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Joy and addiction fuel the drug-tinged fantasy in We Happy Few

For a Canadian bun that’s only been in the oven for seven months, the slice of We Happy Few I saw at PAX East 2015 is surprisingly polished and visually stunning. Built using the new-ish Unreal Engine 4, Compulsion Games’ follow-up to Contrast appears to be off to a strong start.

Strong can be used to describe much of what lies within. Strong violence, a strong (seemingly necessary) emphasis on drug use, and strong ties to dystopian archetypes immediately put this first-person action-survival indie on the radar of many. Given my own proclivities (I’ve been chewing on Hotline Miami 2 while writing about PAX East experiences, to give you an idea), you can include me in that group.

Right off the bat, We Happy Few plunges the pacifists and the straight-edge crowd into a no-win scenario. Compulsion ditches the silent protagonist cliche, as your cockney-sound ruffian speaks up upon opening his presumably forced-shut eyes. Your acclimation to the retro-post British world around you is swift, brutal, and downright unsettling. Whatever We Happy Few holds in store for us as a finished product, its first public appearance pulls no punches (or in this case, billy club or cricket bat).

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“Joy,” is what the world revolves around — a designer drug, not the feeling of contentment, mind you. The necessity of narcotics here is like watching helplessly while the heroin-addled march into methadone treatment. But you dose to survive. You also kill to survive, whether it’s defensive after being identified as an outsider, or merely to survive day-to-day. Feeding yourself is just as important to your progress as narcotics are. And you process all of that while trying to wrap your head around the Dick-esque (Philip K., that is) world you’re thrust into.

We Happy Few joins a growing crop of alternate history universes to use an alternate World War II as its backdrop. Wolfenstein: The New Order executed on such an idea with brutal beauty, and Amazon’s forthcoming The Man In The High Castle, a show based on the Philip K. Dick novel of the same name, takes a more in-depth, nuanced approach to the fictional setting. But the setting only serves to explain why the world in which We Happy Few exists. There’s no history digging here, only survival, according to the developers.

VillageHistory aside, We Happy Few is “about embracing the bizarre,” according to lead designer and Compulsion co-founder Guillaume Provost. As someone who worked at Arkane for a number of years, Provost certainly has an eye for the bizarre — you need only play Dishonored for a hot minute to realize as much. And Provost lives to be a designer that plucks you from your comfort zone, through both narrative and style.

“If [We Happy Few] is a commercial success, I’m going to make something even more f–ked up.” Provost isn’t one to normally look that far into the future — that answer came after I asked what kind of game he wants to make with no strings attached — and his journey with We Happy Few is only approaching the second act.

We Happy Few will be making an appearance on Kickstarter in 2015, likely before the end of May, but Provost is emphasizing community over funding. “We have [a game] that works right now,” he says. “All I want is the community.”

But that doesn’t change the fact that money will be a major part of the Kickstarter equation. If We Happy Few capitalizes on its potential, the end result could very well impact the kind of game we see. Provost doesn’t see it that way; “I wouldn’t change my production schedule,” he says.

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And it’s in this regard that Guillaume’s development resume is trumped by his experience as a consumer. “I am still waiting for a game,” he says, when speaking about Chris Roberts’ Star Citizen. “But I think the [Elite: Dangerous] team did it right.”

Star Citizen originally had a release date of November 2014, but something resembling a finished product won’t be shipped until the 2016 calendar year. And while Elite: Dangerous did see a delay of about eight months (from March 2014 to December of that year), beta access started in July 2014 (with plenty of player-generated YouTube content in tow).

With a team of 12 people working on We Happy Few, coupled with the moderate success of Contrast, there’s no apparent need for a financial pump and dump here. Provost’s hope for Kickstarter as a community-building tool makes sense in that light. We Happy Few feels like a passion project, which is why Provost’s strategy with his game can probably be taken at face value, and not as a “Where are my backer rewards?” train wreck waiting to happen.