Review: We Happy Few

“We do not cry because we feel sad; we feel sad because we cry,” goes the abridged version of one of William James’s most influential psychological tenets. But the residents of We Happy Few‘s Wellington Wells seem to have shifted the focus of his theory of emotions in a historically appropriate manner. See, tears interest them only inasmuch as the possibility of erasing them – their aim is happiness. Relentlessly monitored, brutally enforced, inescapable, suffocating happiness. Don’t be too quick to judge them; the deeper the trauma, the more drastic our ways of negotiating with it.

In We Happy Few‘s alternate 1946, every parent in that idyllic, occupied English town had to give up their children to the Nazi conquerors. They willingly registered every boy and girl under thirteen with the authorities, accompanied them to the local railway station, waved at them as they boarded the crowded carriages of a train set for Germany, and never saw them again. So they started wearing smiley masks and communicating almost exclusively in pleasantries about the weather and their shared infatuation with Uncle Jack, everyone’s favorite TV persona. And when those proved insufficient to dull the pain, they redoubled their efforts with some chemical assistance: in 1952, the daily consumption of Joy pills became mandatory and numbness ensued. Now there was no excuse for being unhappy.

Fast forward to 1964, to the start of We Happy Few‘s three intertwining stories of guilt and redemption, which form the narrative backbone of this fascinating mess of a game. We first take charge of obedient government drone Arthur Hastings while he’s performing valuable censorship work – the shrewdest framing device I’ve ever encountered to compel players to read a game’s backstory. Coming across a picture of his missing brother triggers some long-repressed memories in Arthur, becoming the catalyst for his subsequent struggle to escape Wellington Wells and make amends for a broken promise.

The other two protagonists, stylish socialite Sally Boyle and confused World War II veteran Ollie Starkey, start from similar positions: Joy-less, harboring a gradually revealed burden, and with an axe to grind against the militantly complacent Wellies. The three characters are connected via their mutual acquaintance and the fact that they’re all rather despicable individuals. Arthur is cowardly and deceitful, Sally is a manipulative enabler by trade, and Ollie, whose tender bickering with an imaginary figure that appears to be his daughter makes him initially the most sympathetic of the trio, is arguably the worst of all — a man whose pettiness can reach murderous heights. The trajectories of these characters keep crisscrossing throughout the game, allowing We Happy Few to imitate Rashomon in revisiting key events from multiple perspectives. It’s a neat trick used in exemplary fashion here, providing context for previously indecipherable motives and filling in strategically deployed narrative gaps, often with the potency of sudden illumination.

The busywork doesn’t always gel with the tone of barely-subdued paranoia.

Switching between protagonists involves more than a storytelling shift; it seems almost as if each character comes with a different game attached. If Arthur provides We Happy Few‘s default viewpoint (an impression reinforced not just by a significantly longer main quest, but also by the fact that both the introduction and the epilogue focus on him), then we’re dealing with a more or less traditional survival game, with bits of stealth, bits of combat, and a whole lot of crafting makeshift electrical mallets, rat-tail sandwiches, and stamina-restoring concoctions in between. The busywork doesn’t always gel with the tone of barely-subdued paranoia and it’s hard to imagine another reason for its implementation other than needlessly padding out playing time. Arthur’s is a more open-ended experience too, encouraging you to roam about the wilderness surrounding Wellington Wells, mingling with the exiled Downers surviving on foraged berries and Uncle Jack repeats, before proceeding to the shinier parts of town, a metaphor for aspirations of social ascendance perfectly in keeping with the game’s constant send-up of Englishness.

Sally’s and Ollie’s playthroughs feel like remixes of those basic elements, the former relying more heavily on stealth while eschewing mechanical crafting and the latter, due to the ageing Scotsman’s fluctuating blood sugar levels and boisterous nature, imposing constant movement, usually in the services of escaping a rabid, howling mob. The ease with which a crowd of previously amicable passers-by will turn against you with violent intent is one of the game’s two major flaws, exacerbated by a clunky combat system. Most successful survival games dripfeed the danger. It’s not about the actual threat of dying as it is about the constant reminders. Here, whether near the hovels of Lud’s Holm or inside the fashionable establishments of the Parade, the spreading wave of aggression will erupt at the slightest indication of non-conformity: an inappropriate choice of attire, erratic movement, or even someone noticing you’re off your Joy. Confrontation comes too often, too quickly, and, worst of all, without any memorable connection to the situation preceding it, disrupting the pace and, ultimately, desensitizing you to the threat. The irritating frequency of these attacks almost feels like a concession to a poorly conceived set of traditional videogame demands (i.e. killing something at regular intervals), too much fuss for little meaningful consequence.

If the frustrating mobs are a design miscalculation, then the other main problem with We Happy Few is entirely unintended — though, if anything, even more serious. I have never come across a PS4 game that crashes as frequently as this one. Sometimes, the conditions responsible for the malfunction would be unknowingly present in my recent manual saves, forcing me, on two occasions, to replay an entire two-hour section. Meanwhile, a preposterous four-minute loading time makes even the less aggravating cases more than a minor nuisance. Elsewhere, the map would refuse to update, quest conditions met would not register (I was unable to complete one of Arthur’s introductory quests for that reason), the framerate would plunge for no apparent reason, audio and video would go their separate ways in cutscenes (including the very final one), and civilians would join in a chorus of inexplicable screams or get stuck in eerie, dancelike animation loops. It often felt as if I was playing, not against the rigid totalitarianism of Wellington Wells, but against the game as an entity, wishing to hamper my progress at any cost.

As an example of politically charged, retro-futuristic world-building, it’s not entirely successful either. Roger Ebert, in his damning critique of A Clockwork Orange (an all-pervading influence on We Happy Few), once commented that “Kubrick hasn’t created a future world in his imagination — he’s created a trendy decor,” a description that can be seamlessly applied to Wellington Wells also. There is little depth in the sociopolitical themes it purports to touch upon – it uses the generic trappings of state surveillance, performativity, conformity but with nothing original to say. Its protagonists never seem to share a sense of camaraderie with the rest of the downtrodden (like they do in, say, the similar setting of Brendon Chung’s Quadrilateral Cowboy); they remain as individualistic and self-serving as their oppressors. Everyone else is a stock genre type: the poor are raving maniacs, the well-off posh imbeciles, a glossed-over binary that lazily signifies “dystopia.”

Still, political toothlessness and a borderline villainous cast do not exclude the possibility for some highly accomplished storytelling. Sidequests tend to be not only quite original (for example, your efforts to catch up with a former schoolmate who used to be a track athlete) but also enmeshed with the history of the setting to a degree I’ve not seen since The Witcher 3. Some are surprisingly touching too, like the story of two dying brothers and their lifelong grudge over their beloved dog, one that hides a lifetime’s worth of fading hopes, unsent letters, and unwanted but inevitable resentment.

All three main narratives (elevated by some fantastic voice acting) share the same poignancy, leading up to a series of twists so beautifully delivered they lose none of their effectiveness for their predictability. It’s those narrative flourishes that make the journey of redemption of  We Happy Few‘s deeply flawed protagonists worthwhile, even if one’s patience will be sorely tested whether by the occasional glitch or another barrage of lead pipes to the head.

VERDICT

Yes if you like salvaging moments of brilliance from the trash bin of mediocrity; Probably Not if you don’t have a lot of patience for launch bugs.

Main takeaway: Politically toothless and programmatically unstable, and only one of those is likely to get patched.