Review: We Happy Few

We Happy Few is a stealth/survival game taking place in a dystopic alternate version of 1960s England. In this reality, the Germans occupied Britain during the Second World War, and though the occupation only last a few years, the British were compelled to do terrible things in that time.

The title screen for We Happy Few.To cope with their shared trauma, residents of the village of Wellington Wells turned to Joy, a powerful drug that causes users to forget anything unpleasant, leaving them in a state of mindless euphoria. Being sad is now a crime, and “Downers” are exiled into the wilderness, or disappeared entirely.

That premise intrigued me from the moment I heard it, but stealth has never been my cup of tea, so I wasn’t sure if I’d enjoy We Happy Few or not. I opted to wait until it went on a deep discount on Steam before buying it.

I kind of regret that now. We Happy Few is an amazing game, and I would have happily paid full price if I’d known it would be this good.

WHF’s reliance on stealth was an issue early on. However, the saving grace is that stealth in this game is not mandatory in the sense that being caught will cause a fail state. You just have to fight more if you’re bad at sneaking (like I am). I had to restart the game on a lower difficulty to survive the many, many fights I kept getting myself into, but once I did that I was able to start making real progress and truly enjoying the game.

The combat in WHF is a bit simplistic, but it’s enjoyable enough, and it gets the job done. I was also really surprised by how immersive and enjoyable I found the game’s survival and exploration mechanics to be. We Happy Few stands as one of the very few open world single-player games that I feel actually justifies its open world, rather than using it as a crutch to pad out the game.

The world seen through the lens of Joy in We Happy Few.I was especially impressed by the quality of the side quests in this game. Side quests are usually something I endure more than savour, but in WHF nearly every side quest was interesting or entertaining on at least some level.

My favourite involved a cult of lunatics worshiping a supposedly divine yam. The premise is great, but the execution was better. I was amazed by how elaborate the quest was. They even repurposed a lot of actual pagan prayers for use by the yam cult.

The amount of effort and research poured into such a silly and ultimately irrelevant side quest is a testament to the passion and devotion of We Happy Few’s developers.

For more of my thoughts on We Happy Few’s open world and survival mechanics, stay tuned to Massively Overpowered for an upcoming MMO Burnout column on the topic.

But while I did largely enjoy the game mechanics and exploration content of We Happy Few, it’s the main story and the themes it raises where this game really shines.

I’m not normally a fan of dystopic fiction, for a variety of reasons. However, We Happy Few aces two things that dystopic stories tend to ignore.

The bucolic splendour of the Garden District in We Happy Few.One is that this is a fairly appealing dystopia. The Joy-fueled haze experienced by the citizens of Wellington Wells may not be quite so brilliantly seductive as the selective memory editing of Remember Me, a similarly powerful dystopic game, but it isn’t too hard to imagine a world where people have been seduced by the promise of eternal happiness. It’s more believable than the openly horrific settings of other dystopias.

The other is that We Happy Few acknowledges something a lot of similar stories ignore: dystopias don’t work.

We Happy Few is less a story of plucky heroes rising up to throw off their shackles as it is that of a broken system collapsing under its own faulty premise. Absolutely every aspect of life in Wellington Wells is falling apart; Joy is poisoning the entire town, literally and figuratively.

There’s this terrible lie that pervades our culture — including our fiction — that evil may be unpleasant, but it gets things done. Efficiency and decency are seen as opposite ends of a spectrum, where one has to be sacrificed in the name of the other.

But that’s not true. We’re told that torture may be wrong, but it yields useful information (it doesn’t). We’re told that strongmen may not be lovable, but they get things done (they don’t).

In reality, oppressive authoritarian regimes are almost invariably riddled with corruption, incompetence, and inefficiency. Justice, equality, and liberal policies almost always lead to better results across all sectors of society.

Townspeople in We Happy Few.And We Happy Few understands this. Wellington Wells isn’t run by evil geniuses. In so much as it has any leadership at all, it’s run by cowards and idiots.

I will also say that a lot of themes of this game resonate with me on a very personal level, having spent much of my life on a rollercoaster of various sedatives and antidepressants, most of which just made things worse for me.

While I acknowledge that drugs do help some people, the way medication is often sold as a cure-all is deeply disturbing to me.

Something that really struck a chord with me is the fact that Joy comes in various tasty flavours — chocolate, vanilla, strawberry, blackberry… I was reminded of a time many years ago where my doctor gave me some free samples of an antipressant. They were chewable and had a delicious mint flavour.

I don’t even think I want to know what they put into those things to make them taste so good. I don’t even like mint, normally.

I’m not shaming people who take antidepressants. If any of them actually worked for me, I’d take them happily. But I think we can all agree something has broken in our system when doctors hand out candy-sweet happy pills to anyone willing to ask for them.

The Jacobean Club is looking a bit worse for wear in We Happy Few.It also struck me that although the core theme of We Happy Few could boil down to “things suck, and there aren’t any easy answers,” I still managed to find it a fairly uplifting game.

