We Happy Few is very British, very psychedelic and very scary

Compulsion Games’ We Happy Few has a striking BioShock-esque art style, a terrific Brave New World-inspired premise and survival mechanics akin to Don’t Starve. But after playing it for about 20 minutes at PAX East, I don’t know yet if it’s fun.

Neither does Compulsion, though — and that’s totally fine, at this point.

The Montreal-based studio brought a very early build of its latest project, We Happy Few, to PAX and let the public go hands-on with the game. Compulsion was seeking as much feedback as it could get, as early in the development process as possible, so as not to repeat the same mistakes it made with its first game, 2013’s Contrast.

The company rushed that project in order to make the launch of the PlayStation 4, said Sam Abbott, Compulsion’s chief operating officer, in an interview with Polygon. Contrast ended up being full of bugs, and although the team patched the issues within a couple of weeks, the damage was done: “You can’t recover from that,” said Abbott. But in addition to the technical problems Contrast contained at launch, there were fundamental issues that Compulsion just didn’t see.

I don’t know yet if it’s fun. Neither does Compulsion

“We didn’t know the controls were bad,” said Abbott, mentioning one of a few problems Compulsion discovered only after reading reviews from critics and the public. Abbott said players made suggestions that, in hindsight, were obvious why-didn’t-we-think-of-that ideas. But in their haste to finish making Contrast, the developers couldn’t see the forest for the trees.

Compulsion has a different plan for We Happy Few. The studio is looking to launch a Kickstarter campaign in about six weeks, and then release an early version of the game on Steam Early Access. The idea is to bring in enough money to fund development at the small studio, which currently numbers 11 full-time staff, and solicit feedback from a community of players at the same time. That model will also allow the team to focus first on developing and iterating on gameplay mechanics, and build the story in the background, which is key because Compulsion wants to keep the story under wraps as much as possible.

We Happy Few takes place during the 1960s in an alternate-history England, where the inhabitants of the fictional town of Wellington Wells desperately don’t want to deal with a traumatic event in their past. So they’ve invented a bliss-inducing drug called Joy, and like soma — the mind-numbing hallucinogenic happy juice from Aldous Huxley’s classic novel Brave New World — it keeps everyone sedated. Joy does have some minor side effects, like near-complete memory loss and mild psychosis. And the Joy-addled denizens of Wellington really don’t like “Downers,” people who refrain from partaking in the wonder drug.

Joy does have some minor side effects, like near-complete memory loss and mild psychosis

You play as a Downer in We Happy Few, and you’re on a mission to make it out of town within a certain number of days, before you become trapped there. You must survive long enough to make it to that point, and in order to do that, you have to play pretend, blending in with the drugged-out people around you so as not to arouse their suspicion. Because boy, are they suspicious of anyone who doesn’t act the way they all do. Running, for example, will draw their attention, and time isn’t on your side.

As in Klei Entertainment’s Don’t Starve, a few meters indicate your character’s survivability in We Happy Few. The food and water bars are pretty self-explanatory; you need to eat food and stay hydrated in order to stay alive. Unfortunately, Joy is so ubiquitous in Wellington Wells that most consumable items are contaminated with it, so there’s also a Joy bar in the game’s interface.

Taking Joy is an easy way to calm down townspeople who have become suspicious of your activities (indicated with an icon above their heads), but at a certain point, it starts to affect the way you see the world. All the colors become warmer and brighter, more vivid and hazy (see the fifth screenshot in the gallery below). Eventually, you’ll overdose, pass out and end up back in the underground shelter where you start the game. You really don’t want that to happen, since it means one more precious day will have gone by — and, true to the roguelike genre, you’ll be starting from scratch with your supplies.

In addition to finding sustenance in the world, you must gather supplies if you’re going to escape from the dystopian hellscape of Wellington Wells. So you’ll do a lot of scavenging for items in places like drawers, bookcases and garbage cans, then crafting them together to make objects such as lockpicks, bandages and weapons. Playing on a computer, I began to wonder how much of my time would be spent double-tapping the E key (opening a receptacle, then taking all items).

Combat is also a big part of We Happy Few, although I found myself trying to avoid it as much as possible. While you might be able to subdue a few people here and there without anybody discovering you, you’ll have to do a good job of hiding the corpses that pile up if you want to stay unnoticed. Once you’re found out, the locals will start calling for the bobbies, and then you’re really in trouble.

It’s clear that Compulsion is building We Happy Few for a hardcore audience, and Abbott said as much during my interview with him. I get easily frustrated with these kinds of games, but We Happy Few‘s world is so well-constructed and so internally consistent that I want to spend more time with the whacked-out people of Wellington Wells.