Prior to PAX East, Montreal based Compulsion Games, makers of the visually delightful yet perhaps ultimately underwhelming Contrast, announced that their next game We Happy Few would be playable at the show. A bold move given that it has only been in development since last summer.
But while the pre-alpha code that we got to sample under the watchful eye of creative director Guillaume Provost was indeed showing signs of being an early prototype, it is clear that Compulsion are onto something great this time. And where the main mechanic of Contrast was clever yet failed to fully engage us, it would appear as if We Happy Few's procedural survival gameplay loop will provide us with a deeper, more captivating experience. And a very creepy one at that.
Set on an island in 1960s England, We Happy Few puts the player in the boots of the only lucid person around. The rest of the population is wearing their "happy masks" and bask in the glory of a hallucinogenic drug called "Joy" that wraps you up in cottonwool, turns the world into a shiny colourful paradise, and has birds chirping in your ears. They're trying to forget something very dark in their past. Everyone is in on it, and anyone who steps out of the norm and seems unhappy will be relentlessly chased down and clobbered. The concept is reminiscent of the old 1960s TV show The Prisoner (more recently re-made by AMC with Ian McKellen), and Compulsion Games have also taken inspiration from older works of science fiction (novels like A Brave New World and 1984 come to mind).
The demo starts off in a safehouse where you will be able to stock up on some supplies such as water, medical supplies and the like. There is a crafting system in the game that's rather deep and while we didn't engage fully with it we noted that you're only able to craft at specific workbenches.
Just as we emerge from out of our bunker a man comes running towards us, seemingly in great distress. A bobby steps and swings his paddle sending the distressed man to the ground in an unconscious state. The message is clear. Don't make a scene. Don't run. Try and blend in. This is the theme of We Happy Few, in some ways it's a social stealth game. Don't do things that arise suspicion. If you happen to cause suspicion (and you will, this island is full of distrust) you have several alternatives. You can attempt to run, or if you're only facing a few suspicious enemies you may go ahead and dispose of them with violence (naturally you can then move their bodies, loot their pockets, etc.), but there is also the option of taking some "Joy".
The drug is dispensed in phone booths, but it is also laced in the tapwater (which makes clean water a rare commodity as you try and manage your thirst). When you take the drug the colours become more vibrant, the music changes and you get a certain spring in your step. The downside is that once the drug wears off you will start to bleed and you will also sacrifice some of your sanity (one of the parameters you need to keep in check in order to survive the experience). We can imagine that there will be situations where you will need to use the drug to infiltrate the society on the weird island and learn secrets, but clearly consuming "Joy" comes at a high cost.
Same as in the original Dead Rising you will need to survive for 72 hours in order to escape the island. Exactly how this window of opportunity arises is unknown, but unlike Dead Rising where Frank West could opt to play it safe and hide in a cupboard, you're going to have to venture out in order to collect food, water and supplies in order to survive in We Happy Few. And once out and about you'll quickly draw the attention of the happy islanders.
One interesting aspect of We Happy Few is that the city you explore is procedurally generated. Every time you boot it up the layout will be different and you won't complete the exact same quests each time either. But at this point Compulsion Games are very vague about the overall narrative of the game. Will there even be main story quest line to follow, or will the story of the island be delivered piece by piece in a series of optional quests and scenarios that players can explore as they see fit? Presumably this is something that Compulsion have yet to fully settle on.
This very early version of the game offered two small scenarios. One that featured a slaughter house where you had to figure out a puzzle in order to unlock a chest. We didn't happen on the other one during our brief time with the game. They were merely there to give us an idea of what kind of gameplay to expect in the full game. The pre-alpha demo had a limited number of facades and the procedural generation left gaps between some buildings making for a slightly more surreal experience than was perhaps intended. It is being worked on, we're told, but frankly we were impressed even at this early state.
Why show the game off at this early stage? A great concept like this should be kept under wraps and pitched to publishers, no?
Well, that's not what Compulsion Games intends to do. Instead their ambition is to develop it independently and with a community of supporters helping them shape the experience. They plan on going on Kickstarter in a couple of months time, not to necessarily finance the game (Provost said they had the resources to fund it themselves), but rather to build that dedicated community needed to test ideas out and build the experience.
It's a novel approach and it will be interesting to see what kind of response they get from gamers when they ask for people to essentially buy into a community rather than help finance a game that would otherwise not be made. But if the crowds in the Compulsion booth at PAX East are anything to go by, then they're onto something that gamers crave. For now it's exclusive to Steam, but don't be surprised if an effort is made to bring the game to consoles later on.
The survival genre can certainly do with something other than zombies and a setting that's not necessarily post-apocalyptic. It's a refreshing pitch and a game we're keeping a close eye on even if it has a long way to go until it's done.
We will publish an interview on GRTV with creative director Guillaume Provost in the near future as well as an interview with art director Whitney Clayton.