One of the many things I’ve dabbled in to try to treat my mental health issues is dialectical behaviour therapy, and WHF is a great lesson in two of DBT’s core principles: validation and radical acceptance. Sometimes you just have to acknowledge that yes, things suck, and it’s okay to feel bad.

Sometimes trying to cheer up — or having others try to cheer you up — isn’t helpful. It can even make things worse. Sometimes you just need to face the fact that things are bad, and there can be a certain relief in that.

I can poke a few holes in We Happy Few’s story here or there — it’s a bit slow-paced, and it doesn’t answer as many questions as I’d like — but its strength far exceeds its weaknesses.

If there’s one place WHF stumbles, it’s the DLC. Even then, none of it is actually bad; it’s just not as good as the main game. The first two DLCs — They Came from Below and Lightbearer — are just jokey side-quests, though they do feature some clever game mechanics.

The final DLC, We All Fall Down, returns to the main story and is all around a lot more enjoyable, though even then it suffers a bit from feeling somewhat disconnected from the events of base game.

Confronting the doctors in We Happy Few.Despite somewhat underwhelming DLC, though, We Happy Few is the most I’ve enjoyed a video game in quite a while.

Overall rating: 9/10

Book Reviews: Night Vale, It Devours and Black Company, Port of Shadows

I’ve got a pair of book reviews for you today. First up…

Welcome to Night Vale: It Devours

Cover art for the Welcome to Night Vale novel It Devours!I won’t lie: As much as I love Night Vale, I found this book pretty disappointing.

It Devours follows one of Carlos’ scientists, Nilanjana Sikdar, as she investigates strange occurrences that may be connected to the Joyous Congregation of the Smiling God. This investigation is complicated by a budding attraction between Nilanjana and Darryl Ramirez, one of of the Congregation’s most devout members.

Seems like it could be an interesting story, but… well, it really isn’t. The writers are clearly trying to make a point about the dangers of blind faith, which is admirable, but it’s extremely ham-fisted and unsubtle. It’s not so much a story with a message as it is a message with a story half-heartedly built around it.

It doesn’t help that the main characters are fairly weak. I don’t find Nilanjana or Darryl to be especially likable or interesting characters individually, and worse still their budding romance feels completely forced. The two characters have nothing in common and no chemistry whatsoever, and I was never really clear on why they even liked each other.

The book isn’t a complete waste. It is written with that trademark Night Vale wit and charm, and many of the background characters are memorable. I particularly enjoyed Nilanjana’s coworker who devoted her entire career to disapproving of potatoes.

Carlos also gets a fairly meaty supporting role, and we learn a lot about what makes him tick. I read in the YouTube comments recently there’s a section of the fanbase that has the head canon Carlos is on the autism spectrum, and having read It Devours, I can definitely see why.

Still, despite highlights like that, this is a book I’d have trouble recommending, even to serious fans of the podcast.

Overall rating: 5.9/10

The Black Company, Port of Shadows:

Cover art for The Black Company, book 1.5: Port of Shadows by Glen Cook.Man, who the hell expected a new Black Company book after all this time?

What makes it even weirder is that this isn’t a continuation of the story. It’s an interquel, dubbed “book 1.5”.

That kind of has “unnecessary money grab” written all over it, so I didn’t exactly expect much from Port of Shadows. But it ended up impressing me as much as It Devours disappointed.

Following the battle at Charm, the Black Company has been given a cushy garrison assignment at the city of Aloe. An investigation into a young woman with a mysterious connection to the Lady threatens to disrupt their peace, and the arrival of a new Taken throws Croaker’s life into disarray.

Of course, it is a bit of an awkward fit into existing continuity, though attempts are made to explain the inconsistency. It’s not perfect, but at the end of the day I believe continuity should serve the story rather than the other way around, so I can let it slide.

Reading this, I reflected on how strange it is that I enjoy the Black Company books as much as I do. In theory they’re everything I profess to hate in the fantasy genre. They’re ugly, bleak, cynical books in a low magic setting with no heroes worth rooting for.

I can only say what I’ve always said: I love the way they’re written. The prose is steeped in dry wit and gallows humour, and it makes what would otherwise be an appallingly unpleasant story into a delightful page-turner.

Though I must admit I do worry what it says about me that I just used the word “delightful” to describe a book that features the phrase “consensual necrophilia” as a major plot point.

Anyway, as with the series as a whole, I struggle to explain precisely what it is I enjoyed so much about Port of Shadows, beyond the clever prose. I suppose there is a good mystery here; wanting to uncover what’s really happening is definitely part of what makes it such a page-turner.

I’ll also say that it feels a bit like the later Black Company books in that it presents a softer side of the Company (I use the term loosely) and shows them as being… well, if not the good guys, then at least the lesser of two evils relative to the forces they’re opposing. It does make the whole thing a bit more palatable compared to those times when the Company is just the bad guys.

Going in, I was afraid Port of Shadows was an unnecessary addition to a completed series, and arguably it is, but I wound up enjoying it thoroughly despite that.

Overall rating: 8.5/10