On Tuesday, developer Compulsion Games released an alpha version of its debut game, We Happy Few through Steam Early Access, Xbox Live Preview, and other mid-development distribution platforms. The game, which made a big splash at Microsoft’s E3 press conference in June, is one of the most interesting new games launching this month. Just don’t play it yet.
While the game appears to be interesting and seems like fun — I’ve only played it for a few hours, not enough time to make a decision one way or the other — one thing does seem abundantly clear. We Happy Few will cultivate a deeply nuanced story told through details scattered through its world, including some pieces that aren’t in the game yet. It’s the kind of game you want to experience when its finished, and not before.
We Happy Few is on track to becoming a great game with an engaging story, which is why you should wait until the final version of the game launches in 2017.
The hidden cost of early access
“Early access” is the name of Steam’s platform, but it has also become the colloquial term for launching a game before it’s finished. In many ways, it’s an amazing phenomenon: Fans can help shape a game by offering feedback, and developers can staunch their costs by bringing in early cash. From a production standpoint it seems like a no-brainer, as you can see based on its rapid adoption in recent years, especially among indie PC developers.
It’s the kind of game you want to experience when its finished, and not before.
Unfortunately, while there may be tangible benefits, some types of games do their players a disservice when they launch prior to completion. Chief among them are games that feature a strong narrative hook, either in the form of an explicit story or an implied story told through a well-defined world.
We Happy Few falls into the latter of those two. In the game, you explore a British town from an alternate, dystopian version of 1960s Britain where all citizens must take a hallucinogenic mood stabilizer called “Joy.” After a highly scripted introduction, you are dropped into a procedurally generated version of the city. The world comes to life around you as you interact with the other townsfolk, see posters, read newspaper clips, and watch black-and-white FMV TV clips. All of the pieces together paint a tapestry: This is an intriguing and scary place you want to know more about.
This story, in other words, is in the details, and those details aren’t always perfect in the game’s current state. Walking around the world, buildings and trees don’t always appear with the detailed textures they are supposed to have, and characters run away and float in mid-air over the sea. It makes perfect sense that the game has some weird textures and technical issues in its current state; it’s in alpha, remember. It isn’t finished yet. But that doesn’t prevent those glitches from breaking the immersion of this new world.
Some of the problems, like the misfiring textures, can actively prevent you from getting the full experience: If you walk past a wall that is supposed to have a narratively illuminating poster on it, but that wall doesn’t appear correctly, you won’t see the poster. There may be another one later, but who knows? The game is procedurally generated, so there’s no way of knowing.
Why you should just wait
More important, the structure of We Happy Few is not entirely set. According to the notes provided when I received a code for early access, Compulsion plans to add more story-focused content in the coming months.
In its current state, We Happy Few is a procedural first-person sandbox: You have to find and combine materials to make the tools necessary to escape, while “behaving” in a way that won’t arise suspicion. The final version will most likely include all of these things, but there may also be more structured sections with a more overt story, similar to the game’s introduction.
You only get to hear, see, or play a story for the first time once. Imagine your first time playing Bioshock, a game that We Happy Few has been compared to frequently, without its pivotal “would you kindly” scene. The message of the game would have changed dramatically. Even if you went back and played the final version, you would still know the unfinished version as the “original.”
While We Happy Few may not offer a linear narrative, it has the potential to become a sort of living storybook that lets you tell your version of its story. That version, however, is still largely defined by the game that you’re playing, by the world that’s there. By playing the game early, you’re painting a picture without access to all of the colors on your easel.