Isolation is a major theme in most survival games, and while We Happy Few adheres to this theme, it’s unlike any survival game (or action/adventure game) you’ve ever played. Instead of physical isolation, this game deals in psychological and emotional isolation. You are never really alone in We Happy Few and therein lies the terror.
Although it’s often said to look like cross between Bioshock and Don’t Starve, We Happy Few is most heavily influenced by classic sci-fi literature such as 1984, Brave New World, A Clockwork Orange, and the tabletop RPG “Paranoia.” Self-published by Compulsion Games, it’s a procedurally generated, first-person survival game set in Wellington Wells, a “Swinging London” styled dystopia where societal norms dictate that everyone is constantly high on a mind-altering drug known as “Joy.” Think Austin Powers on the worst, most horrifyingly violent LSD trip imaginable. You awake as a character who’s mysteriously decided to stop taking Joy and wants to escape the city. There is an overarching narrative and optional side quests throughout the game, but whereas the entire city is procedurally generated and the game’s sandbox design allows quests to be solved any number of ways, every player’s experience will radically differ.
Like typical survival titles, you must scavenge for food and crafting materials in order to manage things like hunger, dehydration and exhaustion. Also, We Happy Few follows the model of most roguelikes as success is highly determinant on planning, preparedness and risk/reward management. That’s where the similarities between We Happy Few and most other survival games stop. Instead of physical acts like building shelter and fending off predators, this game requires you to struggle to keep up appearances and remain unnoticed among crowds of drug-addled, easily aggravated NPCs. You must blend in to survive. Instead of spears and armor, your items include gifts you can craft to calm aggravated citizens, or a newspaper you can pretend to read, hiding in plain sight and breaking eye contact to quell suspicion.
My demo began as I awoke in a shelter located in the rundown, “ghetto” section of Wellington Wells, where junkies, lunatics and social deviants (like those who stop taking Joy) are cast out. After foraging for supplies and crafting a couple lock picks, I exited the shelter and began to explore. After fleeing from a fight in which I was totally outnumbered, I realized that I was nearing starvation, so I needed to break into a house to find food. The game’s HUD notifies you when nearby NPCs are suspicious, but it doesn’t tell you if you are simply being watched. I knew breaking into a home would obviously cause some suspicion or aggression, so before picking the lock, I paranoically looked over both shoulders to make sure I was alone. Once inside, I found two junkies asleep on bare mattresses, next to some storage containers. To ensure they wouldn’t wake as I rifled through their belongings, I decide it best to strangle them both in their sleep. After finishing the unsavory act, I found a few potatoes that I ravenously consumed.
I then snuck away from the scene of the crime to discover a bridge leading to an upper-class section of town. Unfortunately, it was blocked by an automated checkpoint that tests to ensure that passersby were adequately high on Joy. I had a small amount of Joy on me, but since “crashing” after the high severely effects your health and stamina, I wanted to avoid taking it. I was assured that this checkpoint acted as a way to advance the story, so I needed to find a way through. As day turned to night (which effects NPC behavior and their expectations of your behavior), I found a group of bobbies who by day guarded the apple orchard, but by night had drank themselves into a stupor around a campfire. After I managed to swipe one of their key cards, I used it to pass through the checkpoint, into the higher-class neighborhood, which is where things took a turn for the worse.
As I walked down the street, I began to get aggravated looks from townsfolk. In the ghetto, my sobriety and tattered clothing was not an issue, but in this section of town it wasn’t acceptable, and I had no cloth, which I could have used to quickly mend my outfit. As a last ditch attempt to fit in, I took the only Joy I had, dramatically changing the world around me. Everything became sunshine, lollipops and double rainbows and I proudly marched down the street with the happy confidence of a stoned idiot. When the effect of the drug began to wear off, I started to crash and people again began noticing me, including a nearby bobby. I then bolted down the street in a panic, inciting more suspicion and aggravation. After being cornered in an alley, I was viciously beaten to death by the pursuing officer.
We Happy Few is slightly more forgiving than most roguelikes as you are temporarily resurrected at the location of your death, a hairbreadth away from dying. This gives you a chance to prevent your ultimate demise by quickly using an item to cure what ails you, be it food, water, or medical supplies. Since I was beaten to death by an officer, my physical health was very low when I reawakened. I was lucky enough to have already scavenged some bandages, which I used to heal. If I hadn’t, I would have had to have frantically searched for some before my health totally gave out, ending the game entirely. According to the development team, there is a “more casual” mode for players who want an easier go of it, but ultimately, the 7 hour experience is intended to be played as a roguelike.
Despite only being 2 years into development, I was pleasantly surprised to see that We Happy Few’s presence on the show floor had grown exponentially since last year’s PAX East. The game is absurdly unique and so psychologically engrossing that I barely even noticed when a piece of the demo booth literally, incidentally collapsed on my head while I played. Despite having very little exposure outside of game conventions, it’s far and way one of the titles I am looking forward to most, and I predict it will be a sleeper hit when it comes to Early Access on Steam and Xbox One later this year. While there is currently no official final launch date, once finished, We Happy Few will be coming to Mac and Linux, with a possible PS4 port soon after, depending on the game’s success.