We Happy Few: Paranoia and denial fuel Compulsion’s drug-addled spin on the survival genre

Survival games are hardly in short supply, nor are projects with a fetish for British iconography. But with its follow-up to Contrast, Compulsion Games has blended these two overworked ideas into something enticingly different. So whereas most recent examples of the genre tend to be populated by enemies liable to kill you on sight, We Happy Few allows you to hide even under direct surveillance by modifying your behaviour.

“I wanted to work with paranoia,” creative director Guillaume Provost tells us. “That’s one of the elements I felt was under-tapped in games from a mechanical standpoint. We looked at different genres, and different games within the [survival] genre, and we wanted to create a society that was a bit deeper than your typical zombie game, where characters just walk around and attack you on sight. We wanted there to be a logic to the way the world worked, and one you needed to learn through different play sessions.”

We Happy Few, then, is a game for those who have been disappointed in the past by an NPC’s failure to remark on the fact that you’re rudely climbing on the furniture during their delivery of important plot exposition. Compulsion is still working out exactly how beady-eyed We Happy Few’s adversaries will be, but they’re already more alert than most. Hang around staring at someone and you’ll be asked if anything is wrong. Continue to act out of sorts and you’ll find yourself at the centre of unwelcome attention.

“They’ll come out and call out the activity that you’re doing that they find suspicious,” Provost says. “So if you’re jumping up and down, they’ll ask you, ‘Why are you doing jumping jacks?’ We’ve categorised all the different things the player can do in terms of basic and extended actions in the game, and we’ve decided whether that was suspicious or not. For example, if you stand still in the middle of the street and don’t move for a while, people are going to stop and ask if you’re OK. If you stand still in the middle of a store, no one’s going to bother you.”

The reason for this watchfulness is that the masses are blissed out on a drug called Joy, and have little tolerance for downers like you, who refuse to take your medicine and behave. The setup evokes the false utopias of 1984, Brave New World and even Invasion Of The Body Snatchers, building up the sense of paranoia Provost hopes to convey. And the drug itself also performs a useful, if unsavoury, mechanical function.

“One of things that you can do if you’ve attracted suspicion by, I don’t know, breaking into a house, say, is lower the suspicion of the people around you by actually taking drugs,” says Provost. “You get a visual effect for it, but it also reverberates around the way people see you and behave around you. The problem is, it comes with a consequence. So while taking drugs is a way for you to level the playing field and lower the suspicion of people around you, you’re also going to go through a phase of withdrawal or overdose if you take too much, and also those [states] have consequences in the game as well.”

It’s important to Provost to let the player experience the intoxicated state of the other characters in We Happy Few, since he feels too many games simply present their utopias, or dystopias, as something inaccessible just a backdrop to the action taking place. To that end, England’s distinctive red telephone boxes have been repurposed as Joy dispensers; given the game is set in an alternative 1964, you should never be far from one. In We Happy Few’s timeline, something terrible has occurred in the recent past that people want to forget, and Joy is a way of doing so.

But whether you’re getting high or trying to convince people that you are when you’re totally lucid, neither curtails your ability to crack open heads with a stolen truncheon and take what you need by force. The resistance you’ll face will make the game significantly harder to play, of course, and whether you opt for the violent path or the stealthy one, your focus will still be on subsistence. Your knowledge places you in the margins of society, where acquiring what you need to survive will be more difficult. Even the water supply, it turns out, is spiked with Joy. So if you want to keep a clear head, you’re going to have to be careful.

“We had to think very hard of what you would do in a situation where you were in a city in which you were ostracised,” says art director Whitney Clayton. “Everything  is built up together so that the mechanics have to work with the setting and vice versa.”

“We wanted to make a world where the citizens expect you to be ‘proper’, and that’s a big deal, right?” Provost adds. “Their entire society is based on denial, on pretending that things in the past didn’t happen and that everyone fits in their nice little happy box. So it made sense for us to create an environment where they would be very sensitive to the different actions that you do in the game.”

Adding further complication to this delicate balance is Compulsion’s decision to procedurally generate the game’s urban environments. How, we wonder, has the studio solved that problem?

“We’re still working on it!” Provost laughs. “It’s one of the biggest things that we’ve struggled with. I haven’t felt that anyone has created an urban procedural environment that feels like a city and not just generic buildings repeated over and over again. But the concept of survival in an urban society, when that society is not a postapocalyptic destroyed place with no food and water left anywhere, there’s a more interesting blend of things that we needed to work our way around.”
“Their entire society is based on denial, on pretending things didn’t happen”
Compulsion’s ambition is to create a game that is as replayable as it is atmospheric, one capable of surprises ten or 20 playthroughs in, but one that doesn’t compromise its sense of place in order to do so. It’s a lofty goal, and one shared by 2013’s Sir, You Are Being Hunted, another game built on procedurally generated Britishisms. That game couldn’t quite sustain its magic, however.

“I think we’re getting to the point where there’s a feel to the city,” Provost says. “I think the question for us is just making sure that we can scale the content to a size where there’s no repetition in any direction, and that’s a challenge for a team of our size.”

But while the team may be small significantly smaller than the BioShock team, Provost stresses, referencing comparisons to Irrational’s game after the release of  We Happy Few’s first gameplay trailer it’s working efficiently. “Since Contrast, now we all know how everyone works and we all work together a million times better than we did before,” Clayton says. “Not that it wasn’t great before, but it’s just what naturally happens when you hang out in a little room for years [laughs].” Perhaps there’s something in the water?

Street Savvy
While the characterful early screens would lead you to believe every cobblestone in the world was placed for artistic impact, We Happy Few  is an entirely different kind of trip for the artists behind Contrast. “It’s challenging to come up with ways of putting unique, memorable elements in when you’re not sure where they’re going to [be seen],” Clayton tells us. “All the fiddling to make it just sit where it should it’s a lot of problem-solving. It’s a good thing our programmers are so good! What’s really nice from an art side is that we can get the look and feel of a section that we want and then all the tech people work their butts off to try to match it. I’m lucky that the company here really vibes the art direction a lot, so it’s a priority to get  it to look amazing.”

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