We Happy Few had piqued my interest ever since its inaugural art on Kickstarter; an image of a startlingly vacant masked woman. I was then excited to see a new, creepy trailer debuting at Microsoft’s Gamescom conference on Tuesday. Looking for its demo booth on the show floor, I found it tucked below the Microsoft Live stage, a rather understated location for a game that seemed to have so much potential. It turned out that my confidence in its procedurally generated gameplay, and rural dystopian aesthetic, was completely justified.
Its premise is one of intrigue and insanity: the player must escape a town of drug-using psychopaths in the 1960s without alerting them to your wayward presence. You see, the inhabitants of Wellington Wells are constantly in a state of delusional happiness thanks to a narcotic aptly named Joy, and will notice even the smallest hint of nonconformity amongst their brethren. During my time with the game, I discovered that stealth in plain sight was the best method of survival against the town of happy-go-lucky crazies.
While you can sneak around the townspeople, their detection meter will increase when you get too close, or if you are not acting accordingly. For example, at one point I picked up a bottle with a few cretins around, which of course was not acceptable in this fierce, anti-drinkware society, and they soon let their dismay be known. To counteract their wrath, I had to scatter, dodging down side streets until the enemy was far behind. I then had to rip my clothing in order to fit in with this particular group’s degenerative ways. With my ripped suit in hand, I could then enter houses and walk the streets of this downtrodden neighbourhood. When moving on to the second island, such ramshackle clothing was not suitable for the creepy-faced policemen on patrol, so a quick change into some nicer digs was necessary. The ferocity of the citizens was clearly shown through this fashion altering mechanic, and it furthermore intertwined some unsettling storytelling nicely with the survival gameplay. It highlighted the desires of different districts, and showcased the vilification of Downers: those who refuse to take their daily dose of Joy.
At first glance, the design of the game appears to heavily inspired by Bioshock, but after speaking for some time with game designer Joshua Mills, I was told that this was not the case. Instead, inspiration from shared source materials has led to a similar looks in both their art style and subject matter. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley was cited directly as a creative source for We Happy Few’s “retrofuturistic” themes: psychological manipulation and societal conditioning. Through the use of creepy, mask-wearing bobbies, mindless yet totally alert citizens, immaculately polished cobbled streets with glowing fronts, and an omnipresent, plastic-faced TV personality named Uncle Jack, We Happy Few exuded a dystopian facade that was atmospherically rich, and brilliantly disquieting through its character designs to boot. My movements were always ones of suspense and fear, and brutal death came quickly to my character for even the most minor of offences.
The emphasis on death-defying antics and survival obviously places We Happy Few in the roguelike department of video game genres. Although I did not get to thoroughly experience its replayable attributes, the developer overseeing the demo told me that when death looms over your character, you will begin anew still holding onto your collected items; the progress made in the narrative will thankfully not reset either. While the locations present had a fantastic art style of regimental sheen and colour, the procedurally generated algorithms that have created this world could still use a touch of work. Repetitive buildings are fine in a totalitarian society, but having the same sweet shop on every corner is a little too disconcerting for my taste. Also, the policemen may have walked around with authority and resonance, but the ordinary townsfolk rambled aimlessly, and looked frankly identical.
These immersion-breaking elements could bring tiresome disaster upon the game, but thankfully, the title is still quite early in its development. Besides these qualms, its atmosphere was still top notch, its art design was impeccable and the premise of a playable Ninety Eighty-Four-esque roguelike had me pining for more. Just like the eagle-eyed masquerades that patrol Wellington Wells’ streets, my interest is firmly fixed towards We Happy Few’s society of porcelain nightmares.