Just as quickly as an E3 trailer can make a game, releasing something into the wild that doesn’t feel “complete” can break it too. This is a fact that the team behind We Happy Few, Compulsion Games, has learned the hard way.
Captivating viewers during Microsoft’s underwhelming 2016 E3 conference, We Happy Few‘s atmospheric debut trailer teased a giddy blend of Aldous Huxely’s Brave New World and the surrealism of Bioshock. Watching it again, it’s not hard to see why everyone got so excited. Just over a month later, We Happy Few was playable thanks to an Early Access release — and after diving in, for many, that sense of giddy excitement quickly turned to disappointment.
Why? Because the game early adopters got to preview was nothing like the experience that was teased in that intriguing reveal trailer. Instead of the immersive, narrative-driven adventure many expected, We Happy Few just turned out to be another procedurally-generated survival game.
Now two years on, We Happy Few is finally looking like the brilliantly bleak re-imagining of ’60s Britain that we all wanted it to be.
“No one believed us, but we kept saying, ‘We have a story, we’re just not releasing it,'” explained Lead Writer Alex Epstein. “That E3 trailer was the first opening scene of a story that was completely written and mostly recorded. I always knew there were three stories. I was working away all this time on cutscenes, and the animators were [too], but what was frustrating was that we kept saying there was a story, and everyone was saying, ‘Oh yeah, pull the other one.'”
START AT THE BEGINNING
Since last year’s Early Access reveal, it looks like Compulsion Games has been carefully listening to players criticisms. After sitting down with a final build of We Happy Few ahead of its full release in August, it looks like the studio has made some pretty major changes.
In the newly-reworked game, the story starts just as it did in that 2015 trailer — with a happily intoxicated Arthur Hasting hard at work redacting stories from newspaper clippings. When he comes across one that’s all about himself and his brother Percy, however, it quickly knocks him out of his drug-induced fantasy world.
Dragged kicking and screaming back into reality, his harrowing memories begin to resurface. Of course, he could just take some of the mood-enhancing Joy pills again, replacing his problems with euphoria and vivid colours, but that would make for a very short game, wouldn’t it?
It’s the decision not to take his meds that kicks the story into motion, turning Arthur into a ‘Downer’ in the eyes of his drug-addled peers and making him an outcast on the run from the white-masked bobbies. Making his escape, he ends up outside of the quaint Wellington Wells amongst the other outcasts from this society, the Wastrels. Previously, that was all the story that players got to experience in We Happy Few.
In the latest build, it’s at this point where you discover that the game is still procedurally generated, but compared to the Early Access release, this more complete build manages to blend randomised world with more story elements along the way.
“There are four procedurally generated islands, which are large and have many side quests scattered around them randomly…[but] there are quite a few locations that are handcrafted.” Elaborates Alex. “The narrative, even on the procedurally generated islands, is always the same narrative.”
THE SOCIALITE WITH A SECRET
We were privy to some of these handcrafted locations after we met the other two playable characters: Sally and Ollie. Interestingly, they’re both people who inhabit the world when you first play as Arthur, as he uncovers the realities of life in Wellington Wells and what befell Britain during WW2.
It’s only once you’ve met them in the game and seen how they interact with Arthur from his point of view that you get to explore their side of the story and begin to understand what each character struggles with from one day to the next.
Sally’s story starts as she’s managing a chemical reaction, making drugs for the grey market and selling them to the cops and the public alike. Suddenly when her world and her deepest secret are nearly turned upside down by an unexpected visitor, tearing through her home in search of a fix. In the blink of an eye, she’s now got to rush back and forth, trying to keep track of everything that’s going on in her lab, answer the door several times and try to keep more people from intruding into her life.
Compared to Arthur, her brilliance at chemistry and her fashion sense make her great at being able to blend in and stealthily get what she needs to do, done.
“Sally is fabulous, she is a fashion plate, she’s sparkling and bubbly, but she’s hiding really dangerous secrets that will get her killed if they get out. So she has a front that she presents to the world, but she has her own thoughts which are very different. Generally, to other people she’s all, ‘Oh, lovely day for it!’ but if she defeats someone in combat, she might shout, ‘Don’t f-ing touch me!'”
THE MAD SCOTSMAN
Ollie is almost the exact opposite, as a mad Scotsman with only one friend in the world: an imaginary girl called Margarette. Having been in the military as Britain fell, he’s got his own dark secret, but it’s one that he can’t quite remember. Perhaps it’s a consequence of having lived as part of the drug-affected society for too long, but his time as a conformist is long gone.
Now he’s brash and more combative, with a metal-plated cricket bat to batter the Headboys that are coming after him during his explosive introduction.
“Arthur and Sally will always try to conform,” Alex adds, “but Ollie isn’t a very conforming character. People don’t like him – they have really good reasons for not liking him – and there’s a whole class of character who will just attack him on sight, and when he’s hungry he has a tendency to just insult people. As we say in the States, he gets ‘hangry’.”
LIVING UP TO THEIR POTENTIAL
The Early Access release might have led to a lot of people being disappointed by the game at that time, but it also helped push Compulsion to be much more ambitious in their design. “If we hadn’t gone into Early Access, we would have made a four hour procedurally generated game with systemic encounters.” Admits Alex. “ What the Early Access community told us what that they wanted a more narrative adventure game, so it was very important that we went into Early Access, because we could have made a different game.”
Only getting to play a few short sections of the game, there is still a question mark hanging over how these handcrafted story moments and locations are built into the procedural open worlds. Yet it’s still clear to see that this is a studio who is very much listening to its audience.
Even in the open world, now having three contrasting characters will add a different flavour to exploring and surviving. Arthur is still the everyman, an otherwise unassuming fellow who can quite easily blend in, and can fight his way in and out of trouble if he needs to as he tries to escape Wellington Wells.
Fighting isn’t much of an option for Sally, who will have to use her chemistry know-how and “It Girl” persona to blend in and get what she needs, while you’ll be bopping people on the head as Ollie and trying to scrounge as much food as possible to keep his tummy full!
There’ve been some uppers and downers to We Happy Few‘s long development then. But it’s safe to say that it now feels much closer to the promise and the vision of that original E3 trailer, with a dark and twisted world hidden behind the drug-addled happiness of Wellington Wells.