clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

We Happy Few is the story of what comes after the fall of European democracy

What if “the greatest generation” gave in to fascism?

We Happy Few We Happy Few
Charlie Hall is Polygon’s tabletop editor. In 10-plus years as a journalist & photographer, he has covered simulation, strategy, and spacefaring games, as well as public policy.

Throughout its long development journey, We Happy Few has been favorably compared to BioShock Infinite. After playing through most of the final game (We Happy Few has been available in Early Access since 2016) it’s clear that comparison is an apt one. Both do an exceptional job of storytelling, using environmental details, excellent voiceover and in-engine cutscenes to slowly fill in the game’s backstory. But, while Infinite presents an almost magical fantasy world filled with floating islands and superpowers, We Happy Few is much more grounded in reality.

At its core, the game is about what would happen in the 1960s if European democracy had fallen to fascism. Especially in its first act, We Happy Few envisions the world after “the greatest generation” refused to do their duty.

Warning: What follows contains spoilers for We Happy Few.

In We Happy Few, players can take on the role of Arthur Hastings, an office drone in 1960s England. Once off his mind-control medication, Arthur begins to remember not only his own personal past, but also an alternate history of World War II.

As these memories accumulate, as the game’s storyline itself begins to unfold, several key details emerge about Arthur’s version of WWII. The United States, as it turns out, never joined the war. Perhaps it sought a separate peace with Hitler, or merely turned away from Europe to become more insular and nationalistic. I’m still searching for the nature its treachery in-game. But, without the Arsenal of Democracy at its side, Great Britain stood alone. The German war machine, including its mighty battleship Bismarck, pounded the island nation from the air and also from the sea.

England lost the Battle of Britain, and afterwards the population was tormented by a fearsome and sustained German bombardment. Scattered throughout the game’s broken landscape are unexploded V-1 rockets, chalked-on anti-British slogans still visible along their flanks. With no relief coming from the United States, food remained scarce in for years.

Eventually, Germany invaded England by sea with thousands of small boats hitting the coastline all at once. Hitler’s Operation Sea Lion was a success.

But there was one last line of defense for the mainland, England’s Home Guard. Historically, the Home Guard was organized from volunteers who had otherwise been found unfit for military service. They patrolled the streets during air raids, shooing citizens into shelters and preventing looting. They manned anti-aircraft batteries and coastal defense guns. In the end, it would be their role to defend their island if Britain’s European armies were destroyed.

But, in the fiction of We Happy Few, the Home Guard didn’t put up much of a fight. They capitulated, only to become complicit in German war crimes.

Home Guard soldiers training with a Blacker Bombard anti-tank mortar in May 1943.
War Office official photographer

There were some loyal soldiers who resisted, however. They’re highlighted in a particular scene that’s off the beaten path, one that players will only encounter if they take the time to find it.

Early in the game, Arthur is tasked with infiltrating a military base to shut off a power generator. On the way into that base, I came upon a memorial dedicated to the St. Crispin’s Day Uprising. In the game’s story, this is the last-ditch effort by the Home Guard to push the Nazis into the sea. The memorial is humble, overgrown with vines. It’s simply a bronze monument with two crossed rifles and a plaque. Given the amount of censorship in the game, it’s a wonder it survived at all.

When I came upon it, I found a Home Guard soldier standing there, alone. He was weeping.

I could have choked him out, dragged his body to the cliff’s edge, and flung him over. But instead I crouched in the darkness watching him sob.

Had he known someone who fought in the Uprising? Had he himself been one of the survivors? Had he valiantly fought against the Nazis, and then melted back into the Home Guard and resumed fighting for the Germans instead?

Or was he simply a coward who had refused to fight at all?

That vignette, more than any other moment in the game, crystallized for me the message behind We Happy Few: Inaction is fatal, if not for the body then for the soul.

In We Happy Few, the remaining members of the Home Guard are elderly men in tattered uniforms carrying outdated, shoddy weapons. Their authority comes from the vast arsenal of leftover German armor that they’re protecting. Eventually, Arthur comes to find that those tanks are largely made out of papier-mâché.

Rather than rise up to defend England, like the valiant soldiers who fought with Henry V on the original St. Crispin’s Day, these old men are simply standing around protecting the status quo, guarding what are literally paper Tigers.

The only thing they’re guarding is the memory of their treason, the truth of their unwillingness to die to keep England free. Once I realized that, I doubled back to the St. Crispin’s Day monument. I didn’t choke the old man out. I beat him to death. Despite Arthur’s protests, it’s what I felt his character needed to do.

The next level of puzzles.

Take a break from your day by playing a puzzle or two! We’ve got SpellTower, Typeshift, crosswords, and more.