art | illustration | design
Welcome to my blog, where I’ll ramble on about some of my favorite things; an unsung rock band, a defunct pro wrestling promotion, or anything else that comes to mind. Enjoy!
We Happy Few Isn’t A Downer, But It Deserves More Joy
BILL WOOD | DECEMBER 12, 2022
Wellington Wells, 1964: The super-fab residents of this hip British island community cheerfully go about their daily business, smiling, shopping and cavorting in a gleeful, almost trance-like state. Trippy tunes fill the air, and everyone on the rainbow-paved streets is bursting with positive vibes and upbeat energy. It's all tangerine trees and marmalade skies on the surface, but—this being a video game—all is not as it seems. The fact is that the residents of Wellington Wells are harboring a deep, dark past that they are reluctant to confront. Only a handful of brave citizens are up to the task of revealing the lurking horrors that lie hidden within plain sight.
This chilling scenario provides the narrative for one of the more ferociously original video games in recent memory, and yet this 2018 title has already been swept under the rug like a bad LSD trip. What exactly happened here?
Candy-coated with swinging London fashion, Union Jack regalia, heady psychedelia and sunshine pop melodies, Compulsion Games’ We Happy Few is equal parts Monty Python, Sgt. Peppers, 1984, A Clockwork Orange and Austin Powers… with a clever twist. The game takes the effervescent spirit of 1960s England and upends it on its shag haircut. It turns out the residents of Wellington Wells are shiny, happy people for a reason; they’re under the influence of a government-mandated drug called Joy. The effects of Joy include extreme euphoria and memory loss, both of which are quite intentional for reasons to be revealed as you progress through the game. Neglecting the mandate and refusing to take your Joy makes you a “downer,” resulting in negative vibes and hostile encounters with the locals. They’ll notice you not being cheery and call in the bobbies for a violent dose of attitude adjustment. Same goes for breaking curfew, wearing the wrong attire, saying anything remotely controversial, running, jumping or generally doing anything that stirs the ire of the populace. In Python-esque terms, the key to survival in this dystopian society is Not Being Seen.
In a novel approach to storytelling, the game divides its narrative between three protagonists, Arthur Hastings, Sally Boyle and Ollie Starkey. Each has their own strengths and motivations for making it though this hallucinogenic nightmare. Bucking traditional gaming convention, the tales of We Happy Few are often quite somber, particularly Arthur's, which can be considered the main story arc. There’s plenty of witty English humor to offset the melancholy moments, but the overall tone of the game very much lives up to its title. The Deluxe Edition offers three additional DLC storylines from the perspective of various NPCs. Roger and James quarrel their way through a Doctor Who-inspired sci-fi adventure with "They Came From Below," while Wellington Wells' favorite John Lennon doppelganger Nick Lightbearer delivers a delirious pastiche of groupie-fueled hijinks in "Lightbearer." Finally, Victoria Byng's "We All Fall Down" furthers the main plot and is absolutely essential to bringing closure to the saga.
And then there’s Uncle Jack Worthing, the congenial television host who comes off as a sort of Mister Rogers for stoned adults, shilling innocuous stories and reminding citizens how important it is to ignore those vicious rumors and take their Joy on a regular basis. Uncle Jack is played to perfection by actor Julian Casey, and like most things in Wellington Wells, he conceals his own dark secret. Jack is a common thread that weaves the various narratives together and is definitely one of We Happy Few's more memorable characters. You can watch all of the collected Uncle Jack episodes via the game's theatre mode, they're well worth revisiting as they're smartly written and performed.
The game’s audio design is top notch. The voice acting and dialogue are particularly exceptional, from Arthur’s humbled mumbling to Uncle Jacks’ polished delivery to the sinister intent lurking just behind the baritone of the Orwellian bobbies. Everything sounds spot-on, and just wait until you hear the sound design in Nick's DLC. If you’re a Beatles and/or Python fan, you’ll no doubt grin as you hear the residents of Wellington Wells wonder aloud how many holes it takes to fill the Albert Hall or remind themselves that supreme executive power must derive from a mandate from the masses. The Rolling Stones are also referenced plenty, case in point a side quest and craftable weapon both called "Mother's Little Helper."
