Overdoses and death in We Happy Few

We Happy Few is recently-announced indie title from Compulsion games, the team behind Contrast, which has been called "Don't Starve meets Bioshock." My time with We Happy Few began as my character woke up in the grimy underground bunker which served as his home. With guidance from Compulsion Games' COO Sam Abbott, I explored the small space around me, gathering some supplies while a sinister-looking character known as "Uncle Jack" gave a speech via the black and white TV in the bunker.

The speech was delivered through live-action footage, which added an extra layer of strangeness to everything. Uncle Jack himself is played by actor Julian Casey, a performer who has had a presence in "basically every video game to come out of Montreal in the past few years." Casey delivered his lines in crisp and cheerful tones, even as Uncle Jack discussed sinister topics such as a mandatory game of Simon Says (with broken legs as a punishment for failure).

The world of We Happy Few is one in which "something very bad" has happened in the past. As a consequence, in the game's present-day, a twisted version of 1960s London, people are obsessed with happiness. This obsession has reached such an extent that everyone wears perpetually smiling masks and continually ingests a drug known as Joy. Joy makes you happy with only a few minor side-effects, including memory loss, hallucinations, and psychotic behavior.

Your character is one of the few "downers" in the world who refuses to go along with the mandatory drug-induced placidity, and as such your life is in constant danger. Nobody in the world of We Happy Few likes downers, and if you reveal your true nature by acting suspiciously, citizens will be more than happy to turn on your with violent force...as I would soon find out.

Not a normal phone booth

We Happy Few Screenshot (1)

Before leaving my bunker, I experimented with the game's crafting system (rudimentary right now, as We Happy Few is very much in a pre-alpha state). I was also notified of my growing hunger and thirst, caused in part by my running and jumping around my bunker. I had an apple and drank some water, then made my way up the ladder into the surface world.

Wellington Wells is a city of almost sickeningly-bright and vibrant colors, and exploring it is a surreal and tense experience. The overall goal of the game is to find a way to escape from the city, but you need to do that without attracting dangerous levels of suspicion. To escape you'll need weapons and resources, but to find those you'll need to get into buildings and houses that don't belong to you. And because sneaking in someone's window isn't something a "normal" person does, you need to find a way to do it without getting caught.

Before I worried about any of that though, I made my way to one of those wonderful big red British phonebooths. I stepped inside -- before the developer sitting next to me could stop me -- and found that, instead of any sort of phone, the booth was dedicated to the dispensation of Joy. My character ingested a pill and stepped back outside into a world which had become even more vibrant and intensely happy. I had enough time to admire a butterfly as it landed on my finger...and then my character passed out.

As it happens, I had overdosed. Because I had so recently ingested water and food which were tainted with small amounts of Joy, taking a full pill pushed me over the edge. I didn't die, but I was told that I "lost a day." Your time in We Happy Few is precious and limited, and losing a day to drugs can be a costly mistake if you hope to escape. 

Suspicious behavior, such as murdering 

We Happy Few Screenshot (2)

After emerging into the world again, I returned to the phone booth. This time, with no extra Joy in my system, the drug was just enough to pacify me and cause mild hallucinations. When you're properly dosed with Joy, other citizens will be more forgiving of strange behavior, though I quickly pushed things too far by barging into the home of a stranger. He turned on me suspiciously, and before I could decide what to do Joy withdrawal kicked in. Without the drug keeping me in line, the man turned hostile.

I turned and ran, which was a bad move. People on Joy don't run unless they are chasing a downer, so running through town marked me as a troublemaker. I drew my weapon, which didn't make me any less suspicious.

Very shortly I had the whole town after me. I jumped into another window and ran up someone's stairs, then made my frantic last stand at the top of a staircase. Combat is primitive at this point, but it didn't matter much. I was doomed, and died. If I had been playing We Happy Few as it will eventually exist, that would mark the end of that particular playthrough. It would be time to start again, having learned from my mistakes in the "repetitive failure loop" common to these sorts of games.

Impressions, Kickstarter, and Early Access

We happy few Screenshot 4

I didn't spend long with We Happy Few, but I saw a  lot of elements that I liked. The tension inherent in needing to eat and drink to survive while also managing your Joy levels was engaging, and reminded me of some of the great Fallout 3 and New Vegas survival mods. The game's art design is clearly a standout, and I'm itching to find out more about the game world and backstory.

Compulsion are hoping to bring We Happy Few to Kickstarter in "about six weeks," though Abbot stressed that it won't be a "We really really need this" Kickstarter, but more of a "Hey if you're interested and would like to support the game" kind of thing. The team wants to use Kickstarter as a way to help bring people into the game in the very early stages. "We want people that are really keen on the game to come and help us make it," Abbot said.

The current rough plan for the development of the game is to work with Kickstarter backers to improve and develop the game in the near future, then to explore the possibility of Early Access once the game's reached a certain minimum level of quality. "We don't want to go on Early Access before the game has value," Abbot said. He pointed to Prison Architect as a title that did Early Access the right way, as a game that was fun from the very early stages and which saw continual updates.

For more information, visit the official We Happy Few website.