There are basically only two episodes of The Prisoner: the one where Number 6 tries to escape the Village and fails, and the one the Village’s shadowy overlords try to break Number 6 and fail. If either succeeded, the show would be over. It was still a great program even though it only had two formulas to work with most of the time, but a video game has the option of ending whenever it feels like it. It can break you or let you escape as it will. We Happy Few will probably break you.
Compulsion Games’ follow-up to Contrast (which is currently on Kickstarter) is set in a dystopian alternate 1960s England where citizens are kept under control with a drug called Joy–apparently the most efficient opiate of the masses is an actual opiate. Those who don’t take Joy are called Downers, and nobody likes a Downer. It casts you as a Downer trying to escape the town of Wellington Wells, with Bobbies out to get you and even ordinary citizens liable to turn on you.
The backstory is imparted through radio propaganda from Uncle Jack, a Big Brother who speaks pure Received Pronunciation, broadcast into the tiny underground chamber I’ve woken up in. In this bunker there’s a bed, some lockers I don’t have keys for, and crafting tables. Yep, crafting. We Happy Few is a survival game, in which you need to eat and drink and make your own lockpicks, as well as a stealth game in which you need to not be beaten to death by Bobbies.
Aboveground I find a ruined, overgrown Garden District full of “wastrels”, people who had a negative reaction to Joy and were segregated on the outskirts of town. This is an early, pre-alpha development build so things like the combat and AI are forgivably rudimentary. “What are you lurking there for?” a wastrel asks, the eye above his head showing an increasing state of alertness. “I’m playing a stealth game,” I reply, crouch-walking back out of his hovel with the metal bits I’ve stolen.
With those I make lockpicks to gain access to my underground lockers, which contain apples–the first food I’ve found–and homemade grenades called bangers. After looting several piles of rubble and stripping leaves off plants to make health balms I’ve exhausted most of the options in this district, a small island surrounded by water that kills you if you touch it.
A bridge leads to the next district, a nicer one where the buildings don’t have trees growing out of them. The two Bobbies guarding it chase me back off the bridge then suddenly get distracted by wastrels. I watch them club one with their nightsticks before I work up the courage to take them on. Throwing bangers doesn’t seem to cause much damage–they’re better used as distractions–but a branch turns out to be a good enough weapon to defeat them, especially when one Bobbie gets stuck facing the wrong way and can’t turn around. Like I said, it’s an early pre-alpha. At the moment there are block and shove buttons, and combos if you time your attacks right, but combat is one of the things they’ll be working on in the months ahead.
Over the bridge I find a much posher area. The streets are striped with color and the people have creepy white “happy faces”. They’re suspicious of me, but when they approach if I press E in time I give them a cheery wave to stop them from hitting an alert state and calling the cops. Citizens get more suspicious if they see you running or sneaking–like Alien: Isolation it encourages walking at a steady pace pretending nothing is wrong while your heart pounds. The first time an old lady switches from asking if I’d like a cup of tea to shrieking “Downer!” through her smiling facepaint is terrifying, and I have to run and hide down an alley to avoid being caught.
Night falls and as is traditional in survival games I’m already starving to death. The only food I’ve found from looting bins in this part of town is a rotten apple, which I eat in desperation. (Later I learn that windows can be climbed through and houses contain cupboards full of steak.) The apple poisons me and I begin bleeding, presumably because the status effect for vomiting to death hasn’t been added yet. While I have enough health balms to keep going I really need food and bandages. Maybe crossing another bridge is a good idea? There’s one protected by some flimsy warning signs that say “WARNING: DOWNER BREACH” but running past them leads to another ruin full of wastrels. They don’t appreciate my poking around their campfires and quickly kick me to death.
My favorite parts of stealth games are authored experiences like The Shalebridge Cradle in Thief: Deadly Shadows and Lady Boyle’s Party in Dishonored that tell a story no matter how you approach them. But We Happy Few is procedurally generated, making every playthrough slightly different but leaving most of the storytelling to your imagination. There is narrative though, told through discoverable scenarios scattered around Wellington Wells. During a later attempt I find one after seeing a Bobbie hammering on the door of a pawnbroker’s store while an alarm goes off inside. Sneaking around the side I discover another entrance, and then learn that everyone inside is dead. It’s a mystery to solve between the challenges of surviving and collecting better equipment.
That’s one of the most promising ideas in We Happy Few, but I’m also impressed by the ability to blend in. Being able to potentially reduce suspicion with a wave and a greeting is a nice start, and hopefully this social stealth system grows deeper as development progresses. Wolfenstein: The New Order showed how tense getting a cup of coffee could be in the right situation: imagine the same thing with tea and the niceties of making small talk about how terrible the weather is without giving away that you’re the only one not hopped up on happy pills.
I mentioned The Prisoner but there’s also a bit of Sir, You Are Being Hunted in We Happy Few, as well as A Clockwork Orange and Doctor Who. It’s a colorful English dystopia that avoids a lot of the cliches. Even though the art is at “first implementation” stage the mix of mod fashion, genteel shops, and nipple-helmeted Bobbies is distinctive and I hope the new environments Compulsion add maintain that feel. As well as more environments they plan to do a lot more work on the AI, combat, stealth feedback and almost everything else–I hope they add a save system, because the way permadeath discourages experimentation rubs against the way I like to play stealth games–but even in this early pass We Happy Few shows promise.
And those old ladies are bloody scary.