We Happy Few is out of Steam Early Access and into full release. When I played the gameplay alpha back in the summer of 2016, I said that it had a lot of crossed wires and weird assumptions. After completing the first act of the full release game, I can say that it, still, hasn’t lost any of that strangeness. This is a game that isn’t like anything else on the market. It is making clear choices. It is not a “bad” game. But the road it has chosen to go down isn’t one that I find fulfilling, and I’m going to have to write a lot to explain why.
I’ve only played the first act of We Happy Few because I cannot summon up the willpower to play more. Believe me, I tried, despite absolutely hitting a wall at about hour four where I didn’t think I would be able to keep going. My displeasure at what was in front of me and dread of what was to come emanates from the core of We Happy Few. More on that in a moment.
The first act puts the player in the shoes of Arthur Hastings, who works for a newspaper. Like everyone else in society, Arthur wears a white mask and takes Joy, a pill that alters one’s mood and perception of the world around them. Things just seem brighter and more cheerful when you’re on Joy, but it also has deleterious effects on someone who takes too much or too little. One day, Arthur is working through the archive of his newspaper, redacting anything that might hurt the current society, and he sees a picture of himself and his brother Percy as children. This brings up all sorts of bad memories, Arthur goes off his Joy, and eventually the police chase him miles and miles away from his office and leave him for dead.
The first act of We Happy Few splits the difference between a crafting game and a Bioshock title. Weirdly, we already have games like that. They’re called “immersive sims,” and they share a lot of DNA with Bioshock. Deus Ex, Thief 2, Dishonored, and Prey all occupy the space of the immersive sim that asks you to read enemy encounters, craft items, and do stealth and combat to solve environmental puzzles. These games are a lot to deal with.
We Happy Few wants to have it both ways. It wants to do the Dishonored thing of throwing you into a massive open world with some quests that you can do in whatever way you see fit. It also wants to do the Bioshock thing of tightly directing you to objects, locations, and specific puzzles that need to be overcome in very specific ways.
At this very basic level, the level of design in which We Happy Few is determining what it wants the player to do, the game is confused. And, look: I love the idea that We Happy Few is trying to break the boundaries between game genres. I don’t think that games need to fit into a recognizable container to be good games. But it feels like decisions were made at every step to prevent me from truly enjoying what We Happy Few was doing.
I want to talk about structure for just a second. The structure of a Bioshock game is roughly the same as a theme park. You are on a path toward a goal, and on that path there are different things to do. You encounter weird folks who derail you from your main goal, and you defeat them, and then you keep on going toward that goal. In opposition to that, the structure of a Dishonored game is that someone gives you a Big Goal, and you go about executing that goal however you see fit in a big open map with all kinds of different things happening in it. We Happy Few stands right in the middle, giving you a specific goal that can only be accomplished in one way that is also always half the map away.
This comparison is going to sound very strange, but I promise it’s apt: We Happy Few feels more like Fallout 3 than any other game. It is clunky, has floaty combat, and feels like it is trying to cram all kinds of gameplay into one game. In Fallout 3, I forgave that because it’s a big, omnibus RPG that really is trying to cram a lot of different designs into one game. We Happy Few is, presumably, not trying to do the same thing. It is trying to offer a story-centered experience in the Bioshock vein with some light crafting elements.
So it’s in the middle, it’s a melding of different game type, and so on. But is it any good? Are those linear puzzles worth playing through?
The Bioshock games live and die on their presentation. They know that you need bombast to keep people strung along on an adventure that is mostly clicking one button and interacting with glowing objects. When it is really clicking, We Happy Few has that bombast. The animation and in-game cinematic teams did a truly excellent job at elevating the action of the storytelling. When the big stuff happens, it happens on-screen. When things explode, they explode.
The gameplay design doesn’t quite keep up with that, though. Being off your Joy means potentially being suspicious, and that allows for some interesting stealth-y systems like wearing different outfits to get into different areas. For the most part, though, it means walking long distances and saying hello to all the citizens and cops you meet. No running, because running is suspicious. Get ready to walk, slowly, a lot. The same can be said of the combat. It is serviceable, but nothing to write home about, and there’s basically no reason to buy any of the game’s RPG-ish upgrades other than the one that gives you more health. It’s easier to survive the cops clubbing you on the way by them as you run to the next objective because you got bored walking.
All of this is the problem of being in the middle of the road. The game doesn’t commit to a single idea of what it is, and it reaps the bad reward of being middle of the road. If the game can be said to fall down in a specific way, though, it is with its narrative design. As I said, the first act has up playing as Arthur Hastings. He has his own story of when the Germans invaded, when they took all the children from the U.K. under a certain age, and the Joy-infused governmental changes that happened after. Arthur has a strong point of view, and that normally wouldn’t be a problem.
This runs right into the game design in general, though. Bioshock works so well because the player is a camera with a gun. Whatever choices are made are the player’s choices. In 90% of encounters, the “player character” is just a way of looking at stuff and solving puzzles. For We Happy Few, Arthur apparently needs to be developed. He has to espouse opinions on everything, comment on the game design by hanging a lampshade on every basic video-game-ass task you do, and give us context for all the people you encounter. Arthur’s internal monologue becomes an easy way to deliver exposition that is wholly unnatural. It is as if every conversation begins with “as you well know, because of XYZ occurrence, then ABC has to happen.” It is clunky, declarative, and always grinds the pace of the game to a halt. There is no way for me to align with Arthur because he’s constantly telling me things that I don’t know and could never have figured out on my own. It’s not a great feeling.
There’s also the fact that Arthur is just irredeemably awful as a person. I will not spoil parts of the game here, but suffice to say that the way Arthur treats other people is truly monstrous. If Arthur is having a conversation about or with someone he is supposedly close to, you can be sure that he’s going to say something that borders on being objectively evil. There’s unlikable characters and there are antiheroes and there is Arthur Hastings, who is off the map. It’s gross.
And so, as I said before, I didn’t finish the game. Getting through as much as I did was a struggle, although I will say that it got better the more that I played. How much of that is just getting used to it like I would in a hot tub? Who can say? The opening of Act 2 was genuinely interesting, and I might dig back into the game at some point, but the mismeasure between what the game asked of me and what I thought I should be doing at any given moment was large enough that it’s going to be hard to click on that “play game” button.
Cameron Kunzelman tweets at @ckunzelman and writes about games at thiscageisworms.com. His latest game, Epanalepsis, is available on Steam.