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Whatever happened to Paranoia?

Friend Computer inspects the remains of a traitorous citizen
(Image credit: Nacon)

In December of 2019, Paranoia: Happiness is Mandatory, a sci-fi RPG set in an isolated dystopian city called Alpha Complex, came out on the Epic Games Store. Within two months it had been delisted, removed from sale with no explanation from the developer or publisher, and calls for comment received no reply. A Steam page remained up, promising that it would arrive there after its year of Epic exclusivity. It did not. Over a year later, there's still no explanation.

You're forgiven for not knowing any of this. Paranoia: Happiness is Mandatory, did not exactly set the world on fire. It was a very old-fashioned isometric CRPG, which is another way of saying "an RPG where the combat kind of sucks." So yes, its realtime-with-pause shootouts were messy, but that's no more of a surprise to anyone familiar with this kind of game than it would be if I told you the hacking minigame was fiddly and annoying. By the way, the hacking minigame was fiddly and annoying.

(Image credit: Nacon)

Paranoia was based on a tabletop RPG released in the apt year 1984. Players were citizens of Alpha Complex, ruled over by a dictatorial AI called Friend Computer who believed traitors, mutants, and secret societies were everywhere. It took George Orwell's nightmarish vision of the future and said, "That's cool, but what if it was a comedy?" Imagine one of those Monty Python sketches where a bureaucrat slowly drives someone mad with arcane rules, with a slapstick intermission that's basically the Three Stooges with lasers.

Paranoia became a cult classic, infamous for the way it encouraged players to distrust and betray each other. There really were traitors everywhere, and the player-characters were them, randomly assigned mutations like pyrokinesis and membership in secret societies like the First Church of Christ Computer-Programmer. Players had free license to turn on each other in a way that would derail most other RPGs, but was largely free of consequence since everybody had six clones to replace them mid-mission. Death was more an inconvenience than anything.

The videogame adaptation wasn't without its redeeming features. As a troubleshooter, you were an agent of Friend Computer charged with exterminating traitors and other threats to Alpha Complex while grappling with the fact that even admitting there are threats to Alpha Complex is considered traitorous. A treason meter constantly tracked how suspicious you were, rising if you accidentally blew up something you shouldn't have with a wayward Rocket Enhanced Negotiation Device, or simply walked over one of the color-coded lines on the floor that designated areas above your clearance level.

(Image credit: Nacon)

It's the only RPG that's ever encouraged me to roleplay someone who didn't ask the kinds of silly questions that make sense for a player, but not for real people living in that fictional setting. You don't want to pester people for details you should already know, because it's safer to be ignorant.

Apart from Friend Computer, most of the NPCs weren't voiced, which freed it up to contain the kind of long, meandering dialogue more common in older RPGs. A simple broken door blocking your progress led to multiple, lengthy conversations with bureaucrats, finding and filling out all of the forms necessary to get the repair work done before discovering that the final bit of paperwork was in a different room—a room on the other side of the broken door.

Every mission began with a trip to R&D to be assigned some experimental equipment for testing, like a new flavor of the Bouncy Bubble Beverage all citizens are required to drink that has unexpected side effects, or a Rocket Enhanced Negotiation Device. You'd be briefed like James Bond receiving equipment from Q, only all the explanations were in doublespeak. "When you're ready to present your terms, you just pull the Negotiation Ignition Switch."

(Image credit: Nacon)

Sure, it didn't live up to the tabletop game that inspired it. Happiness is Mandatory was a singleplayer game, while the original was about a group of friends pretending to be color-coded workers completing their tasks while some of them are secretly up to no good, eventually turning on each other in a storm of suspicion. Recreating that experience would require a quite different kind of game, and that's not what Happiness is Mandatory was trying to be. 

It was an old-fashioned CRPG about clicking through conversations and watching little characters trek back and forth across multiple screens while completing fetch quests, the kind of thing we expected from the genre before games like Disco Elysium and Divinity: Original Sin 2 came along and raised our standards. Six or seven years ago it would have been modestly well-received with the expectation a sequel would come along and fix its worst flaws.

(Image credit: Nacon)

I don't think Happiness is Mandatory was removed from sale for being a bit dated and underwhelming, or for flaws like not letting you select party members by simply clicking on them once. It's not great, but it's no Afro Samurai 2. It's possible there's a situation like the legal dispute between Frogwares and Nacon that saw The Sinking City removed from various storefronts (though that game remains available on Origin and Gamesplanet), but even now nobody will say.

I reached out to developers Black Shamrock and Cyanide Studio, and publisher Big Ben Interactive/Nacon, but received no reply. A representative of Epic Games did respond, directing me back to the publisher, who again did not reply. Neither did two of the original tabletop game's creators, although Mongoose Publishing, who print its current edition, did confirm that, "We were not involved in the decision to pull Happiness is Mandatory, and the license is currently available to interested parties."

It's a shame, but at the same time it's oddly fitting that a game about being given bureaucratic runarounds has been swallowed up by one, that a game so explicitly Orwellian has been rendered into an ungame, brainscrubbed, forced to report to the termination booth, and ultimately [REDACTED].

Jody Macgregor

Jody's first computer was a Commodore 64, so he remembers having to use a code wheel to play Pool of Radiance. A former music journalist who interviewed everyone from Giorgio Moroder to Trent Reznor, Jody also co-hosted Australia's first radio show about videogames, Zed Games. He's written for Rock Paper Shotgun, The Big Issue, GamesRadar, Zam, Glixel, and Playboy.com, whose cheques with the bunny logo made for fun conversations at the bank. Jody's first article for PC Gamer was published in 2015, he edited PC Gamer Indie from 2017 to 2018, and actually did play every Warhammer videogame.