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The big flaw in We Happy Few’s Orwellian parable

We take a bizarre stroll around the early access survival/action/adventure We Happy Few. It’s a suitably original game, but Matthew Codd finds a glaring contradiction at its beating heat. 

The Compulsion Games team made their mark a few years ago with the beautiful Contrast, so it makes sense that their latest adventure, We Happy Few, should too be a game of contrasts. High society clashes with low, colourful surrealism is juxtaposed against the harshness of reality, and drug-fuelled ecstasy sits alongside overwhelming depression – and that’s all from a game that’s still in development and currently has little in the way of a textual narrative.

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What plot there is serves as an introduction: it’s 1964, the Nazi regime won World War II, and the little British town of Wellington Wells has become something of an Orwellian dystopia. Information is heavily controlled, especially where the town’s role in the war is concerned, and the locals live in a constant state of forgetful bliss thanks to a drug called Joy, which is more or less mandatory – those who don’t take their Joy are labelled as “Downers” and violently ostracised.

This is something discovered first-hand by Arthur Smith, a humble public servant tasked with redacting newspaper articles, when he decides to stop taking his Joy. Barely escaping his manic colleagues, Arthur’s cast out to the slum-like, lawless Garden District, to try and scrape out a living among the Downers and Joy-immune Wastrels who live there.

Therein lies the game at the heart of We Happy Few: survive. Managing hunger, thirst, and fatigue are ever-present tasks, but the derelict state of the Garden District means decent food is scarce. Scrounging around trash cans and the like might net you a rotten apple or two, but when you get desperate (or selfish) enough, you’ll likely have to turn to robbing your fellow Downers of their scraps. A simple crafting systems lets you create useful tools like lockpicks and jimmy bars from bits and bobs you find lying around, and quests found around the map sell a vision of this world while also, usually, providing you with so me small reward.

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It’s all very typical survival game stuff, but the setting and sense of place is what sets We Happy Few apart. The Garden District, with its crumbling buildings and caricatured “crazy” inhabitants, can be quite creepy, but there’s a beauty to it, too. Even in their state of disrepair, the houses are quaint and endearing, all the more for the greenery taking root wherever it can. For the most part, the Wastrels and Downers are quite friendly, if eccentric, and they’ll never turn violent unless you provoke them first. For a lawless wasteland, the Garden District is rather safe and welcoming.

The same can’t be said of the Joyed-up Hamlyn Village. To get there at all, you need find a way to bypass heavy security systems that scan for Downers, and once inside, you’d best make sure nobody suspects you of being off your Joy. Sprint, and people will wonder why you’re in such a hurry. Get too close to people, and they’ll try to “turn your frown upside down”. You don’t dare go outside after curfew here, because that’s almost guaranteed to end in a beatdown from the “bobbies” (police) patrolling the streets. Alternatively, you could always just scrounge up some Joy and take it, enjoying the psychedelic high that comes with it, but be careful – the withdrawal symptoms when you’re coming down are a clear giveaway of a Downer.

In contrast to muted natural beauty of the Garden District, Hamlyn Village is bright and cheery, but it’s a fake kind of joyfulness that’s pushed to the point of excess. The main road is painted with a rainbow all the way along, bright colours adorn the architecture, and residents dance gleefully through the streets – fully grown adults jumping in puddles like little kids. If you’re on Joy, which is often necessary just to survive in Hamlyn, the effect gets even more intense, taking on the visual equivalent of a candy that’s too sickly sweet to ever actually be pleasant. Rather than being happy and welcoming, it’s downright creepy.

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It’s in this juxtaposition that We Happy Few makes a powerful statement, even in this plotless preview build. It throws into question how we treat our homeless and our mentally ill, and how they are othered by society – notice how Downers are Downers and Wastrels are Wastrels, but the people taking Joy have no special name? They’re the default. True to its Orwellian roots, it questions the notion that a life of comfort and conformity is preferable to a life of freedom. It challenges the apparent societal need to be happy all the time, and highlights the struggles of depressed people in a world that things “just be happy!” is the answer.

At the same time, it seems to fall back on the old argument that antidepressants and other such drugs are bad by virtue of being “unnatural”, and that they’re unnecessary by virtue of being a temporary fix to symptoms. In everything from its world design to the mechanics of taking Joy, We Happy Few celebrates naturality as being infallibly right and good. The happiness from taking Joy is fake and fleeting, as is life as a whole for the Joy-users of Wellington Wells.

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Only, that’s not how antidepressants work, at all. Depression is often misunderstood as being perpetually sad, but that’s not really the case. It’s more typically characterised by a lack of emotion, care, and motivation that can make the simplest daily tasks a struggle. Antidepressants don’t make you magically, artificially happy, but they can remove roadblocks to living your life. For me, this is something that’s been rather life-changing.

That’s far from the image that We Happy Few’s Joy presents, and though it’s not an antidepressant per se (it’s more of a hallucinogen), that subtext is crystal clear. That might be the game’s strangest contrast of all: it’s incredibly effective at selling its critique of ostracisation – at least until it falls into the same traps that it condemns. Hopefully with its plot, multitude of characters, and bigger game world, the full release of We Happy Few will be able to introduce some nuance.


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