This week, Yahtzee weathers the summer drought with We Happy Few.
All right, I've put up with this "drought" nonsense for long enough, games industry; put something new out, or I'm kicking this chair away right now. "All right, here's We Happy Few; it's a procedurally-generated-- Wait, wait, wait! Stay on the chair! It's also got a retro-futurist aesthetic!" Oh, well, man the fucking spunk-pumps! Everything's retro-futurist these days; BioShock was a wonderful thing to bring into the world, but the retro-futurist trend is just getting silly now. Did you all decide you were sick of hiring content artists, so you went to your grandma's basement and nicked an armful of "ideal home" catalogs from the 70's?
But seriously, though, We Happy Few does interest me; I know it's been on Early Access for what is technically known as a "yonk", but it seemed like it was going to have some kind of story, and I didn't want to spoil that for myself while it was still at the "puppet theater" stage of development. But what also interested me, as a British person, was that it's an extremely British game set in Britain, where British characters do British things and-- wait a minute! What's that Canadian flag doing sticking out of your tit-shaped police helmet? Oh, right; forgive me. It's actually a Canadian game, setting out to be a love letter to retro British culture, so you know what that means, everyone! Strap in for a bunch of fucking Monty Python references!
But let's be fair; We Happy Few is set in an alternative 60's Britain inspired by the weirdly specific and no less weirdly well-populated genre of retro British dystopian fiction, as seen in Nineteen Eighty-Four, Brave New World, A Clockwork Orange, The Prisoner, V for Vendetta, and every panty-sloshing wet dream Margaret Thatcher ever had. And there is actually some very apt and intelligent satire of the British national identity going on here, as well as a load of NPCs with funny accents quoting Monty Bleeding Python at each other!
In a world where Britain lost the Second World War, the people of the isolated city of Wellington Wells are kept distracted from the nightmares of past and present reality with a designer drug that induces happiness, suppresses negative memories, prevents childbirth, and pairs well with onion gravy. Blimey, talk about science fiction! My antidepressants didn't do much more than kill all my boners! Everyone who can't or won't take the drug gets exiled to a big meadow in reach of the outside of town, which is pretty fucking weaksauce as far as exile goes, but I suppose that's what happens when everyone in authority is off their fucking tits all day. This is that "apt satire" thing I was talking about, because what this is is the British characteristic of "keeping a cheerful stiff upper lip in times of crisis" elevated to oppressive fascist doctrine.
It's a thing that also comes up in the characterization of the protagonist, Arthur Hastings, who seems to descend into fits of stammering anxiety at the mere thought of causing a fuss, and apologizes profusely every time he has to kill someone or cuddle them to sleep. And that's the quintessence of the Britain I remember: the oppressive fascist state doesn't come about because of internal strife or military coup; it comes about largely because nobody wanted to cause a fuss. Arthur stops taking his pills when he starts remembering his long-lost brother, and thus begins a picaresque narrative in which we explore the various workings of Wellington Wells in pursuit of Arthur's quest to escape it, the game being structured in true BioShock style wherein every deceptively simple objective has about 500 hidden sub-objectives, so you'll get the chance to run errands through all four corners of the Earth, and you can't take a more direct path because that would entail causing a fuss.
So We Happy Few can be considered an "acid test" of sorts for procedural generation; yes, we've all seen how proc-gen is very useful in indie dungeon-crawlers for creating theoretically infinite levels - as long as you're fine with having a theoretically infinite number of rather hauntingly similar levels - but if you're making a AAA-style immersive sim in your BioShock or Prey or Deus Ex kind of mold, is it viable to procedurally generate the hub world if you don't have the manpower to design one manually because everyone's too busy printing t-shirts for the Kickstarter backers? The answer to that is, "Noooooo, you big twats." Enticing as it may be to add "game designer" to the list of jobs the corporate overlords no longer have to pay someone to do, a computer can't design a fun game unless a human tells it what a fun game is, and at that point, the human is being what we call a "game designer".
So We Happy Few has its important fixed spots and story locations, and in between them is a load of procedurally-generated bugger-all. A quest places an objective marker about a kilometer away, I hike over to the marker, nothing happens in the meantime; I skipped through a meadow and picked a few flowers. Oh, the hardboiled life of a defiant revolutionary subversive. I've just had this really crazy idea, guys: how about, instead of procedurally generating an open world - 'cos every game has to have one and you need to keep up - you just restrict the gameplay to the important fun parts and cut out the travel time in-between? We could call them, I don't know, "stages", or "levels", or "chapters", if you're pretentious; that way, there wouldn't be as much useless, boring bullshit! Blimey, why has no one thought of this?!
But even if you enjoy running across empty meadows 'cos you're a fucking horse, the proc-gen might also be why the game's buggier than a jungle explorer's sock drawer; it was almost certainly the reason I could turn a corner and find about 50 clones of the same old lady standing around a section of road having a Monty Python quote-off. Mind you, I doubt it was the procedural level design that was making half of them float two feet off the ground and the other half clip inside a wall. I know I hate to cause a fuss, but recoiling through a wall while I'm trying to beat you to death with a cricket bat isn't just rude; it's downright unsporting! What were two years of development in Early Access for if not fixing the fucking bugs?! Giving each other piggyback rides for the Doctor Who marathons?!
But all the bug spray in the world won't fix the fact that it's not a very well-designed game. Having to weigh taking a happy drug to go unnoticed against the risk of overdosing is a solid enough mechanic, but in practice, you don't need to take happy drugs much at all; most of the happy drug-detecting barriers can be bypassed, and people don't notice you as long as you dress right and avoid jumping onto cars while hooting like a gibbon. But even if you do cause the dreaded "fuss" and the NPCs all close in, drawing their frying pans and sticks with copies of Wisdom nailed to the end, you can run faster than the world's sexiest greyhound to a furry convention and are surrounded by miles of procedurally-generated wilderness full of hiding spots; yes, your protagonist has Horizon Zero Dawn Syndrome and can only hide in one specific kind of bush, but I still ended up uninterestedly sprinting through all the areas straight to the objectives, 'cos I knew all I had to do afterwards was stand behind a moderately-large cat and all the guards and security devices would forget about my existence entirely.
In brief, We Crappy Poo is a game with good ideas buried under piles of rubbish for the sake of openness. Don't get me wrong; openness is good if one happens to be a cake shop or a pair of legs, just not so much if you're a tiger cage or Margaret Thatcher's legs.
- Well dressed and sexually repressed: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
- Of course it's not all Monty Python quotes; some of them are Beatles lyrics as well
- Who needs happy drugs when you have the BBC