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Thursday, August 16, 2018

Review: We Happy Few (Sony PlayStation 4)

Review by Matt S. 

We Happy Few is a little like No Man’s Sky. I don’t mean in terms of the kind of game it is, of course, but it seems to have become another example of something that failed to deliver what players expected, and that failure has become the near-exclusive point of discussion, even as the more worthy themes within it, and what makes it something worthwhile, are largely ignored.

To get that stuff out of the way from the outset; We Happy Few does have bugs. If you’re even passingly interested in the game you’ve no doubt either heard of them or seen them. The bugs I’ve encountered have been relatively mild compared to what certain people have exaggerated to sensationalist effect have found, but, yes, there are bugs.

There are also other minor issues which don’t have a place in modern game design, such as a cumbersome mapping system that doesn’t automatically delete map markers once you’ve arrived at your destination. More than a few times I caught myself backtracking by following a map marker that I didn’t realise I hadn’t manually deleted. Another genuine problem with the game is its padding. It takes about three solid hours of play, in which you visit three separate “regions” in the world, before you even get access to the “Joy” drug for the first time. And that "Joy" is the very core of just about everything the game is about. I can count the number of times a game has justified a three hour introduction on one hand, and We Happy Few is certainly not one. It needed none of that stuff at the start.

The padding keeps coming back to haunt We Happy Few. I realise, given the criticism that the game is getting in other corners, that this is going to sound odd, but based on the theme and narrative of We Happy Few, it could have done with being a lot shorter. All the length does is divide the player’s attention away from the core themes, and then reduce the emotional impact of them. And somewhere early on in development I am certain that We Happy Few wasn’t mean to be what it became. Somewhere it got blown up into an attempt to be a blockbuster, rather than a short, artsy, experimental thing built around a core theme. So, again, I compare it to No Man’s Sky.

All of this is a pity because the crux of We Happy Few, that core narrative, is really, really compelling. As mentioned before, We Happy Few focuses on a drug called "Joy", which citizens are required by law to take as a way to inducing a sense of euphoria, and forgetting some truly horrific things that happened in the past. I’m not going to give spoilers in this review, but I am going to talk about that theme, because it is so critically important that people pay attention to the message that We Happy Few is getting across.

We live in a world in which people actively try to deny or rewrite history to dismiss horrible things that have actually happened. This is patently true of World War 2, which is (not coincidentally) what the people of We Happy Few are using this "Joy" to insulate themselves from. You look at the films that are about World War 2 (Dunkirk, Saving Private Ryan), and the games on the same topic (Call of Duty, earlier Medal of Honor) and a common thread emerges; the enemies (the Nazis and/or the Japanese) are a nameless evil, and the allies are unflappable heroes. “The light in the darkness” is an common phrase used to describe the British and American (predominantly) forces that “saved the world” from the Axis.

Here’s the thing, though; the Axis did indeed need stopping, and there’s no excuses for the monstrous war crimes that each army on that side inflicted on people. But as to the idea that the Allies – particularly the Americans and British - were unflappable heroes? No. Firstly, modern revisionist history usually downplays the reality that were it not for Stalin, the Axis could well have won the war, and that even a cursory glance through the history of the use of those two nuclear bombs on Japan makes it hard to argue they were not a war crime. You might then say that those were top-level political considerations, and the soldiers themselves are the heroes of these stories, but there have been entire books written about the frequency in which American soldiers raped across France, Germany, and Japan (where, in addition to raping Japanese women, the American soldiers would also take the very same Korean “comfort women” that the world rightfully condemned the Japanese for through World War 2).

And this is just scratching the surface. There is so much more to be critical of in the way that the allies conducted themselves through the war. And yet you see none of that in the Hollywood films and blockbuster video games, because those inconvenient truths don’t make for great entertainment. Again, this isn't to suggest that the wrong side won that war, but simply that using tools (be those drugs or propaganda-adjacent art and entertainment) to smooth over anything that makes us uncomfortable about our "side's" role in war greatly diminishes the lessons that should have been learned over the years.

And that is what I think Alex Epstein from We Happy Few's developer, Compulsion Games, really meant when he terribly misworded a response in an interview a few years ago, saying; “We Happy Few is inspired by, among other things, prescription drug culture — the idea that no one should have to be sad if they can pop a pill and fix it… As a culture, we no longer value sadness.” That quote really is terribly phrased, because people have (fairly) interpreted that as a criticism of anyone on anti-depressants, which are absolutely necessary for a lot of people to function in the world. But I think the point that Epstein was trying to get at – and is supported by the game itself, is less about the individual as it is the culture. As a culture in the west we absolutely do seek out “solutions” that paint over our sometimes horrific past, because dwelling on it is enough to make anyone miserable.

This is an important topic. Remembering history for what it really is provides a check against the rise of nationalism, and that’s something that we’ve got a frightening overabundance of at the moment. Remembering the more miserable side of things is also the only way we can be motivated to avoid repeating those mistakes. And, again, with the lobotomised monkey running the most powerful nation of the planet, we’re getting frighteningly close to repeating those mistakes.

This is all why We Happy Few works as a work of terror. This is a game that is light on the jump scares, and just about every other standard video game horror trope, and yet the sinister atmosphere never lets up; if anything, the more colourful and hazy that the world becomes thanks to that "Joy" drug that you’ll need to sometimes, the more sinister and terrifying it all feels.

Throughout We Happy Few I was hanging on every moment. The bloat was frustrating because it forced long pauses into the action where it wasn’t exploring this central theme. The slow pacing of the frequent stealth sections functioned mechanically for the most part, but again distracted from the storytelling flow. I also found myself skipping most side distractions and sub-quests (mercifully, despite being an open world game, We Happy Few isn’t bloated with map icons like any Ubisoft project is), to focus on that main narrative. But, no matter how frustrated I found parts of the game, that story kept me hooked.

There’s not much wrong with We Happy Few that can’t be fixed with some patches, and regardless of what happens there, the game has a narrative that is brave, intelligently crafted, and so incredibly poignant. There’s a reason that this game is set in the immediate aftermath of World War 2, and it’s something that people should be paying attention to, as inconvenient as that is, because it tells us an awful lot about what's going on today. Focus on that, and the game’s other flaws become almost redundant in comparison.

- Matt S.
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Review: We Happy Few (Sony PlayStation 4)
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