We Happy Few was refused classification by the Australian Classification Board earlier this week, meaning it won't be available to purchase in the country. Since then, the board has issued a statement to us about why it was banned (more on that later), and today studio Compulsion Games has advised players how they plan to address the situation.
It's an especially tricky scenario for the studio because this was a Kickstarter-funded game, meaning Australians who contributed to its development may risk receiving nothing for their pledges. But Compulsion Games writes that it will issue refunds in the event that it can't work something out with the board.
"To our Australian fans, we share your frustration," a studio spokesperson wrote. "We will work with the ACB on the classification. If the government maintains its stance, we will make sure that you can get a refund, and we will work directly with affected Kickstarter backers to figure something out. We would appreciate if you give us a little bit of time to appeal the decision before making a call."
It continued: "We Happy Few is set in a dystopian society, and the first scene consists of the player character redacting material that could cause offense to 'society at large', as part of his job as a government 'archivist'. It’s a society that is forcing its citizens to take Joy, and the whole point of the game is to reject this programming and fight back. In this context, our game’s overarching social commentary is no different than Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, or Terry Gilliam's Brazil."
In other words, the studio is arguing that the use of the drug Joy in the game is not designed to glorify drug use: instead, it's a vehicle for the game's themes.
"The game explores a range of modern themes, including addiction, mental health and drug abuse. We have had hundreds of messages from fans appreciating the treatment we’ve given these topics, and we believe that when players do get into the world they’ll feel the same way. We’re proud of what we’ve created."
Responding to our queries earlier this week, the Australian Department of Communications and the Arts described the offending material, in reference to item 1(a) concerning games that "depict, express or otherwise deal with matters of sex, drug misuse or addiction, crime, cruelty, violence or revolting or abhorrent phenomena".
Here's the full description (warning, it contains spoilers):
Gameplay consists of exploring the fictional English town of Wellington Wells in first-person as three separate playable characters, where non-playing characters consume the government-mandated, fictional drug “Joy” in the form of pills, which include side-effects such as euphoria and memory loss. When the player consumes Joy, surreal, psychedelic sequences including butterflies and brightly-coloured street-scapes appear. In keeping with the fantasy setting, character models and environments are brightly-coloured and stylised.
Players have the option to conform with NPCs and take Joy pills when exploring the Village or Parade District areas of the game. If a player has not taken Joy, NPCs become hostile towards the player if they perform behaviours including running, jumping and staring. An NPC character called the Doctor can detect when the player has not taken Joy and will subsequently raise an alarm. A player that takes Joy can reduce gameplay difficulty, therefore receiving an incentive by progressing through the game quickly. Although there are alternative methods to complete the game, gameplay requires the player to take Joy to progress.
In one sequence, an NPC is viewed on the ground, convulsing owing to a reaction from taking a Joy pill, which has subsequently turned bad. After several NPCs encourage her to take Joy and she refuses, fearing that it will have an adverse effect, they beat her with steel pots and a shovel, until she is implicitly killed. In another sequence, the player is seen in first-person view, entering a telephone box that contains three large pill dispensers, each holding a different flavoured Joy pill. The player consumes a Joy pill and a swarm of brightly-coloured butterflies appear as well as rainbows and coloured pathways on the ground, improving speed and visibility for the player.
In the Board’s opinion, the game’s drug-use mechanic making game progression less difficult constitutes an incentive or reward for drug-use and therefore, the game exceeds the R 18+ classification that states, “drug use related to incentives and rewards is not permitted”.
Therefore, the game warrants being Refused Classification.
In the past, studios have altered games in order to have them comply with the Australian Classification Board's guidelines. South Park: The Stick of Truth and Fallout 3 are both examples, while on the otherhand, Hotline Miami 2 was never adapted for Australia, leading Devolver Digital to delay releases for some of its other games including Genital Jousting.
" We would like to respond to the thematic side of We Happy Few in more detail at a later date, as we believe it deserves more attention than a quick PR response," Compulsion's statement said. "In the meantime we will be talking to the ACB to provide additional information, to discuss the issues in depth, and see whether they will change their minds."