One of the more interesting games I’ve had the opportunity to sit down and try at PAX East this weekend has been We Happy Few. It comes from developer Compulsion Games, who just recently wrapped up Contrast – another high-concept game with a unique twist on a familiar genre. Unlike Contrast, however, We Happy Few is not a linear game by any means. It’s about surviving a post-apocalyptic retrofuture by any means necessary, and actually figuring out how to survive is more than half the battle.
The game is set in alternate reality version of 1960s England in the fictional town of Wellington Wells, where an unnamed catastrophe recently rocked the small population. To blank out this catastrophic event from their minds, citizens of Wellington Wells have taken up a drug called ‘Joy’. One of the teensy tiny side effects of said drug is the fact that it leads to everyone becoming depressed and psychotic, and if the citizens think they see someone not being ‘happy’ enough, they’ll attempt to kill them.
“Not being happy enough” in the world of We Happy Few means standing around too long, crouching, or generally being a Grumpy Gus. In the short PAX demo, I was shown how to avoid sending the citizens off into a killing spree by sitting down for a nice chat on a bench, ducking inside a house, and even hopping into a phone booth and taking some ‘Joy’ pills. Taking the pills is only a temporary respite, as you quickly suffer downer symptoms, which cause your hunger and hydration levels to decrease, as well as alert all the citizens to your unhappy presence. This is only a small fraction of the larger game, and a lot more methods of escape are coming, but as the developer stressed, the methods will not always be clear right away.
The game will be about learning these escape methods as you go, simulating the real panic one might feel when running from a group of strangers yelling at you from behind creepy smiling masks. Even with the limited options of the demo, I certainly felt it. It’s hard to fight the instinct to just run and hit everything, you really need to think on your feet.
Living in We Happy Few is more than just not pissing off random citizens. You’ll also have to keep your food and hydration meters filled. But at the same time, all of the food and water in Wellington Wells is injected with that same Joy drug, meaning that keeping your character fed and watered is a balance between filling up on food and not overdosing.
After watching me take a swing at a citizen then running for my life (all the while attracting more angry citizens chasing me down with weapons in hand), the developers assured me that it’s part of the learning curve. This isn’t a game that you should be able to complete in one sit through. Its rules are purposefully skewed and not easy to notice at first glance, so it will take several deaths and several tries before you can survive long enough to actually be happy with yourself.
Restarting after a death is easy, and each restart means a newly generated seed world. It was locked into one seed for the demo, but the plan is for random seeds to be generated with different scenarios and events that pop up, and even give you the option to save your seed and share it with others if something particularly fun occurs.
Even at this early alpha stage of development, the game looks and feels appropriately creepy. In order to hide their sad faces, everyone wears masks that force smiles, which never ends well. Seeing those faces at a distance, especially as they begin to charge at you, is extra creepy. A lot of your time will be spent sneaking around and avoiding these strange faces, so when they do spot you and angrily yell something, it makes your hairs stand on end. The town I got to run around in the PAX demo has an eerie ’60s vibe to it, similar to Bioshock or the Tranquility Lane segment of Fallout 3.
It was stressed during the demonstration that the current build of the game is still pre-alpha, but even with a few glitches and crashes it still has a great layer of fun and creepy exploration on top of it all. Compulsion Games has plans to start a Kickstarter to get development of the game in full gear in the coming weeks.