Compulsion Games’ second major project was released to an indie horror gaming community that anticipated more than it got. We’re not mad, “We Happy Few,” we’re just disappointed.
By MARY WALRATH
Developer – Compulsion Games
Release Date – August 10, 2018
Platforms – Xbox One reviewed, PS4, PC
The trailer for “We Happy Few” was a dream-come-true to many indie horror gaming fans. The previews featured enticing scenes meeting somewhere between post-apocalyptic and alternative history. The images of zombie-like NPCs wandering around plastered with uncanny, painted smiling masks and the story of arc of some twisted society in which the human condition had somehow gone terribly awry originally presented as more atmospheric horror than adventure action. By all appearances, it looked like the BioShock-inspired spin-off many had been hoping for.
When it finally did release in mid-2018, ripples of mass disappointment at Compulsions’ Games blunder spread in a way reminiscent of the reception of “Hello Neighbor.” People wondered how the developers managed to piss all that Kick Starter money down the drain.
Mixed, and largely negative, reviews abound, when I first started the game, I thought I might actually disagree with them.
It appealed to an audience that has a soft spot for campy, stereotypical horror tropes. It begins with a scene of our protagonist, Arthur, as he comes off the mind-altering drugs he’s been living on and realizes he and his coworkers are eating bloody rats instead of cake at an office party. His job had been to redact old news articles to make them pro-the-powers-that-bed a bit of gameplay straight out of “1984,” and that initial juxtaposition is successful in convincing you that you’re about to experience some significant Orwellian commentary.
In the first couple hours of gameplay, you spend time wandering around abandoned and bombed-out old homes with old record players scratching warped sounds and empty cribs accompanied by tinkering old lullabies. The 1940s-’60s style war posters encouraging people to “keep calm and carry on” and relics of a life that make the mi- twentieth century seem like ancient history are enough to keep the eye interested.
The entire concept of an apocalyptic, revisionist past in which Britain surrendered to Germany in WWII and left behind a society in shambles offset by brainwashing drugs has every bit of potential for a hell of a story. Arthur’s gradual revelations as he gains back his memory after refusing to take his “Joy” pills are incentivse for the player to continue to move along and find out more about this history that could have easily been ours in a slightly parallel universe.
Eventually, you play through the same series of events from the perspective of two other characters parallel to Arthur, each time saddled with a new set of state detriments seemingly to simulate “levels” of difficulty. One character, for example, has a problem with low blood sugar and you frequently need to find the components to make a glucose syringe to keep him going; another is “petite” and therefore is not able to engage in as much fist-to-face combat.
The basics are solid enough that I could not imagine it would be as bad as people were saying. And in some ways, I don’t think it was. For the amount of time it spent in development, its augmented point and click-style mechanics could, and should, have been much better. The fighting will be almost unbearable to any combat-focused players out there who could have gotten something similar by popping in an old PS2 game from the early 2000s.
For something that was marketed as being more in the creepy/horror/thriller category but ended up being more post-apocalyptic puzzle-solving, the atmosphere is what makes the difference. The lore-lovers, crafters and story-followers will find this much more appealing than fighters, adventurers or strategists.
The mechanics and wonkiness in gameplay have been discussed at length, and ultimately can be summed up as “lazy” or “rushed.” It’s almost as if the developers ran out of time — the arc of each character gets shorter, their story more rushed during each playthrough. Almost every NPC is identical, copied and pasted over and over again from the handful of people designs the team rendered. The combat was often ill-conceived, the character animation clunky compared to A world of much better detail, and the gameplay often repetitive. This isn’t RDR2 in which traveling across vast expanses of land is beautiful and enjoyable — this is “damn, I have to spend half anfhour of walking all the way THERE again to get ANOTHER item?”
This is not to mention the many facets of the game that appeared to be actual bugs if not just poor concept. Random NPC attacks that would have entire villages running after you for no apparent reason, only to stop cold when ducking under a bush. The missions are completable by simply powering through with no regard for the rules until a cut scene saved the day. Those complaints have likewise been talked about ad nauseam.
But the mechanics are less of what both disappointed and excited me, for there is a big picture here; the big picture of what the game was and could have been based on how it speaks to us as a people and how it approaches a story that is too close to our own reality for comfort. I find “We Happy Few” an almost painful type of disappointment because its concept is so brilliant that the failures in execution make you almost sad in the way lost potential does.
The revelation of the story arcs are riddled with passes at subtly and suspense that became overpowering — the stories themselves, the slow creeping horror and some sense of impenetrable human spirit — have something to say. But in the same way as a teenager trying to write the “deepest” poem in 11th grade English class, the writers of “We Happy Few” took messages of intrigue and drilled holes through them like “a church made of cheese, and all the congregation’s mice.” They had something to say — they just needn’t try so hard.