We Happy Few, a psychedelic riff on BioShock with survival game hooks, is one of 2018's biggest disappointments. It exits two years of early access development on Steam and Xbox One this week, alongside a launch on PlayStation 4. If you, like me, found yourself desperate for anything to scratch that BioShock itch, it's best to keep waiting. You're more likely to be frustrated by We Happy Few, a game flirting with interesting ideas, but whose cumbersome gameplay prevents it from doing much with them.
We Happy Few got on my radar a few years ago, after developer Compulsion Games debuted a trailer at E3 2016 during Microsoft's event. The nearly-five minute teaser— depicting a British dystopia where censorship is rampant, people pop pills to forget real-life, and everyone's wearing weird, horrific masks—was stylish as all hell:
It'd been three years since BioShock Infinite, and even if you really disliked BioShock Infinite, there was plenty of appetite for more of, well, that. What that is, exactly, is a little ephemeral, but the best I can deconstruct a BioShock-y game is a first-person, story-driven experience with elaborate set pieces, insufferable but strangely appetizing philosophizing, and lots of tiny details to reward observant players. It usually involves being able to solve combat in a variety of ways, too. It’s almost a subgenre of the immersive sim. They are deliberately expensive games to make at all, and they’re even harder to pull off, which helps explain why they're so rare.
This should have made many people, myself included, immediately suspicious of We Happy Few. But my response to the trailer was “Oooh, BioShock,” and I definitely wasn’t alone. If major publishers with big pocket books weren’t making games like this, how is the developer of a totally fine but largely forgettable platformer from 2013 going to pull it off?
As it turns out, they weren’t trying to, really. We Happy Few was envisioned as a short but replayable survival game with "light" narrative elements dropped in, but primarily about managing health, energy, and other resources. The gulf was enormous enough that, midway through development, the gap in expectation forced them to rethink the game.
Based on the interviews I've read about the game's development, the last few years have been spent polishing and rebalancing the survival parts of the game, while simultaneously building an enormous single-player story. The question: can you make BioShock on a smaller budget?
The game opens just as the trailer does, with a government censor, Arthur Hastings, thrown into shock while reading a newspaper clipping about himself—and his brother. Arthur reaches for his bottle of joy, pills that keep everyone in the world artificially happy, but throws them in the trash. He decides to linger on this memory, and investigate why everyone is so interested in forgetting. Like its primary inspiration, it's a game about entering a foreign world, and figuring out what happened. There are countless notes to fill narrative gaps, and in true BioShock fashion, you thoughtlessly dig through desks, lockers, and trash for health, weapons, and items.
There is definitely a story in We Happy Few now, but experiencing what it has to say is more tedious than fun, and you can see the game buckling under the constraints of its foundation. It's a story grafted onto gameplay that does not mesh particularly well, whose restrictions often prevent the player from seeing what they're there for.
Take this moment, for example, when I finally turned the game off.
My objective: put on a tight latex suit and sneak into a sex club. (I'm trying to make it to the next area, and need a keycard from someone known to frequent this spot.) This should be easy; I found one such suit a few minutes ago, after picking a lock and, sorry not sorry, rifling through someone's things. The game says I'm wearing the suit, but the doorman says that's not true. Maybe if I take it off and put it on? This prompts a response from the doorman, so I try again. Nope. I take it off and put it on again. Nope. I explore the world a little more, find another suit hidden away, and try that one on. Nothing. Around the corner, the sex club's main attendant has glitched through the floor, her head just barely poking through the geometry.
I barely bat an eye at the person melding with the floor tiles; I've seen this many times before.
By now, the meter measuring my level of joy, a happiness-inducing drug required to be taken by the citizenry, reads zero. There are no joy dispensers nearby, no spare pills in my inventory. If you aren't taking joy, your fellow citizens become suspicious. Within moments, the doorman begins yelling, eventually pulling out an electric weapon of some sort. He beats me with it, and I quickly die. The game places me outside the club, as if nothing happened. I walk back in, talk to the doorman, and he...admits I'm wearing the latex suit.
The problem, it turns out, was a glitch, one apparently fixed by dying and letting the world resort itself. I walked upstairs, and accidentally picked up an object that was marked "steal," prompting the whole world to attack me. You can't put the item back, you can't load an old save. You simply have to wait, die, respawn outside, and try again. At this point, I turned the game off, refusing to play further. I'd had enough of We Happy Few. And while glitches were rampant during my five hours with the PC version, glitches are hardly the game's only problem.
