We Happy Few’s development has been one that has meandered in and out of the public eye. First a Kickstarter project, it really caught the eye with its E3 trailer back in 2015, but that led into an Early Access window that showed a very different, much less narrative-driven side to the game. It’s been a long time coming, but the game is now on the cusp of release early next month.
Initially, the Early Access game came in for a bit of stick, and it’s something that Compulsion Games have had to overcome. Lead Writer Alex Epstein recalled, “We kept saying that we’re releasing the gameplay, because you can tinker with gameplay, but you can only really tell a story once.” Alex recalled. “When we released updates about working with actors, everyone was like, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah… No Man’s Sky…'”
But work on a story is what they have done. In fact, they’ve been working on three, with Sally and Ollie two other playable characters in this world. One thing that’s not necessarily expected is for a Canadian team to make a game set in such a thoroughly British feeling 60s dystopia. Certainly, you could say that it’s viewed through the lens of Hollywood, but the inspirations are clear to see.
Alex revealed, “Our art director Whitney Clayton, who is amazing and was the art director on Contrast as well, she has a really hallucinatory style and wanted to draw 60s England. So that’s where the game was set.
“I’m a fan of many things British things. I’ve been reading Churchill, watching Monty Python, watching Shakespeare plays and movies like Blow Up, Clockwork Orange, television series like The Prisoner and The Avengers. This was an opportunity to put all of that into a story.”
You start with Arthur, as in the original E3 trailer, as he checks and redacts newspaper clippings. His cheery, colourful, drug-addled bubble is burst when seeing a story about himself and his brother, and it gives him the opportunity to stop taking the Joy drug that keeps everyone feeling so happy.
“It’s not an anti-drugs message,” Alex told us. “We’re not against anti-depressants; this is a society that has substituted drugs for the truth, so when you’re using drugs to avoid reality, that’s not good. That’s not a message though, it’s stories. It’s stories told in a certain world in a certain situation and hopefully the player can have the experience of being in this world as these characters. It’s more about telling stories in the world than making a specific point.
“We’re looking at how memory works, how denial works, how people twist events so that they’re the hero of their own story. I don’t think it’s the point of a novel to say this is good and that’s bad, it’s more about what it’s like to be that person.”
In Arthur’s case, it leads to him being branded a Downer and going on the run to try and find his brother. However, his isn’t the only story that We Happy Few is trying to tell. Along the way, Arthur will meet Sally and Ollie, and you can play as these characters to follow their own stories and what drives them.
Sally is a bright bubbly member of the community, a fashion icon who’s also a brilliant chemist and cooks up batches of drugs to sell for the grey market. However, she’s hiding a dark secret that’s on the verge of being discovered during the opening to her story. Ollie, on the other hand, has a secret that he can’t quite remember that runs through the very foundations of the society that remains in Britain. Where Sally conforms to the status quo, Ollie rails against it as a mad, shouty, sweary Scotsman with an imaginary friend that he happily chats to as you play. He also gets angrier whenever he’s hungry, and Alex told us he spouts out lines like “Chew on a banger, you ferret wearing cockwomble!”
There’s an intriguing play between conformity and rebellion here, and that’s true whether you’re in the Village and amongst those hopped up on Joy (who you can join in taking pills, if you like), or among the Wasterels that live in the ruins outside of town, where you need to look more dishevelled. As Alex explained to us, “Among the Wasterels you have to be a Wastrel, among the people of Hamlyn Village you have to be happy and upbeat and wear nice clothes, not run and not climb on things, or these little old ladies who look like the Queen will scream at you.”
There’s three different styles of play that will come to the fore because of this, with Arthur somewhere between Sally and Ollie. Arthur and Sally can both conform with society quite easily, but where Arthur can hold his own in a fight quite easily, that’s more difficult for Sally, who can instead dope unsuspecting NPCs with chemical cocktails or simply use her good fashion to blend in. On the other hand, ex-soldier Ollie will come at them with a cricket bat strengthened with metal plates, probably screaming bloody murder. It’s a contrast shown in their opening levels, where Sally is dashing back and forth trying to keep her dangerous secret, well, secret, while Ollie’s is an explosive brawl as Headboys swarm his hideout and try to blow it up.
How these story moments tie in with the procedurally generated world has been one of the key things that Compulsion games have worked on, and it was really the Early Access criticism that pushed them to have a more narrative focus to the game. While the world is still randomised, there’s key sections that have been handcrafted, such as Sally’s house. Her house will just be at a different point on the map, you might come across different NPCs and side quests along the way, and so on.
“The way we’re telling the story is what I like to call dirty narrative,” Alex said. “It’s narrative that has to be interpreted, so we’re not going to give you the book of history, we’re going to scatter about letters, soldiers poems, and there’s German graffiti in an abandoned bunker that says things like ‘Thanks for all the rain, Führer Rommel.'”
And that alternate history is a rather intriguing one. Roosevelt was assassinated, the US didn’t enter the war, but it also wasn’t Nazism that swept through Europe, it was a resurgent German Empire. It’s left Britain in a bit of a mess. As Alex told us, “Wellington Wells is the only part of Britain that isn’t rubble. The British fought them on the beaches, they fought them on the landing grounds, they fought them in the towns, they fought them in the hills. They were pushed all the way up to Aberdeen and, you know, what’s left of Britain has most gone to Canada, except for Wellington Wells. That’s where they would have actually gone, they would have gone to Halifax.”
Our hands on time with the game was limited to just an early snippet from each of the three contrasting characters and their stories, so we didn’t get to really see how this story blends in with the procedural world, but it’s also clear to see how much emphasis has now been put on telling a trio of compelling stories. Certainly, I’m much more eager to delve and uncover some of the mysteries of Wellington Wells.