We Happy Few’s original songs are extremely well done, although I really wish they’d gone the Fallout/Bioshock route and licensed some authentic sunshine/psychedelic pop for the soundtrack. I’m not suggesting the producers should have dropped a mint on “Penny Lane” or "She's A Rainbow," but there are literally thousands of rare and unknown tracks out there that would have been a perfect fit and might have been curated for a relatively small sum, from Alan Bown’s “Toyland” to Piccadilly Line’s “Emily Smalls.” Instead we're left with some rather generic bumper music and the same four originals much of the time. It’s not a deal-breaker, but the lack of authentic '60s tunes does feel like an opportunity missed in a game where music, art and fashion are key components.
With so much going for it, why didn’t We Happy Few become a smashing success? There are a few reasons. Unlike most video games delivered from a first-person perspective, there are no overpowered assault rifles or weapons of mass destruction to muck about with (it is ’60s Britain after all), and while your protagonist usually has an arsenal at their disposal—mostly handmade bombs and pointy sticks—it’s often easier to blend in with the crowd and remain inconspicuous, or simply Run Away (another not-so-subtle Python reference) and hide from your aggressors. There's even a trophy for making it through the game without directly killing anyone. Combined with the emphasis on pilfering desks and dustbins to craft items for survival, We Happy Few is a game that ultimately rewards avoiding confrontation as opposed to seeking it. I actually find this pacifist approach refreshing for a first-person video game, but it is out of touch with most gamers’ preference for pseudo-empowerment and modern warfare.
Another issue is the limited environmental decor. The various locales of Wellington Wells are charmingly detailed, but the game ultimately suffers from rehashing the same assets over and over again. Identical storefronts, posters, homes and gardens appear all over the place, the result being a very copy-and-paste visual experience. Instead of traversing a pedestrian bridge and getting that euphoric feeling of discovering an entirely new area, you’ll ask yourself “Haven’t I been here before?” Same goes for the residents. In fashion-conscious Wellington Wells there are apparently only four or five attire and hairstyle options available. You might loosely weave this into the story arc with its emphasis on social conformity and lack of natural resources, but it's a bit of a stretch when every constable stalking the street and every Miss Marple lookalike gleefully splashing in the rain are literally the same exact model with the same exact animation. At times it’s mildly distracting, other times it’s downright annoying.
Perhaps the biggest detractor is that while We Happy Few’s concept is solid, the technical execution is lacking. It isn’t an awful game by any stretch, just patently mediocre. It chugs along with a slightly sluggish frame rate on PS4, although it does seem to be a solid 30fps on PS5. Loading times can be obnoxious, but this is also improved on PS5. High-res textures pop in and out, even when up close. Even the save utility is limited, forcing you the delete files to make room for additional playthroughs (how big are hard drives these days?). None of these issues make this game unplayable, but the overall impression is that a few shorts may have been taken to get it released on time and within budget. The result is that We Happy Few is just on the precipice of being a AAA-quality title a’la Bioshock (the game it undoubtedly has the most in common with), but it doesn't quite reach that level. A PS5 patch or even a full remaster would be most welcome, but neither seems likely at this point. Of course I'm only speaking on console terms, I'm guessing the PC version alleviates most if not all of the technical issues.
Whether We Happy Few is a must-play or not depends on your attitude toward narrative-heavy action gaming. If you can appreciate an artistically-inspired title with style and originality that is slightly rough around the edges and leaves you feeling a bit sullen in the end, I’d recommend it. If you're a big fan of '60s psychedelia and British humor, this game may be exactly what the doctor ordered. Just don’t go expecting a technical masterpiece or a highly-uplifting experience or you’ll be off your Joy in no time. - BW