We Happy Few
We Happy Few is a mess of crafting, jogging, and stealth with a strong script.
The districts of We Happy Few’s alternate history UK are divided into two categories. In the wild gardens, rejects loiter in decayed streets, while in the middle-class neighborhoods, well-dressed citizens pop a drug called Joy, which reduces cognition to cheerful hellos. Your job is to blend in with the dispossessed and the addicted, which is an exciting concept for a survival game—and in this case, a bore, buoyed only by the writing and acting. We Happy Few does succeed at making me feel self-conscious—a thematic victory and a funny send-up of absurd player behaviors like hopping everywhere—but there is no intricate social engineering challenge here, just tiring routines. As you progress, you’ll unlock fast travel points and abilities which allow you to ignore many of the rules, letting you sprint around or go out after curfew without issue. Learning to craft Sunshine, a drug which imitates the outward effects of Joy without the withdrawal symptoms (which turn every Joy-dependant person near you hostile), is also vital. We Happy Few thus lifts the burdens of its own premise as you play, seemingly aware that hiding in plain sight in its open world is a chore. I had to hide in trash cans so much, I started using the time to get up and make tea.
A stealthy approach to We Happy Few’s more linear quests—which mostly involve fetching, or talking to so-and-so—is also unfun (not that the combat is much better). Quests easily devolve into Benny Hill chases, in which the best course of action is to run the mob in circles, round a corner, hide under a bed, and wait out their rage. Cute distraction devices like rubber duckies are occasionally helpful, but for the most part I preferred to just get shit done rather than try to tiptoe past people who walk about aimlessly like miscalibrated Roombas. With how much running between quest markers We Happy Few requires, I just didn’t have the patience for it.
BioShock Infinite’s Columbia is a far better put-together dystopia: We Happy Few consists of a handful of awkwardly animated character models, repetitive, procedurally generated city streets, weird bugs like fires burning in the sky, and just a few well-constructed landmarks. But where Infinite is more fun to play, We Happy Few outclasses its storytelling and writing.
Across three overlong acts you’ll play as three connected characters. First is Arthur, who’s so petty and self-serving that he continues to moan about his old coworkers even after discovering that he’s a human test subject in a fascist prison. Then there’s Sally, a chemist with a secret, and the supplier of the best Joy in town. And finally there’s Ollie, a diabetic soldier (interestingly, having diabetes is something you have to deal with through crafting) who has inconsistent memories about his life’s tragedies. Much can be gleaned before it’s revealed, but it is a joy to work towards the truth through flashbacks and conversations, which are spectacularly voiced.
The metaphors do flounder. By being so literal with Joy as a drug, We Happy Few plays into the stigmatization of antidepressants. And Sally’s story fits in poorly with the others. Whereas Arthur and Ollie have much to atone for, she’s a victim in all this, and yet is presented as if she’s just the same. If it is a sensitive topic for you, know that themes of sexual abuse are prevalent, and not handled spectacularly.
That disappointing incongruity aside, the performances blend comedy and tragedy with calculated balance, and there’s no cheap absolution to be had. While there is some exaggeration of character archetypes, each character is compelling in a different way, and they’re all prescient reminders of how easy it is to say we’ll do the right thing in the face of violent coercion, and how rarely anyone truly does.
Performances blend comedy and tragedy with calculated balance