We Happy Few built a dystopia with Mod culture, psychedelia, and Facebook

You begin We Happy Few as a censor clerk, searching through old newspaper stories, wiping them, and putting the clips into a pneumatic tube for delivery. But when the character sees a photo of his brother — and reaches for his bottle of “Joy” — he instead decides to throw away the government-enforced happy pills and start his escape.

The parallels are obvious. Compulsion Games has swiped the censoring desk from Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, the pneumatic tubes from Brazil, and the social control drugs from Brave New World. But according to the team at Compulsion Games, when you crack the surface you’ll find something new and scary underneath — a world inspired by psychedelia, the hollow futurism of 1960s fashion, and the grim falseness of Facebook.

The Mod Squad

“There’s a proverb that you shouldn’t copy the masters — you go after what they went after,” says Alex Epstein, the Narrative Director for We Happy Few. Epstein argues that while the game covers the same territory as Fahrenheit 451 or A Clockwork Orange, it mostly took inspiration from the retro-futurism of the 1960s.

“Our visionary art director, Whitney Clayton, was inspired by the idea of a quaint English village with terrible secrets,” says Epstein, saying that the team turned to Hot Fuzz and “Murdersville,” a 1967 episode of the British television show The Avengers, for inspiration. The Avengers obviously left a deep impression, with its bold, Mod-style outfits and almost caricatured vision of British culture.

“[Clayton] was also inspired by the way the ‘60s rejected the past in favor of the future — the Mod furniture design, the psychedelia of Kings Road — and its drug culture,” Epstein adds.

And that drug culture, as much as the fashion, attracted Compulsion to the early-1960s setting. The team realized they could marry the bold aesthetic with game mechanics that blurred the line between reality and hallucination. Epstein says they particularly studied the 1966 film Blowup, where a bored fashion photographer accidentally photographs a murder in London. As the mystery deepens and the photographer falls deeper into the surreal bacchanalia of his lifestyle, the film calls into question whether he saw anything at all, or just dreamed it.

“I think we all liked the tension between a world whose surface is adorable and fab, which hides dark secrets,” says Epstein.

And historically, the Mod-era is a good period to choose.

Mod was a short-lived youth subculture that flourished in the early-to-mid 1960s, mostly dying out as clothing brands and media commercialized the movement. The term “Mod” was short for “modernist” — the style of jazz that mods preferred, though later they switched allegiance to the Soul and R&B records black American soldiers brought into the country via military bases. Mods were largely working and middle-class young Britons, suddenly flush with money as the UK’s economy finally escaped the postwar slump.

Mod taste, in almost everything but music, trended toward the European. Men wore thin-lapelled Italian suits and rode Vespa and Lambretta scooters. Women adopted bright colors, stripes, and checkerboard patterns, and wore the angular bob cuts and “five point” hairstyles popularized by Vidal Sasson. Mod cliques filed into Italian and French films, hung out at cafés, and were famous for throwing amphetamine-fueled all-night dance parties. Its “futuristic” look influenced a whole era of sci-fi costuming, from Star Trek to The Jetsons. The global adoption of the Mod movement — and its iconic fashion piece, the miniskirt — made it the first international export of British counterculture.

But despite its global success, the mod movement signaled serious problems beneath the surface of British society. The mods’ celebratory culture, devoted entirely to pleasure and aesthetics, ultimately came from a rough past. The postwar years were not kind to Britain. German bombing had ravaged British industry, and within a decade most of its empire had gained independence. A series of monetary crises and bad winters rocked the economy.

To put it mildly, young Mods had grown up in a politically and economically diminished Britain, and their explosive revels were essentially a splurge to forget years of deprivation. Once jobs were plentiful and young people had income, they adopted a culture that flaunted how chic and sophisticated they were compared to their parents’ generation — particularly since most worked low-level positions under their elders. Mod was a rebellion against the “Keep Calm and Carry On” conformity of postwar Britain.

The movement also had patriotic undertones. Mods turned the Union flag into a fashion accessory, and sported Royal Air Force roundels on their scooters and clothing. This was part of a greater movement — headlined by James Bond and The Beatles — that tried to recast Britain as a cultural power rather than a political one. London might no longer be the center of world affairs, but it was still the center of cool.

