Our demo of Compulsion Games’ We Happy Few began in a locked safe house, where dazed and confused protagonist Arthur Hastings awoke with little recollection of how he’d ended up in the strange bunker wearing a torn suit.
Thankfully, design director David Sears was available to fill in some blanks on this story-driven, first-person survival horror game’s mysterious backstory and setup. “We Happy Few is set in a dystopian alternate future history of England, post-World War II,” Sears said. “The entire game is based on various characters you play, trying to escape from this insane series of islands in which everyone takes a happiness pill called ‘Joy.’ The pill makes them forget ‘the very terrible thing’ that happened the day before.”
As it turns out, Arthur – as well as the other playable characters – are “Downers,” folks who have refused to continue consuming Joy and conforming to this totalitarian nightmare. Upon looting a jimmy bar from a suicide victim who (according to Sears) had attempted and failed to forge the same enlightened path as Arthur, we were able to break free from the safe house and hit the streets of the game’s Garden District.
Armed with only a branch, the most basic of melee weapons, we eagerly embraced our newfound freedom and began exploring the detail-drenched, open-ish world. Sadly, our sightseeing tour of the highly atmospheric world was cut short by a pair of approaching Bobbies – policeman sporting sinister, smile-plastered masks. As Sears explained, all citizens are required to wear the creepy cowls, lest they look anything but extremely happy at all times.
Given Arthur’s recent status and less-than-joyful appearance, we avoided the fuzz and popped into a nearby flat. We looted some charcoal – one of numerous items supporting the game’s deep crafting system – before being attacked by the residence’s paranoid owner. Upon brutally bludgeoning the foe with our trusty stick, we returned to the streets, only to discover a security checkpoint-like contraption blocking our path. Dubbed a “Joy Detector” by Sears, the device is capable of measuring the level of the drug in our system before deciding whether we can continue forward… or be barbecued by coils coursing with electricity.
We didn’t chance passing this potentially deadly test, but were almost immediately halted in our tracks by an extreme case of dehydration. We Happy Few takes its survival elements very seriously, punishing players who don’t properly manage their resources. Hunger, thirst, exhaustion, and even Joy withdrawals can be as lethal as the game’s demented denizens and crazed coppers. Basic health and stamina meters must also be carefully monitored at all times.
Desperately grabbing a nearby bottle, we partially refilled our water supply and got back on our feet. Our recovery was short-lived, however, as the container we’d chugged so willingly was filled with alcohol. While the adult beverage (which can also be used to bribe Bobbies) partially negates the effects of dehydration, it also blurs your vision and makes you dizzy. In our drunken state, we fell right into the hands of the evil-doing law enforcement that we’d evaded earlier.
With Arthur bleeding out on the cobblestones, our demo came to a rather unceremonious close. Treating our dehydration with a beer before being beaten to death by a pair of masked creeps wasn’t the most heroic way to go out, but it offered a taste of We Happy Few‘s trio of diverse play styles. According to Sears, the game supports stealth, aggression, and conformity. The latter, more nuanced approach sounds especially interesting, as it includes the ability to don disguises and blend into crowds.
Based on our brief time with poor Arthur, we can’t wait to see how all of these promising elements collide. We also look forward to learning more about “the very terrible thing” when We Happy Few arrives on Xbox One Game Preview on July 26.