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We Happy Few: Wonderful Setting, Tired Structure

More high-concept bin-diving

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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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Alec Meer

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Co-founder of RPS. Dungeon Keeper & X-COM 4 Life.

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