We Happy Few [official site] is much less of a downer following a major update. The game, which is a fusion of crafting, survival and first-person narrative action adventure, was released into Early Access in July and my first experiences with it were disheartening. A short introduction has you control lead character Arthur Hastings at work, redacting history, and then escaping into the underground when the true nature of his colleagues and environment is revealed. He sees the truth when he stops taking his Joy, which is a more potent form of Huxley's Soma, and swiftly ends up in the blitzed rubble at his home village's outskirts with all the other downers.
On its initial release, I found the game as drab as Hasting's surroundings.
There's a lot to take in. We Happy Few is very good at communicating tone – it's a comic horror game, set in an alternate version of 1960s England, and it borrows from Terry Gilliam and Douglas Adams as well as Orwell and Huxley. Creators Compulsion place their inspirations front and centre: the conversations between characters are often entirely made up of quotations from literature or cinema, confused call and response that is effectively odd and melancholy, if a little too repetitive. The repetition does somewhat fit with the idea that these broken people are rummaging through their memories for sense and structure, and struggling to find it, but the decent voice acting starts to irritate when phrases are heard over and over again.
The first time I played, I spent a couple of hours wandering around gray streets, occasionally finding a building that wasn't completely destroyed and then being chased out of it by the residents. Sometimes I'd beat the residents to death with a pipe or stick because it seemed easier than running around for the rest of the day with them trailing along behind me. We Happy Few occasionally reminds me of Pathologic, and never more so than when an NPC decides to cave my head in and follows me through the streets, more nuisance than threat.
Other reminders of Pathologic come from the vague nature of objectives. In Ice-Pick Lodge's masterpiece that's intentional; you're a stranger in a strange land, and there's no guiding hand to lead you through the story. We Happy Few's vagueness was not a strength when it first launched. There's only so much scrabbling through bins for food and bandages that you can do before the whole game seems like an exercise in tedium. There weren't enough details or clues in the world to make the breadcrumbs between objectives interesting or apparent, and my impression was of a game lacking in purpose. After that intro, which made the setting seem so fascinating, I was left with a game about filling hunger, thirst and exhaustion meters, and collecting rotten potatoes.
Yes, there was a primary objective, to cross one of the bridges back to the village, but to do so meant aimlessly wandering the streets hoping to find the tools and junk needed to craft certain objects. Side missions and exploration felt like taking part in a raffle at a bland village fair rather than an adventure.
Thankfully, Compulsion's major update, released last week, is precisely the shot of Joy that the game needed. I'd hesitate to say it addresses all of my criticisms but it leaps straight at the throat of the greatest one. We Happy Few doesn't feel pointless now.
Often, an update to a game is measured by the content it adds rather than the content it fixes, and this so-called Clockwork Update is unusual in the sense that it brings very little that is actually new, and yet makes the game feel almost entirely new. I won't pretend to understand how it works behind the scenes, but the existing quests no longer crumble when you try to get a grip on them, like biscuits dunked too long in tea. Under the new scripting system, quests are like robust digestives – you can dip in, move on to something else, and come back to find everything intact and waiting for your return.
Map markers, AI behaviour and scripted events have all been improved or completely rewritten, and I noticed the changes immediately. In four hours of playing I've worked my way through several quests that I didn't even know existed the first time around, or had discovered and dropped because I couldn't find a way to trigger the next step in the process. That my praise can sort-of be summarised as “the game appears to work properly now” is probably fair, but I'm glad that We Happy Few is no longer my greatest disappointment of the year. It's on the right track and far closer to fulfilling the promise of its wonderful/terrible world than I ever expected it might be after the disappointment of that original outing.
It's not all rejigging. There is one obvious addition in the form of a new shelter that links the intro to the first open world area. It's effective and I look forward to seeing more narrative additions over the coming months, but even with the current improvements, I'm still not entirely sold on the emotions and drugs as disguise that early videos suggested would be at the heart of the game. Take Joy, blend in. Having the opening of the game exist in a place where nobody is taking Joy – you're out there with the rejects – blunts the impact of the setting, and the complications of food, drink and sleep make survival rather than progress through stealth or violence the key priority.
I've enjoyed most of the missions I've played though and even though scripting has been tightened, it's still possible to create your own solutions by improvising around the pieces that are in place. Bugs haven't been entirely eliminated and I've seen quite a few NPCs sliding around the streets, usually when they've somehow moved out of position and need to be relocated for a dialogue to take place. It's no biggie, but one quest chain did seem to be broken in my playthrough – a necessary item apparently being located inside a building with no entrances.
On the whole though, this is a step in the right direction, a steadying of the ship and whatever similar metaphor you might want to apply. For a game with such a strong sense of character and tone, We Happy Few still confuses me slightly when it comes to the type of game that it actually aims to be, but that may be a symptom of building such an unusual (in games, at least) setting around mechanics that have become familiar. I'm glad that I don't spend all of my time digging through bins and rubble to find crafting materials and food, but I'm still hoping for a stronger thread between the setting and my actions in the game.
The Joy is starting to have an effect though.