(The developers did issue a “day zero” patch with bug fixes. It’s unclear if it would have solved this issue, but as I mentioned, it was one of many bugs I ran into in the game.)
We Happy Few'_s story mode still has survival mechanics, but there's no permadeath, and being low on water, hunger, or energy only reduces stats, such as stamina. It's easy to keep water and food in your inventory, and beds are never far. The survival mechanics ultimately have little impact on gameplay, making it strange to see them included at all. I was never in a situation where more stamina would have made a difference. Mostly, it's annoying when the game stops you from running—the world is extremely large, albeit very empty—every few seconds. Since the game is largely consequence-free, you end up ignoring these potentially unique aspects of _We Happy Few. Outside of some UI elements and dialogue, the game provides precious few incentives to interact with them.
There is an exception, of course: joy. You don't have access to joy until a few hours into the game, when you reach one of the main cities. Here, people aren't popping purely for fun. It's the law. We Happy Few bakes this pressure into the mechanics, and it's the one time where the game's survival roots apply pressure. When you pop a pill, it fills roughly half of a joy meter. Take two and the whole thing fills up. Over time—I'd say between five and 10 minutes—that meter begins to go down. There are joy dispensers around town, but for whatever reason, you can't take more than one with you. It's possible to find some hidden away in trash cans and desks, but I only found a few. And so far, I can't craft joy. What this means is that you always need to be watching this meter.
A lack of joy classifies the player as a "downer," something that's outwardly detectable by those around you, and immediately makes them hostile. (While on joy, characters strut around in an exaggerated fashion.) If you run out of joy in the middle of a mission, tough luck; everyone's going to start beating the shit out of you, unless you're able to run, hide, and wait it out. (Frustratingly, running and sneaking around can also raise suspicion.)
This dynamic proved incredibly irritating. Whenever I'd try investigating a quest line, I'd have to make sure I made a beeline for a joy dispensary every few minutes, or figure out whatever I could in the time allotted, allow the joy to run out, wait for people to kill me, and respawn into the area. The mechanic was producing the wrong kind of stress, one that was draining my energy to continue playing the game. I doubt it was the intended effect.
There's more. Every time you pop a joy pill, it fills a second meter, one that can lead to an overdose. It takes a little while for it to happen, but it's a regular occurrence. Overdoses make sense from a narrative perspective, but mechanically, it's a wash. Plus, the meter only goes up! It doesn't shrink if you eat, drink, or sleep. So far as I can tell, the only way to reduce it, outside of maybe crafting an item I don't have access to yet, is overdosing. What usually happens, though, is I accidentally overdose in the middle of a mission, hide underneath a bed, and slowly wait a few minutes for my in-game body to return to normal.
There are areas in the game where joy isn’t a factor, but it’s so central to some parts of We Happy Few that you’re unable to ignore it. This isn’t something that only appears for a few minutes.
Most of my hours with We Happy Few were spent struggling to get at the parts I did like: the eye-catching aesthetic and breadcrumbs dropped about why the past haunts these people so. But everything else got in the way. (And that's without spending time telling you about the other parts that don't work, like the boring combat.) Maybe survival fans will find more to like about We Happy Few? I cannot profess to being a huge fan of the genre, but We Happy Few's problems seem to run deeper than some sloppily implemented mechanics.
We Happy Few doesn’t work because it doesn’t feel cohesive. It’s one game bolted onto the foundation of another, and it shows. The game world is massive because the developer doesn’t have the budget or resources to make good on the dense nature of BioShock’s detail-oriented environments. The side quests are generic, often lacking unique NPCs, because the work required to build, animate, and implement them would be too much. Even the glitches seem to fit this theme: a game bursting at the seams, unable to contain itself. We Happy Few's ambitions are large, but it's only that: ambition.
I wondered earlier if it was possible to make BioShock on a tight budget. We Happy Few suggests it’s extremely hard, if not impossible, or requires compromises this game didn’t make. We Happy Few is not a new BioShock. It’s not even BioShock-light. There are enough fascinating pieces in We Happy Few to make me genuinely interested in what they might do next, given Microsoft recently bought them. With a better idea of what they're building from day one, and with real money, maybe things could be different.