Unfortunately, mod was also a fairly empty subculture. Though it’s easy to read class overtones in the movement, it lacked the explicit political goals successor movements offered. Hippies were anti-war and pro-love, while mods mostly wanted to look good and feel urbane. It was a fad rather than a revolution.

Which is what makes it such a good choice as an aesthetic in We Happy Few. To a modern viewer, the mod style looks more false than futuristic. Just the fact that’s it’s aggressively vintage — and vintage in a way people assumed was futuristic forty years ago — casts an uncanny aura over the proceedings. Like the mods with their Italian suits, British flags, and pills, you can tell the residents of Wellington Wells are trying desperately to forget their past by indulging themselves. They’ve created a porcelain-thin mask that keeps their hardships under the surface, and convinces them they’re living in an advanced society. Stop taking the drugs though, and the shabbiness starts to creep in.

“Human beings are very capable of forgetting what they want to forget,” says Epstein, referring to the player characters, who occasionally even see ‘ghosts’ of their past memories. “We haven’t revealed those stories yet, but you’ll see how denial and memory are two key themes.”

Of course, if you’re going to design a Mod world, you need British flags — lots of them. And boy does We Happy Few deliver. From red telephone booths, to police bobbies and tweed jackets, Compulsion filled the game with the British iconography the Mods — and others — fetishized during the 1960s.

“Patriotism is a way for people to deal with a national humiliation,” explains Epstein. “You’ll see more British flags in our game than you’d see in London, because our Brits lost the war. By celebrating their ‘Victory’ they can pretend that they’re proud of themselves.”

A Vintage World that Speaks to Our Own

With a game so steeped in 1960s imagery, one could easily wonder if We Happy Few is overdoing it a little. After all, most players will have never experienced the 1960s and know nothing about Mod culture — will this game reach them at all?

Epstein thinks so. Indeed, he argues that a game about appearing happy and collected, while starving, has special relevance in the social media age.

“People present happy, happy lives on Facebook. There was a year at the beginning where people would say what was actually going on, but now no one posts anything that makes themselves look bad.”

Epstein refers to Facebook as dystopian, tying it to the enforced positivity of North American culture: “Optimism is the national religion of the United States. We hide death; we hide from death.”

It’s an interesting angle, and certainly relatable in an age where society encourages individual members to share thoughts and feelings, but stigmatizes mental health issues and ‘negativity.’ Let’s be honest here: more than a few of us can relate to strolling through an office, pretending to be happy, and smiling so no one catches on. We’ve all deleted an angry Tweet and replaced it with a more politic answer.

This, more than anything, makes me look forward to playing the full experience next year.

I’m So Glad I’m an Alpha — Alphas Are Better Than Betas

You could, technically, play We Happy Few right now. The game has already released via Steam Early Access and Microsoft Game Preview.

Having played it, I’d love to tell you that the Mod theme works — but I can’t at this point. I found my play-through riddled with frustrating bugs. Quest-givers disappeared and interaction icons failed to appear. Though I searched though the starting area extensively, I couldn’t find the right supplies to cross into Wellington Wells itself. Given that the colorful village is the main attraction — and the early access version doesn’t include the main storyline — I’m finding it difficult to judge how well Compulsion has distinguished its own dystopia from that of Orwell and company. To do something new, We Happy Few has to leverage its gorgeous aesthetic toward a greater purpose than looking cool.

The good news is that We Happy Few still has around six months before its release date. This game will be in alpha for a long time, providing lots of opportunities to fix what’s wrong, and re-balance some of the more frustrating features, like survival meters that drain almost comically fast. For now, it shows promise, and I’m reserving judgment.

We’ll have to wait until next year to see whether it merely copies the masters, or paints with its own psychedelic brush.


Robert Rath is a freelance writer, novelist, and researcher based in Hong Kong. His articles have appeared in Zam, Vice, The Escapist, Playboy and Slate. You can follow his exploits at RobWritesPulp.com or on Twitter at @RobWritesPulp

Mod suit image sourced from this blog.