We Happy Few – the indie game about Britain that couldn’t be more relevant

There’s always one game at E3 that proves, counter to the general theme of the show, bigger isn’t always better. This year, a tiny studio named Compulsion found itself thrust into the limelight after its project We Happy Few caused a considerable splash at Microsoft’s press conference. But as a black comedy set in a dystopian Britain being destroyed by a vast group hallucination, it may now take on more profound and pressing connotations following last night’s result. For some, this strange combination of 1984, A Clockwork Orange and Bioshock feels very much the game of the moment.

The opening of the E3 demo, which momentarily silenced the usual energetic whooping, evoked the spirit of another wonderful introductory sequence, from Terry Gilliam’s seminal 1985 film Brazil. Wage-slave Arthur Hastings is sat at his desk in an extravagantly British office in 1964, surrounded by Heath Robinson vacuum-tube machinery and period furniture, balefully performing his job of erasing uncomfortable stories from back-issues of a newspaper. Suddenly he spots a story with personal relevance, but as he’s processing it a colleague sporting a Mary Quant dress and a white mask with a rictus grin, enters. Unlike his colleagues, it emerges, Arthur hasn’t been taking his mandatory Joy pills. This is a Britain in which drugged out bliss isn’t a counter-culture activity, it’s a legal requirement.

Things come to a head when Arthur obeys his workmates’ exhortations to participate in the dubious excitement of bashing a piñata. At which point, the last vestiges of the narcotic wear off, revealing to Arthur that he and his colleagues have actually just bludgeoned a giant rat, showering his compatriots in blood and gore, which they blithely gobble as if it were sweets. So this is a Britain in which the populace are literally fed terrible lies by unaccountable wardens of social stability. Hmmm. Anyway, identified as a “Downer”, Arthur is henceforth condemned to life as an outcast in the fictional city of Wellington Wells, We Happy Few’s central setting.

It’s Joy-poppers v Downers in We Happy few. Photograph: Compulsion Games

Perhaps the surprisingly thing about this Orwellian dystopia is that Compulsion Games is not based in Britain, but in an old gramophone factory in Montreal. Art director Whitney Clayton reveals that the team is fascinated by British culture, and happily reels off a list of influences. “They include The Prisoner, Clockwork Orange, Brave New World, Doctor Who and Brazil,” she says. “And Blow-Up for the aesthetics.” She adds that the game has a whole area which is effectively a tribute to Dad’s Army. “And there’s a lot of Monty Python-style humour, too”.

So what led Compulsion to turn this interest into a game? “The studio head wanted to do a dystopia, set in an alternate history, he wanted a society where everybody was forced to be happy, and he had the idea for the happy-masks,” says Clayton. “So from there, that concept reminded me of the movie Hot Fuzz, and I was thinking that it seems to be a common theme in British shows – there’s an episode of The Avengers, for example, called Murderville, which is set in a cute town, but there are dark secrets underneath. It’s a really common theme, and I love it. People are obsessed with manners, like in the show Keeping Up Appearances – but then they bury everything beneath that.”

Perhaps the surprisingly thing about this Orwellian dystopia is that Compulsion Games is not based in Britain, but in an old gramophone factory in Montreal. Photograph: Compulsion Games

Hands-on time with We Happy Few reveals a survival game which is definitely more black comedy than horror. After Hastings is outed as a Downer, he is at least left with a melee weapon – useful for escaping security guards – and winds up in an underground bunker stocked with materials that can be crafted into useful items. After a bit of puzzling (one of the first items available to craft is a lock-pick), he finds himself wandering a run-down village named Hamlyn, mainly populated by fellow Downers.

Attempting to escape that ghetto, you enter an area populated by Joy-poppers and as the story of this world emerges, another game mechanic emerges. Non-Downers will routinely attack you, unless you temporarily disguise yourself as one of them by swallowing a Joy pill – at which point, the landscape radically transforms, too, from desolate shanty to apparent idyll, complete with hallucinogenic rainbows.

We learn quickly that We Happy Few is pretty unforgiving if you don’t have the right supplies: and if you die, you must start again. Also, you don’t just play as Arthur Hastings – there are a number of characters, each with their own storyline. And the game world looks to be large and diverse, as it exists on a number of islands off the shore of Britain.

The game has another interesting surprise: it makes liberal use of procedural generation – the technology exploited in titles like No Man’s Sky and Minecraft to automatically create huge, unique landscapes. Thus, every time you die or move to a new area in We Happy Few, your surroundings will regenerate themselves.

The decision to explore this technique was, according to compulsion COO Sam Abbott, related to its first game, Contrast, one of the first two PlayStation Plus titles, which launched along with the PlayStation 4 in 2013. A clever, atmospheric noir-style game centred on shadow-play puzzles, it was made by a team of just seven people.

“The core team wanted to work on something a bit more ambitious: we felt the things that we did on Contrast really well were story and atmosphere, but it was really hard for a small team to build a giant linear game,” says Abbott. “You need so many more people and so much more resources. So procedural generation is great, because people can make a smaller number of super-high-quality pieces rather than 100 million not-such-good-quality pieces. Our technical director has created quite an incredible procedural system. It’s very flexible, so we could even change the length of the game from five hours to 20.”

We Happy Few, then, appears to be have benefited from a clever joined-up approach to theme, content and technology. Like No Man’s Sky, it may prove a blueprint for how tiny studios can punch above their weight in a quickly evolving industry. What really comes through when you play, though, is that Compulsion has clearly had great fun making it – the result is a thoroughly original, visually unmistakable and genuinely amusing work, that exudes the sort of sophistication and (perhaps unintended) political potency that we do not always associate with E3 hits.

We Happy Few is released in early access form on PC, Mac and Xbox One (timed console exclusive) on 26 July

comments powered by Disqus