As We Happy Few opens, it reminds me of The Stanley Parable or Californium—the latter a game loosely based on Philip K. Dick’s supernatural visions—in that I’m a regular, confused person in and out of the game, doing what I think I’m supposed to. I’m happily redacting news at a news redaction machine, playing along with whatever oppressive force I’m working for. But then I begin to remember my past, and I can make a choice: plunge back into a gleeful stupor, or throw away my mind-controlling ‘Joy’ pills and lift the curtain on reality.
The dystopia of We Happy Few is well tread. Its ‘retrofuturistic’ 1960s recalls The Prisoner, Dishonored, and BioShock while its drugged society brings up the 1990’s distrust and stigma around antidepressants. Not that We Happy Few is necessarily a criticism of Prozac—its happy pills are just a useful vehicle for contemplating perception and truth, as in the movie Equilibrium.
After the brief prologue, in which I discover that the functioning society I thought I was a part of is a drug-induced hallucination, We Happy Few turns into a procedurally-generated stealth and survival game. Done with the news deletion business and outed as a ‘downer’—someone who’s gone off their pills—I’m tossed into a ghetto where I’m ostensibly meant to explore, survive, and infiltrate the Joy zombies to search for an escape. But We Happy Few is still in development, and it’s still rough. This isn’t the sort of Early Access phase where it’s a beta that needs a bit of polishing, or a completed first half with the second still to come—it’s a trek through some bad systems and procedurally-generated confusion.
I’m given an underground safehouse which only serves as an annoyance, because I have to return to it to sleep and reset my exhaustion meter, just because that’s a meter I have—I can’t see how it serves the fun at all. Likewise, I have to drink and eat, but with water and food fairly plentiful I’m just being forced into my inventory to reset meters. It’s not a desperate struggle to survive, it’s me coddling the protagonist and slowing everything down so I don’t map the island too quickly.
Outside, the populace is a confused bunch. I don’t quite blend in, so they mostly tell me to “fuck off” as I walk past—again and again—which is dull. If I try to talk to them, I say one of a few nonsensical lines, talking over whatever they’re saying. And their sense of property is unhinged. I break into many houses and steal all sorts of supplies, and no one gives a damn, but sleeping in someone else’s bed turns out to be a capital offense. When I wake up I’m assaulted by four villagers and have to stab them to death with a pointy stick. (It was nice of them to let me finish sleeping before trying to beat me to death, at least.)
My first task is to gain re-entry to the district full of Joy heads, and the only way over is across one of two bridges (unless I'm missing something obvious!). The first is guarded, and the second has a broken door that’s stuck shut. It’s very clear what repair tools I need to fix the broken bridge so I can cross, but I die trying to find them—well, what really happens is that I get impatient and start throwing bodies on tripwires in an attempt to detonate mines, and blow myself up. I have permadeath on, and don't have the supplies I need to save myself with a healing balm, so that's that.
I assume what I needed was somewhere on the island, though I couldn’t find any clues, and I walked around the whole thing. I started a new game this morning, after We Happy Few released in Early Access (I had been playing a preview build sent to press), and everything makes a little more sense this time. The citizens are more likely to defend their homes—which is also sort of annoying, because there’s no clear way to sneak around them as they wander aimlessly through cramped rooms—and I think I’ve started making progress on the main quest, which this time requires me to find a power cell and keycard. My sense is that a lot depends on the procedural generation: it can give you a very confused town, or a way forward.
The other quests I’ve encountered are disjointed, seemingly meaningless. Spy on a couple and steal some mushrooms. Give a guy an anti-nausea pill. Open a chest. It’s disappointing, because right now We Happy Few isn’t the insidious, Bioshock-like mind control story I expected from the trailers—it’s an Early Access survival game like others I’ve played, such as Sir, You Are Being Hunted. But there will be a story (three of them, actually) when it’s complete. They just aren’t in the alpha, and Compulsion Games is clear about the state We Happy Few is in: it’s “mostly feature complete, at an alpha level” and it’s possible to escape and ‘beat’ the game, but chunks are missing and everything is in need of work.
If they can mesh interesting storytelling with better procedural worlds—a tricky task, I have to imagine—We Happy Few could be exciting. I haven’t made it out of the starting area yet, and I don’t want to, because I can see that potential. I want to play We Happy Few when the story is in and the NPCs behave a bit better and the quests are more interesting and less obtuse, not spoil it for myself now with this buggy, hazy vision of what it could be. It’s an alpha for backers who really want to help with development, but the casually interested will be better served by waiting to see how We Happy Few turns out in half-a-year or a year.