With the announcement of developer Compulsion Games' new title at Summer Games Fest - South of Midnight - I found myself wanting to revisit their previous title to see where the team could improve and where they should focus their efforts. I was also curious whether or not my opinion on We Happy Few had changed over the past few years. I remembered only a little bit before my return visit to Wellington Wells so I was excited to retread these technicolour streets and see how the world had transformed and changed since I'd last been.
Much has changed, and yet very little has changed. It's strange, and I hope I can get across this weird sense of similarity and difference as we move through this interesting title.
On a conceptual level, We Happy Few is one of the most interesting games that I've had the pleasure of experiencing in the past few years. Set in an alternate history where Germany won World War II, the game explores just how the people of Wellington Wells have dealt with the guilt of their actions and the trauma of the German occupation, as they have seemingly escaped the worst of it. This ends up manifesting in a technicolour nightmare completely hinging on the use of an emotion-manipulating drug aptly named "Joy".
Compulsion Games have created a rich and layered world for players to explore and experience through the eyes of several very strong personalities. Quests all across each story have players learning about what the residents of Wellington Wells do for leisure, their eating habits, their entertainment, and the dark underbelly of the entire operation, as well as the lives of those on the outside of the drug-addled dystopia. With the studio also going out of its way to include extensive supplementary material, this adds to the sense of realism in this frankly terrifying inversion of Britain.
The player's escape from Wellington Wells explores the various walks of life within this dystopian scenario, with the main campaign tackling three very distinct pathways. Arthur Hastings is your introduction to this horrific world, as the player witnesses him begin to remember pieces of his past before being labelled a "downer" and harassed out of his office in the affluent district of the islands. Sally Boyle presents a story in which she is trying to hide her baby girl from the authorities and escape the island in her own way, while still fitting in. And the loud and bombastic Ollie Starkey takes up the rear as the enforcer, who is explicitly against the regime running the town. Through each character's perspective, you learn all about the lives and the inner workings of Wellington Wells and it can be a hugely interesting time!
Julian Casey plays a phenomenal character in Uncle Jack, a character who is never physically seen in the game but is plastered over every TV screen across the islands. He is a constant, unnerving presence as he teaches the population how to "behave" properly and the various social etiquettes of the island. He takes the role of a cult leader in some regards as you see various members of the community downright worship his programs and send letters begging to see him and express their love. Similarly, the decision by Compulsion Games to create an original band for the game under "The Make Believes" and release their music outside of the game further adds to that sense of realism; these decisions to include live-action elements closes the gap between the world of the game and our own, thereby enhancing the world that we explore in the game.
Subconsciously, players are drawn into the world and absorb more of the world constructed by the team. It's something I appreciated so much more on a revisit; the world of We Happy Few is entrancing.
Then it's a desperate shame that this engrossing world is married to one of the most frustratingly flawed gameplay systems I have ever experienced. The team at Compulsion Games has chained the hugely intriguing world to a ramshackle approximation of a survival game that still struggles with being unpolished even after a huge number of patches. We Happy Few is a game that strives to channel the very best of games like Bioshock but fails by sticking far too closely to genre conventions that tie it down. Instead of an intriguing set of mechanics all tied around being a social chameleon in a city where you don't belong, the game lambasts you with cumbersome weight mechanics, shallow crafting and gathering as well as underexplored stealth mechanics. There are the ingredients of a fantastic game here, but it sadly falls short.
In terms of getting from step one to step two and from cutscene to cutscene, the gameplay systems certainly function fine enough to facilitate it, but there's far more that could be explored and a story that could be told through gameplay rather than a rudimentary survival and crafting system. The game dabbles in making use of procedural generation for some of its elements - the map that you play through is generated at the start of a new playthrough and will never be the same on subsequent playthroughs. Generously, you could suggest that this element of procedural generation is a diegetic expression of the memory-altering effects of Joy. But in combination with the rest of We Happy Few's mechanical missteps, I can't help but feel this decision is one made out of conventional appeal rather than a meaningful choice, which is a shame.
It's nice to say that there were brief moments of delight as I retraced my steps through the streets of Wellington Wells. These came in the form of the additional DLC scenarios that were added over the course of a year, and each delved into previously unexplored facets of We Happy Few's delightfully dystopian world. Each of these campaigns is focused on a different character and their journey through this drug-doused society. One campaign follows the leader of "The Make Believes" band as he battles drug addiction and discovers a plot against his life, and another tracks the fate of Wellington Wells as the illusion begins to crack and wear thin as people starve to death.
Each scenario adds more flavour to the already rich melting pot of We Happy Few. They manage to escape the restrictive gameplay and offer a far more streamlined and focused experience that really enables the gameplay and story of We Happy Few to grow into itself and become something special. It was while playing these extra experiences that I truly began to see the studio's vision and appreciate We Happy Few for everything it tries to do.
These brief moments of fantastic adventure gameplay alongside a really exciting plot made me yearn for the original game to be just like this. The potential was always there, and Compulsion Games quite clearly loved the world they were creating. As a Brit myself, the stereotypical greetings between the eclectic cast of residents never wore thin. The constant dry sarcasm as a form of narration felt very tongue-in-cheek and yet completely appropriate for what the game was trying to express.
Looking ahead, it's exceptionally clear that Compulsion Games are masters at creating worlds for their games. Wellington Wells stands as one of the most morbidly compelling settings that I've experienced in recent memory, thanks to the extensive efforts at creating an eerily believable dystopia. I hope to see these efforts replicated in South of Midnight, a game with an equally striking visual style. I just want to see Compulsion Games stick the landing from the very start, instead of having to remedy their game with DLC after DLC. Fingers crossed for the future!
While my return visit to We Happy Few wasn't quite the best trip in the world, I did stumble upon a newfound appreciation for the game. For what it's worth, it will always hold a fond place in my heart for what it does well, rather than for what it didn't. The title of We Happy Few has really become emblematic of the game's lasting legacy, and despite this, it is a special game, one that I would love to see able to grow into itself gracefully.
As Uncle Jack says - we've come to the end of our time - and thank you for reading.
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