All video games are worlds of facades, but We Happy Few investigates the very idea of phony fronts. It’s a story about the amount of effort we put it into performative happiness and the concealment of emptiness. Through a meticulously constructed universe and an outstanding script, this game offers an experience that’s genuinely fresh and confrontational.
I’m about midway through the role-playing adventure, and it’s clear to me that its creators don’t just want me to have a bit of fun. This is one of those rare games that makes me feel discomforted. It is unafraid to confront its players, to be strange — not in the cheeky, playful of way so many of its contemporaries, but in a darker, nastier, more disorienting fashion, delivered with a sharp edge of wit.
Its strangeness isn’t limited to the psychedelic 1960s alternative-history that have garnered the game attention through two years of early access. Rather, it’s the powerful thematic tensions of shame and social coercion, and how they entwine the story’s characters.
We Happy Few’s tale is a gripping mystery that plays out like a highly emotive narrative adventure. Along the way, it bolts on all the paraphernalia of role-playing games, such as side-quests, upgrade trees and crafting, but the story goes far beyond the familiar tropes of that genre. We are not here to crawl dungeons or to save the universe. We are here to escape from our own humiliation.
This marriage of an original story with standard RPG mechanics creates an experience that is both arresting and fulfilling. It is not without its faults. Sometimes the game suffers from weird bugs. Its missions can feel outlandishly perverse, requiring specific actions or items. But it’s hard to fret over its flaws when We Happy Few takes the risk of doing something new.
The words “we happy few” are taken from Shakespeare’s Henry V, when the hero exhorts his beleaguered English troops to press on against their more powerful French foes. “From this day to the ending of the world … we few, we happy few, we band of brothers; For he today that sheds his blood with me shall be my brother.” Henry goes on to mock the shameful Englishmen, safe at home, rather than risking their necks for king and country.
Brotherhood and an intense aversion to societal shame is at the core of the game’s story. In We Happy Few, England is a sorry shadow of itself. Following defeat in World War 2, many young people were sent away to victorious Germany. One of them was protagonist Arthur’s beloved brother Percival (those Camelot names are another nod to England’s martial mythology). Now, 14-years later, Arthur is painfully ashamed about the loss of Percival. (One abiding mystery throughout the game is why, or how, Arthur managed to avoid being taken.)
Arthur resolves to escape his dreary little office job, and find his brother. But the world he lives in is hostile to any show of individuality, regret or unhappiness. In this version of 1960s England, the people have chosen to throw off the pain of the past, to live entirely in the present. Society’s elite inhabit a gaudy Mary Quant-world of swinging parties, fabulous fashions and happy pills.
Order is maintained by a corps of horribly grinning cops (“Bobbies,” in the obsequious English vernacular). Citizens are expected to be high, all the time, on a narcotic called Joy. The people wear creepy, smiling masks that hide any sign of distress. When they talk, they speak of trivial, pleasant things. Anyone who fails to conform can expect to be beaten to death.
Outside the glittering Austin Powers-streets, another class of people exist in a miasma of desperate misery. Stricken by poverty, disease and addiction, they roam the apocalyptic countryside. Both sides of this society hate one another.
Arthur must negotiate these different worlds as he quests towards his goal, pulling in allies and making enemies along the way. In order to avoid being killed, he must constantly find ways to “fit in,” which means wearing the right clothes and behaving appropriately. This is not a world where the hero can march around in steel armor, waving a sword around. Arthur’s greatest asset is anonymity.
Arthur is an unlikely hero. He isn’t special. He doesn’t like hurting people, and he isn’t very good at saving the day. He speaks like a man who understands he’s not cut out for the challenges ahead. Each new obstacle is a new outrage on his limited sense of self-worth. “I don’t even want to be here,” he whines.
If you loved The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, you’ll be in good company with Arthur. He’s not unlike his namesake, Arthur Dent, bouncing along on the whims of fortune and the absurdities of other people. His humor ranges between light understatement to overblown hysterics of the “fuck … fuck! … fuck!!!” variety.
As I play through the missions, I gain experience which I spend on augmenting my health, combat ability or stealth skills. My play-through, so far, has mainly been about running and hiding. I’ve used combat only when forced to do so. Arthur is not a powerful warrior, but he can sure run fast. The augmentations are almost irrelevant to me, though I expect they’ll become more important later in the game.
Stealth is a more effective tactic than violence, though it can be hit or miss. In this first-person game, it’s sometimes difficult to cover all corners while sneaking around, and I passed through a few missions more by luck than skill. There were occasions when I completed a task just by running pell-mell through the scene, trying to stay alive long enough to get the job done. I feel sure this was not what the game designers had in mind.
Looting and crafting are more important than fighting and sneaking. Many missions require that I either find, or make, a particular thing. It can be frustrating to get to the end of a mission and find out that I have to go back and find the ingredient I need to make a lock-pick. But then, I ought to be more prepared. It’s a good idea to search and loot every cupboard and dustbin. If looting isn’t your bag, you might not love this game.
What’s most impressive about We Happy Few is how carefully its world has been created. It’s a place that takes the youthful optimism of the 1960s and transposes it with environmental disaster, total fascism and post-war decay. This is a fascinating juxtopositon, a refreshing break from the battlefields, wastelands, medieval fantasy worlds and grand space opera that have become the foundation of so many games of this style.
Environmental objects throughout the world seem to scream of desperation and decomposition. From furry-carpeted nightclubs to abandoned houses; from eccentric ‘60s architecture to broken neo-gothic churches, We Happy Few offers a pleasing variety of locations that all contain misery. Within those locations, live a cast of non-player characters who feel solidly unhappy and realistically doomed, mainly due to an outstanding script and superb voice-acting.
This is where We Happy Few shines brightest. The dialog and character barks in this game are second-to-none. They are funny, human and uncannily realistic. As someone who grew up in England, I felt I recognized many of the fussy, indignant, precious, hilarious and kind people who I met in this game. But I suspect the feeling translates to all peoples.
Perhaps this is what makes We Happy Few so unusual. It is beautifully, carefully written. The words that come out of this game are better than anything I can recall in even the best narrative adventures. The script has clearly been elevated to a place of prime importance. It’s been honed by writers and actors working together to create a coherent universe that’s as frightening as any hellscape dreamed up in more lavish fantasies. If you’re looking for something out of the ordinary to play, you’ve found it.
We Happy Few is out on Aug. 10 on PlayStation 4, Windows PC and Xbox One.
We Happy Few was played using a final “retail” Steam download code provided by publisher Gearbox Publishing. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.