We Happy Few couldn’t have asked for a better time to release; among the constant political malaise and the meltdowns in Trump’s America — and true horror stories lining the 6 p.m. news every night — it really does feel like we’re living in dystopian times.
Part of what makes We Happy Few so undeniably terrifying is how possible everything seems. Designing the eeriness into the recognizable world, into something that seems just real enough that it’s slightly off-putting, was always part of the plan, according to narrative designer Alex Epstein.
“I mean it wouldn’t be so scary if it wasn’t something that can happen,” Epstein said.
Slightly out of reach of our own reality, We Happy Few imagines a counterculture world in the 1960s where everyone didn’t recover following the second World War. People distract themselves with drug addictions and take a prescription for “Joy” to constantly sedate themselves. There’s a villainous leader in power, but this isn’t 1984. The government doesn’t care what people are doing every single second of every single day; it’s not the government players have to worry about judging their actions. It’s your neighbors, who take an invested interest in your life that are most concerning.
Epstein told Polygon that one of the game’s big themes is “everyone lies.” Those familiar with House will know its the main character’s favorite phrase, but Epstein told Polygon he really wanted to explore how we react to lies. We can tell when people are lying much of the time, Epstein said, through little giveaways that 0our brains process. Those little ticks, those lies, unravel a bigger mystery and provide clues for the player to jump on.
We Happy Few is a world where everyone is lying to some extent and, because of their rampant addiction to Joy, trying to discern what others say is real, a lie, or a fuzzy memory is a big part of the gameplay.
“We all have this tremendous interpretive apparatus,” Epstein said. “We have this big brain to tell when people are lying and when information is pushed at us, it pushes us away. When we get a bunch of clues and we start asking questions, we pull ourselves into the narrative because of that huge interpretive apparatus.
“The most interesting kind of lie to me is a translucent lie,” Epstein said. “A translucent lie is when the character tells you something and you know they’re not telling the truth and you can guess what the truth is because you can kind of see through it. The way they tell the lie, why they tell the lie, tells you something about them.”
Lying is inherently fascinating, but We Happy Few manages to twist the obvious narrative just a little bit to make it even more calculating. The game isn’t telling a story about the government being bad because it’s lying to its citizens. The main villain, Uncle Jack, is kind of a goofy sport who just so happens to be in a position of power, Epstein said. The true story is in neighbors lying to We Happy Few’s three main protagonists, who are trying to figure out what’s happening.
No one in We Happy Few, outside of the three playable characters who make up the game’s narrative, want to remember anything. They lie to themselves and everyone else. There’s a constant desire to continue taking these prescribed drugs and remain blissfully unaware and, if you don’t, they’ll come after you. It’s not the government that’s afraid of anarchic disorder, per se, as much as your neighbors are petrified of reliving any part of the traumatic past they’re trying their best to escape.
“This is not a game about the government being bad,” Epstein said. “This is a game where it’s your neighbors who will do you in, because everybody, every proper decent welly, wants to participate in suppressing the truth because they all are very uncomfortable with the past. If you start talking about the past, it’s going to freak them out and they’re not going to be able to pretend that they forgot it and they’re going to have to deal with it. They will come after you with cricket bats to make you take your drugs. This is not the government doing that. That’s your neighbor is doing that. It’s peer pressure. It’s almost scarier.
“It is scarier because you can hide from the government, but you can’t hide from your neighbors. You can’t hide from everybody.”
Hiding is another interesting concept that We Happy Few reworks. Everything is in plain sight. There are noticeable absences that play into the game’s open-world exploration that will catch players off guard if they’re looking hard enough. Children, for example, have completely disappeared. Epstein said games often don’t include children because they take a while to model and “people get very upset when you kill them.” That physical limitation gave Epstein a chance to explore one of the more ghostly ideas the game wrestles with, which is a society where children simply don’t exist.
“When you come into the garden district, people have set up, like, cribs with toys but there aren’t any children there with the toys, but there are some children made out of plates and knives and forks sleeping on beds,” Epstein said, pointing to something clearly being amiss if players pay close attention in We Happy Few. “When you get into the village, [people are] playing ‘Simon Says’, and they’re playing hopscotch, and they’re jumping in puddles, and all of this is screaming, ‘Where are the kids?’ We don’t start with a title crawl saying Wellington, ‘Well, the kids are blah blah blah, but you read the graffiti and you read the letters and there are characters telling you about things that happened”
We Happy Few isn’t a horrifying game so much as its disturbing; it’s as if someone removed all the happiness in the world, replacing it with drugs designed to keep people sedated and calm after a major traumatic event. The game removes the part of humanity that makes people interesting, and gives players the difficult job of figuring out what’s going on. It does feel extra unsettling in today’s political climate, even if that wasn’t Epstein’s intention, but We Happy Few has never felt more timely.
Keeping that in mind only makes for a more uncomfortable, painstakingly aware playthrough, and helped make We Happy Few feel incredible relevant — even if takes place more than 50 years ago.