Commentators tend to give a lot of weight to innovation in video games, even to the exclusion of core concepts like gameplay and graphics. The suggestion is that the industry is stagnant and that new is better; I can’t exactly argue with this, frankly, especially after crowdfunding and Early Access have made it easier than ever to sell an idea rather than a well-made, tested and polished game. In the current state of We Happy Few, we see what happens when a solid and innovative idea is dragged down by uninspired gameplay, suggesting that innovation alone might not be enough.
We Happy Few opens with a fantastic introduction reminiscent of the classic Bioshock. The town of Wellington Wells is full of the happiest people around, largely thanks to everyone taking their mood-enhancing Joy pills and forgetting about all the atrocities of the recent war. When your character stops doing taking their Joy, they’re able to see Wellington Wells’ dark realities for the first time, leading them to try and escape. The town’s inhabitants aren’t especially thrilled about a Downer like yourself trying to get away, though, so it’s not just a matter of walking out the front door…
…no, instead, at the moment it’s yet another Early Access survival game. If you’re not familiar with these, they’re basically nagging simulators, as you’re saddled with meters representing needs that you have to fulfill on a regular basis. It’s understandable why these are popular with developers – after all, it’s much easier to code a diminishing hunger meter than an interesting and dynamic AI opponent – but that doesn’t make them any more fun the tenth time you play one.
As usual, your needs will drop comically quickly, so you’ll need to constantly down rancid soup and moldy bread or whatever to keep going. We’ve known that We Happy Few would be this sort of thing for quite a while, but it’s still a bit of a shock coming from the excellent story-driven intro to the sort of drudgery we’ve come to expect from the seemingly endless stream of survival games plopped onto Steam on a regular basis.
It’s obvious that there’s some promise here, but it’s hampered by the usual Early Access nonsense. We Happy Few’s performance suffers in general, for instance, and what gameplay there is feels a bit vacuous and barren. The setting is interesting and you’ll want to explore, but your hunger meter’s maddening drain will surely put a stop to that. There are quests to randomly stumble across and complete, but the rewards you’re offered tend to be about the same as what you’d get by just scavenging. There are NPCs to deal with, but that largely comes down to being chased around if you’re caught sneaking into somewhere you aren’t supposed to be. Even scampering about exploring the landscape is hindered by a decreasing stamina meter that demands you regularly sleep.
There’s been some degree of upset about the contrast between how the game was presented during this year’s E3 and how it actually plays. On the one hand, the Internet at large is uninformed, easily manipulated and prone to reactionary tantrums. On the other, the dark and unusual side of We Happy Few that shines through its crusty Early-Access-survival-game exterior is intriguing and demands further investigation; that intro really is awesome, for instance, and the bizarre contraptions and nightmarish logs that you find as you play suggest that a truly story-focused experience in this setting could be something special. The anger doesn’t feel entirely misplaced.
As it stands, We Happy Few doesn’t just feel slapdash and unfinished; it incorporates survival mechanics that add nothing to the experience – because other games did the same. That’s disappointing, to say the least. When indie games are supposed to be the new, innovative way of the future, it’s a shame to watch them degenerate into the same sort of “me-too” nonsense that’s characterized the industry for decades, and it’s more of a shame when a fantastic idea like this feels squandered. We Happy Few might eventually evolve into a better game over the coming months as Early Access progresses, but it’s already been tarnished by asking for money in its current state.