We Happy Few is the type of game that you can taste with your eyes, chew with your tongue, and play through with ease. Not due to its gameplay, but because of its story.
While every successful game contains at least a snippet of story, some try to stretch the limits of just how much the player can experience within its mechanics. A truly strong game needs to have an immersive and impactful narrative; We Happy Few contains just that. We Happy Few hits the emergency shutdown button on the financial, mechanical, and competitively driven industry that mass produces “video games,” and in doing so, forces everyone to reconsider the importance of story.
The world, Wellington Wells, is situated within a retro-futuristic, post-World War II England, where the US doesn’t join the Allies in their fight against Germany. Wellington Wells produces a drug called Joy, which causes immense happiness, delusions, and memory loss. The civilians of this war-ravaged England take Joy in order to forget their past, because as the Wellington Wells Department of Archives explains,
“Happy is the country with no past.”
We Happy Few explores the question: What if people had the choice to forget their past? The answer? It wouldn’t go well.
The game follows three eccentric characters and their struggles as they all attempt to escape England, their lives, and their corrupted minds. Arthur Hastings, Sally Boyle, and Oliver Starkey have all come off their Joy, and the after effects of the drug-induced high have left them with fragmented memories. Each story is played, one after another in a three-act structure, where you see each perspective within their slightly intertwined lives. Arthur frantically tries to escape Wellington Wells in a hopeless attempt to find his forgotten brother. Sally struggles to maintain balance in a Joy-addicted district while caring for someone from her traumatic past, and Oliver fights with the higher ups of Wellington Wells in order to make them see how the city itself is falling apart. Each character wrestles with their inner demons, forgotten pasts that float to the surface after years of suppression. The themes of We Happy Few are memory and denial, which come through in new and unique ways throughout each chapter.
As you play, memory and trauma are portrayed through the different inhabitants of each district in Wellington Wells: those who are on Joy, and those who are not. Downers are the folks who can’t remember their past, refuse to take Joy, or are the unfortunate ones who were affected by bad batches of it. It creates a strong dystopian-utopian contrast that the player can experience first-hand while both on and off Joy. You can take Joy and watch as the world around you transforms into an over-saturated, butterfly and bird filled world – but when the drug wears off, you’re left with a run-down, waste filled reality.
At first glance it seems We Happy Few is trying to tell you that drugs can be good, but the more you play, the more you realize that Joy is a way for the people of Wellington Wells to ignore their loss and trauma from the War. Everyone in Wellington Wells wears a mask that shapes the face into a smile. The mask is a metaphor for how everyone hides their past, and therefore their true selves. As every civilian undergoes the mechanical, history-less routine of life, they lose themselves under a mask that becomes their identity—never to be taken off (with the few exceptions being those who are no longer in denial of their pasts). Funnily enough, one could say that a drug-induced, mask wearing world inside a game isn’t all too different from our society today—We Happy Few points a finger in our faces and tells us to take off our own masks.
The civilians you encounter on Joy are overly happy, pretending they are forgetful of anything other than the present, while completely ignoring the fact that everything is falling apart around them. They are traumatized, in denial, avoiding their problems, and even abusing drugs in order to better achieve this. Victoria Byng, daughter of General Byng (and refusing to acknowledge her past during The Very Bad Thing as the one who prepared and distracted the youngest children just before their mandatory train ride to Germany), tells the player,
“Truth is the enemy of happiness. Isn’t that the decision we all made?”
The vast majority of people in We Happy Few have relinquished themselves to a higher power in the game, usually Uncle Jack, the spokesperson and propagandist of Joy. As Uncle Jack says,
“It’s just another fabulous day in Wellington Wells.”
On the greyer side of the spectrum are the Downers, street rats and sickly folk who have been shunned from society, or no longer function properly. They personify the “Debbie Downer,” as well as the less-known “downer cow.” These folks are the unwanted, unfortunate souls left to rot on the outskirts of wealth, drugs, and “happy thoughts.” They represent the truth, and no one wants to admit it. Some of the most eye-widening moments in the game are from triggers within the environment, like when you approach a certain house only to witness a couch fly out from the top floor, and a deranged woman follow suit, or encounter a certain man shouting,
“I’m late, I’m late for a very important date!”
One of the most effective methods of storytelling (that can’t be achieved to the same caliber in a book) is within the environment. The setting of We Happy Few is both beautiful and eerie. Many hours went into building this stunningly nightmarish world. Through the atmosphere and tone of the places the player visits, you can easily pick up on how citizens live, steal, and go insane. Why can’t this be achieved within a book? When reading, you see specific details that are critical to the scene, world, or tone. However, a book can’t nearly go into the depth that a video game can go into. In a book we can only see fragments of the bigger picture, with gaps purposely left for the sake of word count and the reader’s attention span. Games give players the choice of further exploration in their created worlds. If the world is created well, this can have an immense impact on the players’ experience. The overall tone of the game is comparable to Bioshock, Game of the Year Winner in 2007, while the environmental storytelling is of similar caliber to Last of Us, another game with a list of accolades from back in 2012/2013 (and a sequel on its way now, seven years later).
We Happy Few may be a video game, but it isn’t about how it’s played, or the number of days one can survive on rotten food. This game is about unlocking an experience, playing through a world that opens doors to real-world problems like addiction, war, memory, truth, trauma, and loss. The story in We Happy Few offers something that is best experienced with your own hands on the controls, but if you prefer to watch others play the game for you, there is a long list of playthroughs available online. The game is linear, compelling, and immersive as it carries the player through until the very end.
Inside We Happy Few is a vivid, multifaceted, explorable world that sets the bar high for other studios in the industry. The effect that it has on its players, and what everyone can take away from the experience is immeasurable. Never before has a video game changed the way I look at the real world and my own personal impact within it.