It's the damndest thing: one minute you're playing the opening to a carefully curated Ken Levine interactive allegory about social control, and the next you're spat out into a survival game to search lockers for bits of wood and worry about your thirst levels. In almost an hour spent with We Happy Few, I didn't feel like I understood how those two utterly different elements were going to work together through the course of the final release. I did, however, become completely fascinated by it.
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Stephen King says great stories come from great situations, not plots. And it's worked for him: famous author held prisoner by adoring fan, high school outcast gains telekinesis, haunted car is haunted… Like I said, it's usually worked for him.
He'd deeply approve of We Happy Few's opening half hour, which concerns itself primarily with constructing a world just similar enough to our own that the differences are horrifying. It begins in a 1960s nightmare that summons J.G. Ballard novel and 2016 film High Rise, and also Kubrick's movie adaptation of A Clockwork Orange. Chirpy office workers in opulent attire and menacing face paint busying themselves with some unknown celebration, and a protagonist who redacts passages from old, pre-regime newspapers at his desk, suppressing painful memories that echo in his head.
A strong setup.
It gets more fascinating still as you stand up from your desk and wander the corridors of your civil service workplace, finding curiously empty rooms with 'welcome back' banners disintegrating in the breeze of an opened door; great machines that fill entire rooms with their curious pipes; cheering and slapping coming from somewhere as you gaze upon a room piled high to the ceiling with papers and files.
There's a man broadcasting sinister platitudes from a building-scale projection opposite a window you pass by, and he stops you in your tracks with his mixture of charm and horror. Then you walk into the party, find its patrons hitting a Piñata - a "darling custom from Spain", your assumed boss tells you. Hit it, they insist. Go on - hit it. You feel uneasy. The protagonist concurs. It's been a while since you took your last Joy pill and, well - it's having an effect on the way you see the world. You know the Piñata isn't a Piñata.
And suddenly, they know you know. "He's a downer!" says your boss. "Call security!" Party over. You're instantly on the run.
This is a wonderful, inspired way for We Happy Few to introduce you to one of its central mechanics and vital narrative tenets. It says so much about who you are, the world you're in, and how you feel about it. Of course you'd want to escape whatever system you were part of when you were taking those Joy pills. Of course turning your back on that system is a survival situation. And also: whatever must the rest of the world look like, if so much strangeness can be housed in this one office?
A perfect game setup, and a perfect King-approved situation on which to build a story. And it does feel like Bioshock, despite developer Compulsion's best protestations, because it feels literary. It seems like a world informed by reading a few books, some from the history section, other from sci-fi. That such a thing immediately draws comparisons to just one other recognisable franchise says more about the blinkered environs built game-in, game-out by the industry than it does about journalists and fans making lazy comparisons.
What Compulsion mean when they say We Happy Few isn't like Bioshock is that the two share very few systems and design principles beyond aesthetics. They're fundamentally different genres - this is definitely a survival game, spoiled meat and all.
Right now the balance of those elements is determined by the game's Early Access status. “The game's story, apart from certain moments, will not be included in the Early Access version of the game," say Compulsion on the game's Steam page. "By 'the story' we mean the narrative areas, gameplay and cutscenes that make up a traditional single player story." That story will sit on a survival game foundation - at least, that's the plan.
But what an unusual, even disheartening way to begin a survival game, to see such a rich and thoughtful fiction for a brief few minutes and then have it pull back, leaving you only to scrabble around for rubbish and make useful things from that rubbish. There must be more of that fiction, that thoughtfulness and storytelling, waiting further down the road?
That's my objective as my protagonist wakes up in a cluttered underground bunker: find more of that stuff. Before I can even leave the bunker though, I'm searching through lockers like an old DayZ veteran and finding twigs and bits of beef jerky. Staples of the survivalist. Admittedly, there's more storytelling in this bunker than a DayZ veteran would find in a week: notes and journal entries written by a cadaver I find swinging gently by the neck in a dark corner.
Lockpicks crafted from Lord-knows-what, I make my way topside. It's a quaint village, at least the remains thereof, populated by similarly-minded denizens who shunned society and its collective drug addiction for the truth. Yorgos Lanthimos' The Lobster comes to mind here: would we be better off embracing the lie, living presumably comfortable lives under absolute oppression and delusion? Or are we better off out here, scrabbling around in the dirt to survive, but at least aware of our true surroundings?
Don't let me mislead you with those musings, though: most of my time is spent looking in my inventory, finding containers to search, picking up odds and ends and trying to make things with them in a crafting menu. At one point - I'm not sure how or why - I get into a fight with three fellow downers and end up stabbing them all to death with a sharp stick. They have nothing of value on them.
The easiest of my many meters to keep from depleting is thirst. Ambling bewilderedly around the ruined village I find several water pumps. I drink from them. No one seems to mind. Thirst is a problem I can allow myself not to stress out about.
Hunger's always the big one though, isn't it? The number of rotten apples I've eaten in survival games to keep that meter at bay. The tins of cold beans. The zombie flesh. Food is extremely scarce in We Happy Few and as far as I'm aware you're not able to stoop so low as to devour the meat of your fellow man. I did find a packet of beef jerky at one point, but that was never going to be the difference between living and dying for more than a few minutes.
While half-heartedly scanning for scran, I find myself collecting quests. One involves disposing of the body I found in the bunker - easily accomplished. A second is more involved, requiring some theft from the local police force (all in terrifying facepaint, as you rightly assumed) to obtain a keycard that'll open a bridge to the next part of the game map. There are others, too. Dynamic quests involving fracas that break out between NPCs. I get involved in one, putting the sharp stick to good use once more and talk to the man I was supposed to protect, but find him uninterested. I offer him a pill to stop him throwing up quite so much and it works, but the mechanics of the quest seem to fizzle out after that.
So here's the problem I face: I want to devote my attention more to those quests. I want to spend more time with that man and find out how to guide him to safety. But all the while, my meters deplete. I'm torn between trying to find that fascinating fiction from the opening, and keeping the bars filled to stay alive.
Similar tensions have proven extremely effective in other games - what fun would The Sims have been without the danger of public defecation? But in this case the potential for greatness seems unclear. Will it be a better game if Compulsion include more of the storytelling and linearity, or will that diminish the appeal for survival fans?
Maybe the question isn't about the proportions. Maybe you can't add x% DayZ to y% Bioshock and find the winning formula. More likely, it'll be about how Compulsion manage to knit the two elements together, each propelling you forwards as you find satisfying loops both from resource management and narrative payoffs. It's early to make that assessment in We Happy Few's case, but I wonder if I'll ever be able to enjoy the atmosphere while those meters are constantly depleting.