the symptoms, as lack of sleep in a game tends to involve the player passing out. One article lists these timelines: At 24 hours, a person has the cognitive impairment of a 0.10 blood alcohol level. At 48 hours, a person is experience microsleeps, blacking out (without realizing it) for periods anywhere from a half-second to a half-minute at a time. At 72 hours, a person is likely hallucinating.

      Once a dev has decided that they want hunger and thirst survival mechanics, they can be loathe to abandon them. So they use unrealistically short timers (not that time and distance both aren’t already a bit of a chaotic mess in many games, it is just a mess that doesn’t matter much until you add survival timers…) I’d guess that in many cases devs don’t really have a satisfactory alternative way to push forward the action, and thus have even more incentive to stick to a somewhat broken but “accepted” solution.

    • monkeybars says:

      Reward me for eating, drinking and sleeping, don’t punish me for not doing busy work.

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      phuzz says:

      Someone must have done a parody game that forces the player to eat every few seconds right?
      ‘Survival’ aspects in games always ruin it for me, feeding my actual self is enough of a chore, I don’t want to spend my free time doing it for a fictional character as well.
      Each to their own I guess.

  4. Doc Revelator says:

    It has definite and deliberate overtones of the 1988 Doctor Who story ‘The Happiness Patrol’, too.

    I’m intrigued, and aware I’m finding RPS’ desire for all games to be innovative, rather than just well-made and atmospheric, a little more grating than perhaps I should.

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      yhancik says:

      I guess the contrast with the Oh So Unique Setting* just highlights, in this case, how commonplace (if not tired) the rest of the game is. I know I’ve myself always been a bit too hard on Bioshock for similar reasons (and the overhype around it surely didn’t help. That’s ok, there are other games to enjoy anyway. More than enough games ;))

      *or at least that how it seemed to be perceived.

    • April March says:

      I don’t feel this (p)review’s complaints was so much that the survival mechanics are not innovative as much as that the survival mechanics don’t gel with the setting and in fact are actively acting against them.

  5. Eight Rooks says:

    I’ll consider playing it for the story, even if it doesn’t change much; Contrast wasn’t that great a game but still a lovely, beautifully written little yarn. I hope it does change somewhat, though. Twenty, thirty hours or whatever of mediocre crafting doesn’t really get me especially excited, even if the narrative is excellent.

  6. Servicemaster says:

    While I agree with you for the most part, the developers have already made a blog post about correcting quite a few of your hangups within the next few updates. They responded only 3 days after launch which seemed pretty good to me.

    I’ll definitely stop playing until those updates though, I desperately want to feel another polished iteration of that setting.

  7. Pizzzahut says:

    Seems like a game that could have really benefitted from a strong, linear plot. These open world games rubbish.

    • monkeybars says:

      I was very excited for this game until I read it was crafting based. If I want trouble surviving, let me turn the difficulty up! Don’t make me run errands.

    • grrrz says:

      I agree, good ol’fashion linear story is not so bad.

  8. grrrz says:

    what a downer.

  9. chevre says:

    I appreciate what you’re saying, but I think it’s worth noting that survival has always been about finding food and water. Which includes keeping a constant look out for it. If you live outside an environment where food comes on shelves and you have a weekly or monthly paycheck, then you are always checking bins. I’m always checking bins for food, it’s a part of my life. Maybe not every five minutes, but any time I come across somewhere where I might be able to get food, I check it out, because who knows when I’ll get food next? And I don’t think this fact interrupts me seeing the beauty or the horror in the life going on around me – it’s just kind of what you need to do… to survive. Personally I’d include pissing and defecating in survival games, because if you do that sort of stuff in public you can get battered, and if you don’t do it you can cause yourself some serious problems.
    I’m not saying at all that all games should encompass these aspects, I have total respect for games that are an escape from the realities of existence, or are trying to tell a story etc etc. But in survival games, unless you’re going to explain these absences in the plot, should probably include all the things you need to do to survive.

  10. studdedpuke says:

    I didn’t realize how much the choices made for this game doesnt’t male a lick of sense and are there to just pander to market sense until i played it. so you have this great setting, a paranoia fueled dystopia where non conformity is seen as mortally dangerous: amazing! How can we integrate this powerful concept? By sticking the player in bumfuck nowhere , far away from the great setting they’re pushing so most of the time he’s doing exactly what 99% of other survival games are doing. The whole “blending in” they promoted is so secondary and so flimsy it barely feels like its a thing. Why the game stuck you in the wastes while it would’ve been so much more compelling by having you live in wellington wells and try to fake normalcy? I really hope the next updates take the game in new interesting directions,because as it this this is only the usual pre canned shit everyone is eating painted in gaudy psychedelic colors ,wich is so ironic that i wish it was intentional.

    • malkav11 says:

      Yeah, when We Happy Few was pitched they talked all about the dystopian setting and how you had to try to blend in to society even though you were seeing the seams, etc, and certainly gave a very intense impression that that was what the game was about. That game sounded awesome. Apparently that’s just a tiny fraction of the game, though, which is a criminal misuse of the premise if you ask me.

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    UncleBAZINGA says:

    While I absolutely love WHF’s presentation which could be a perfect stage for a fascinating BioShock-esque SP experience in reality it just disappoints me with it’s dull gameplay. It’s fine that the masses like survival games, but I just find them plain boring. For me they are stress and some kind of real life simulator (eat, drink etc.) which forces you to ‘work’, but I just want to be entertained with a brimming story and great characters. Sadly WHF atm has the potential, but let’s it widely unused.

  12. Laini says:

    I remember seeing the Kickstarter for this but it was at a time when I didn’t really have spare dosh for anything so I only really glanced at it, I’m not sure how deeply that went into the whole survival thing.
    And usually when I see something that interests me I only read the odd snippet now and then as I want to be surprised by the final game.

    The E3 trailer was exactly what I was picturing from this so when I saw all the crafting and survival stuff I was super confused.
    It just doesn’t seem to fit at all with the kind of game, but again, maybe it’s the kind of game I thought it was versus the kind of game they were presenting (at least, to backers, that E3 demo was quite misleading I think).

    Hopefully once more of the actual story stuff is in place it’ll work better but right now it seems quite disappointing.
    Still I’m curious to give it a go and I’ll be keeping my eye on it.

  13. Niente says:

    I also hate the need to ‘eat’ constantly in survival games. I played The Forest for about ninety minutes before the need the eat made me quit the game in anger.