The hope with most games set in dystopian worlds is that they quickly transcend their more obvious influences. With Compulsion Games’ eye-catching We Happy Few, you might settle for it being the sum of them. Take the game’s title – a reference to the most famous speech in Shakespeare’s Henry V. It is, to a certain kind of misty-eyed “Brexit” patriot, the very stuff of Englishness. To others, exactly the kind of rousing hooey that leads young men to their doom on far-flung battlefields. Ask Guillaume Provost, the game’s producer and founder of the Montreal-based studio, to name the rest of the ingredients that went into the pot and you get a list that pretty much defines bleak, but brilliant, meditations on totalitarianism – Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, V for Vendetta, Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange and Aldous Huxley’s 1932 novel, Brave New World.
Released this week via Steam Early Access and Xbox One Preview, We Happy Few oozes menace, bringing every one of those ingredients to an alt-history 1960s Britain where post-war survivors in the fictional town of Wellington Wells treat their crazy with daily applications of a government-supplied drug called “Joy.” You play as hapless everyman, Arthur Hastings, who spends his days redacting old newspaper headlines and who, after skipping his dose, begins to see the world as it really is – a dystopian nightmare where happiness and hell go hand in hand.
This is not the Beatles’ Sixties, then. The Fab Four wouldn’t survive the first verse of “Revolution” – any sign of social criticism and they’d be labeled as “downers” (the name given to those off their meds) – and clubbed to the ground by an angry mob. Everything about the world Provost and his team have conjured is disturbing, more so because of the collective Joy-induced hallucination that makes rotten apples seem ripe, dead rats appear as children’s candy-filled pinatas and its shabby, broken down town conjure the existential horror of a post-apocalyptic theme park – all bright paint, masks and lights that crumble to the touch as you make your way out.
Provost is clearly trying to say something about us, and none of it good.
“The basis of what I see as dystopia is the idea that people think that the society is actually utopian whereas the reality of it underneath the hood is a lot darker,” he says. “And that plays into a lot of social trends that are quite current. I don’t try to make a big moral, social, ‘Oh you shouldn’t take drugs’ statement, because I think the reality is much less clear and that makes that topic a lot more interesting to me. We’re not a black and white studio – or at least we’ve tried not to be. We prefer a more gray morality.”
Not a surprise considering Provost’s past, which includes a formative stint at French developer Arkane Studios. Though most famous now for its meaty stealth-action adventure Dishonored, in the summer of 2007, his team was working in secret on a never-to-be-finished episode of the grandaddy of dystopian sci-fi, Half-Life – a contract job for the now world-bestriding Valve Corporation.
“Working at Arkane changed me completely,” he says. “I really had a creative awakening working at that studio – whose strengths were definitely more story and creative. At the time that was really eye-opening for me.”
If at least part of Provost’s muse can be traced to a series that’s been dead for a decade, We Happy Few is very much a game of its time – it ticks a number of boxes amongst the current game design zeitgeist, blending survival elements with procedurally-generated maps and permadeath (each time you die you have to start over from the beginning). That, along with a successful Kickstarter in 2015 and pride of place in Microsoft’s press conference, meant it scored big with the press at this year’s E3. It didn’t hurt that its dark and freakish world evoked the 2007 hit, Bioshock, a compliment Provost is happy to take, though he argues it was never a big influence.
“We’re very flattered by it,” he says. “I’m not sure I would say it was a prime influencer, though the original one certainly managed to create psychological moments that previous games had failed at doing. I would say in general, though, for the context of creating worlds, atmosphere and narrative structure to our games, we tend to dive more into film and books.”
You don’t have to look far to find them. The hero, Arthur, is a composite of George Orwell’s Winston Smith and Gilliam’s hapless Brazil bureaucrat, Sam Lowry. There’s the omnipresent TV-propagandist of Wellington Wells – and the only character to appear as video – “Uncle Jack,” played by Assassins Creed actor Julian Casey, who channels both Jack Nicholson’s Joker and V for Vendetta’s Lewis Prothero. The town, filled with people who are basically psychopathic automatons reminiscent of Kubrick’s thuggish droogs, has the candy-colored patina of the Sixties hit TV series, The Prisoner, but gone to seed. And then there are the masks that everyone wears.
“In V for Vendetta they use masks to protect anonymity and it’s a symbol of resistance,” notes Provost. “I thought I’d like to flip that on its head and make masks a symbol of the psychological oppression of the people and we thought, ‘What if we had masks that forced people to smile and this society where people were forced to be happy all the time?'”
As founder and the creative lead on Compulsion’s games, Provost admits that his personal life – if not his state of mind – played a part. Shipping its first game, Contrast, in time for the PlayStation 4 launch in 2013 was particularly hard on him, he says, and led to a period of reflection that informed much of the tone of We Happy Few.
“My father passed away three weeks before we shipped. That and shipping a game to several million people worldwide and doing that while trying to manage my home life as a single parent was kind of a lot – a sort of perfect storm,” he confides.” Coming out of it I was in a different mindspace that I really wanted to explore. I believe a lot of the creative impetus that comes from generating new ideas for game worlds comes from how you feel inside.”
Which might make We Happy Few‘s pitiless setting seem like a cry for help – or at least a quick hit of Joy – but three years on, he and his team seem to be doing just fine.
“I’m in a much better place today, by the way,” he adds, cheerfully.