Preview: What's the deal with We Happy Few?

During their E3 2018 press conference, Microsoft made a number of new announcements regarding the upcoming adventure/survival game We Happy Few. Along with unveiling a brand new story trailer, Microsoft confirmed the game’s final release date, August 10, 2018, and also announced that the game’s developer, Compulsion Games, had joined the Microsoft family as part of a larger initiative to bring new and talented studios into the fold.

For those of you who haven’t been following this strange title, and don’t know what We Happy Few is, don’t worry. After all, even though the game was originally unveiled way back in 2015, it has been mostly flying under the proverbial radar since then, and it has undergone some pretty radical changes during that time.

Don’t Worry, Be Happy

We Happy Few was first unveiled on February 26, 2015, and shortly after, Compulsion Games even featured a rough playable build of the game during the 2015 PAX East video game convention. A few months later, in June, Compulsion Games launched a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign to raise money for the game’s development. When the campaign ended a month later, it had raised just over $266,000, surpassing the original $200,000 goal. Given We Happy Few’s entirely unique premise, it’s easy to see why it garnered such fervent initial interest.

In We Happy Few, players get to explore a fictional 1960’s British town called Wellington Wells during an alternate historical timeline wherein the citizens were forced to perform heinous acts in order to ultimately defeat the Germans in World War II. In a desperate attempt to forget the awful things they did, the citizens of Wellington Wells develop a mind-altering drug called Joy which, when taken, triggers a hallucinatory effect that suppresses bad memories and causes the user to feel nothing but immense happiness and euphoria.

However, the drug also makes users immune to the long-term moral consequences of their actions, and during the time period of the game, Wellington Wells has effectively become a dystopian society where happiness is mandatory, and the entire township abides by one iron rule: take your Joy…or else.

The final version of We Happy Few will feature three different playable characters, all of whom have been labeled as ‘Downers,’ i.e. people who refuse to take their Joy. An early access version of the game featuring one of the three playable characters was released in July of 2016, allowing early adopters to explore a rough build of the game and test new features as they were released.

When it was first announced, We Happy Few was presented as a survival-driven roguelike where the player would have to ultimately figure out some way of escaping Wellington Wells without being discovered and hunted down.

Along with having to maintain their character’s physical stats such as health, hunger, and thirst, the player would also have to face the prospect of permadeath if they were killed, adding another layer of tension onto We Happy Few’s creepy and unnerving presentation. Aside from a ‘prologue’ experience meant to acclimate players to the game, much of Wellingtons Wells is procedurally generated, ensuring that no two playthroughs unfold in the exact same manner, and also adding to the game’s disorienting nature.

Grand designs

In August of 2017, Compulsion Games announced it was teaming up with Gearbox Studios as part of a deal in which Gearbox would publish We Happy Few. Thanks to the financial benefits of the partnership, Compulsion said it would be able to develop a PlayStation 4 version of We Happy Few (the game was originally only slated for release on PC and Xbox One) while also expanding the game’s narrative elements to help it feel more structured and story-driven.

Around the same time as the Gearbox partnership, Compulsion also announced it would be making We Happy Few’s permadeath mechanic optional, thus allowing the game to appeal both to casual players who might not enjoy starting from scratch each time and more hardcore gamers who craved the extra challenge.

Looking specifically at elements like the tweaked permadeath mechanic and the inclusion of more structured story quests and events, it’s interesting to note how much We Happy Few has slowly shifted from an unforgiving survival simulator into a tough-yet-fair survival/story hybrid. Compulsion Games has managed to make meaningful changes to its core vision, while still retaining the overall structure of what that vision was.

These changes should ultimately benefit all types of gamers, be they more casual or hardcore. Indeed, Compulsion Games said right from the start that it wanted to get players and fans involved via early access to help shape the gameplay elements of We Happy Few, and if the recent E3 trailer is anything to go by, it looks like that experiment was a successful one.

When can we play it?

We won’t know for sure how well Compulsion Games’ vision will come together until We Happy Few launches in full this coming August. At the very least, the game’s release proves that standard AAA development and publishing isn’t the only method that game developers can turn to in order to bring their vision to market.

It’s true that the entire development process behind We Happy Few was a bit unconventional, but in a weird sort of way it also worked, mainly thanks to Compulsion’s willingness to bring fans directly into the conversation. Wellington Wells may be a place where it’s best to keep your head down, but the reason why it might resonate so strongly as a unique game setting is because Compulsion actively encouraged its fans to speak up.

Follow along with our full E3 2018 coverage