Drugs, masks, and randomness: The moral gray areas of We Happy Few

"We've had whole generations of games imposing 'good vs evil' moral ethics to players, but I dislike that kind of simplification," says Compulsion Games' creative director Guillaume Provost.

Compulsion Games' We Happy Few tasks players with escaping the retro-dystopian town of Wellington Wells, where the populace is kept happy by a steady--and mandatory--drug intake. Enforced cheer is the rule of the day in this Prisoner-like locale, and if the your fellow citizens notice that you're not happy, or are acting unusual in any way, they'll bash your brains out with a smile on their faces. (The mood altering drug is called "joy.")

With We Happy Few, Compulsion creative director Guillaume Provost is looking to create  a place where we can witness the moral gray area of what people do to survive in difficult situations. It is up to the player to find that balance between acting out and behaving themselves that will be key to staying alive. Do you take the drug joy to fit in? Do you spit in the face of your oppressors as they take your down?

"Paranoia was the key word we used to describe how we wanted the player to feel in the world," says Provost. "It wasn't so much about making the player feel good or bad as it was about how you need to do certain things in order to comply with the society's rules.We might even corner you into doing things you are quite uncomfortable with. Our job is to model a simulation that provides an intelligent response and maintains your suspense of disbelief, it isn't to try to inform you on what you should or shouldn't do. If you want to do 'bad' things, you should be able to do 'bad' things"


"We've had whole generations of games imposing 'good vs evil' moral ethics to players, but I dislike that kind of simplification."

We Happy Few doesn't have checkpoints and saves. The Compulsion team felt that those safety measures would take away some of the fear of consequences that would come from choosing how to act in this world. If a player could take an action, die, but then respawn, it would remove the sense of danger that exists in Wellington Wells.

The game employs procedural generation to create a varied town environment. Death in We Happy Few means all of the player's progress and items will be lost, and with procedural generation of the game's maps, they'll also be dropped into unfamiliar territory. "The layout being different every time adds to the tension and unpredictability of the game." says Provost. 

"It's a light roguelike," says Provost. "There are moments and quests that are different every time you play. And there's perma-death, which adds to the tension of your decisions. In a way, it's a conformity tool in itself, and one I was curious to experiment with."

A lot is on the line if the player gets killed. They might even feel compelled to take the game's happiness drug in order to fit in again, no matter how much they don't want to. 


"You can totally take the drug in the game, and it has real game-play consequences," says Provost. "In fact - you will be forced to in certain instances in order to progress or survive. But as a mechanic, it is a short term gain for a mid-term loss, as the drug impacts your other survival traits. You can take joy to alleviate suspicion, but it will drain your other needs when you crash from it, or subject you to overdose risks if you keep on taking it."

The drug is a necessary evil at some points in the game. (Or at least, it will seem to be.) When the player has dozens of townsfolk glaring at them, or when a masked policeman is about to bury a shovel in their face, it will be their choice whether to behave and take their medicine or not. With all of their progress on the line, isn't it worth it to just take their dose and be done with it?

This mirrors the kind of actions people may choose to take in the real world. No one sets out to become a drug addict, but many addicts firmly believe that circumstances in their lives have compelled them to the point that they need to use in order to survive.

"There's a moral somewhere in there, but we keep it gray in the context of the game," says Provost. "There's a lot of comparisons that can be drawn with today's society taking drugs to make ourselves feel happier, or the whole social media trend of putting on a good public face. We wanted to bring some of those concepts and push it to an extreme, to see where that would take us."

He hopes that it stirs interesting questions without providing pat answers. "We've had whole generations of games imposing 'good vs evil' moral ethics to players, but I dislike that kind of simplification. The real world isn't black and white: there are people who need to take drugs to be well, and others who abuse it, and a whole spectrum of gray in between."

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