The bright white face masks of We Happy Few turned heads on the PAX East show floor this year with their sinister gaze and art style. If you played Contrast, you will immediately recognize Compulsion Games’ handiwork. We Happy Few‘s characters wear a look that says, “Be happy, or else.” And that’s what the game is about.
Creative Director Guillaume Provost explained that We Happy Few explores a dystopian alternate history that takes place 20 years after the Nazis won World War II. How might have Hitler’s ideological fantasies manifested themselves over time? What would daily life be like? What would happen if you tried to resist?
It’s these open questions that the team at Compulsion Games put a lot of thought into. They came up with a world in which the government engineered a utopia where every single person is required to be blissfully happy — no exceptions. To accomplish this, the government keeps everybody drugged so that they will never need to worry about anything at all, not even worry itself. Everybody must be happy, and everybody must conform.
Naturally, your player-character isn’t buying it. Over the course of the game, you have to find a way to freedom while remaining safe from suspicion. If somebody catches on to you, they will alert the police. If that happens, you must either escape or fight back before everybody overwhelms you.
To get more technical about it, We Happy Few is a first-person survival adventure game (a roguelike, if you prefer that term) in a randomly generated city. NPC citizens populate the area while police patrol around looking for unhappy rebels like yourself to punish. As a comparison, We Happy Few works like a first-person Don’t Starve in a world that feels similar to Bioshock.
“It took a little bit of courage at first,” Provost recalled, “because we said, ‘Oh this sounds really cool, let’s do this game about conformity and paranoia where you have to conform to society, and you have to hide in plain sight.’ We all got really excited about it, but we also had no idea how we were going to turn that into a game mechanic.” But they seem to have pulled it off.
If the mob catches on to you and you just can’t get away, your fail-safe is to check into one of the many drug booths dotting the city streets and take a dose. Doing so immediately stops the chase because you are conforming again. But the drugs also alter your perception and take a toll on your body. Suddenly, lights look brighter, the sky shines pink and purple, the streets light up with rainbow lanes and the city looks like paradise… for about 30 seconds. Then the hunger, dehydration and fatigue kick in as it all turns to sick gray before your eyes. Your last problem of escape becomes a new problem of survival. You need to find food, water or both before you collapse from fatigue. You might have to break into a house to do so, but that will make others suspicious. Their suspicions might lead to a chase. And so it continues.
Provost reassured, “There are some moments of calm in the game… but you have to start understanding the rules of how the world works before understanding how to create those pockets of relaxation.”
Like other roguelike games, you only get one shot to make it out alive. Death resets your progress and regenerates the entire city. However, finishing the game isn’t the end.
“It’s a game that we expect people to play and then replay,” explained Provost. “We really want to build up to that compulsion move that even though you finish the game, you kind of have that compulsion of wanting to start again because there’s stuff that you haven’t found, events that haven’t occurred, things that you haven’t discovered in the game that you want to experience.”
Throughout the game, a live-action television broadcast shows Uncle Jack, a propagating entertainer. You can see his white face mask through the black-and-white distortion if you look closely. His cheerful threats are chilling to say the least (see for yourself in the game’s reveal trailer above). He encourages everybody to “take their Joy” and reminds them how perfect their lives are. The broadcasts maintain in real time throughout the whole city on every radio and television screen, following you wherever you go. Provost hints that Uncle Jack will be your feedback for what is happening in the world as you go through the game.
There’s still a lot more information to come about We Happy Few, but the premise is intriguing. The demo we played was a proof of concept to set the stage and demonstrate the main mechanics. With this kind of game, Compulsion will need to find a way to balance the unpredictable challenges with a clear sense that you are making progress and know what to look for next, even if you have to die to get there. If they can pull that off, this dystopia should be worth the visit.