We Happy Few has been into the world in near full public view, with high-profile trailers, a Kickstarter campaign and the Early Access segments of its gestation giving it a far greater public airing than many games of its budget could dream to achieve. And the final twist has been yet more attention thanks to the developer’s recent acquisition by Microsoft, announced on stage at E3, no less.
It’s been quite a ride then for Compulsion Games, who started the project with just seven staff members. With such a storied run-up to this month’s launch, it seemed rather appropriate to be sitting down with the game’s narrative director, Alex Epstein.
SEEING IS BELIEVING?
That incredible ride from tiny indie, with a team of just seven, to high-profile release hasn’t been without its problems – one of which has been managing the expectations of players. “One of the issues we’ve had is people holding us up to a triple-A standard,” says Epstein, which was further complicated by the game’s unusual blending of survival and narrative gameplay.
When asked how he would have initially described the game, he replies simply: “It’s Don’t Starve, in first person, in a city,” adding that “it was a survival roguelike, but we were always going to have these three main characters [Arthur, Sally and Ollie] with linear stories.
“So people are like: ‘There’s this introduction which is cinematic and then I’m in the middle of this vast wasteland and I don’t know what to do, so I guess that’s what the game’s going to be’... The difficulty is that people tend to ignore what you say and instead think: ‘This is what I can see’.”
Epstein tells us he repeatedly told people that the game would have a story, but that it largely fell upon deaf ears. Despite him explaining that the story in the game was his job. And that story has grown with the game through development, he tells us:
“Since then, we’ve added dozens and dozens of encounters for our characters, which reveal aspects of their personality and aspects of the town, and then we added audio flashbacks that conveyed things from their past and their memories, so the whole thing has deepened but it’s the same story.”
“There are three stories you play, and those stories interweave, but each character has their own memory of those events,” says Epstein. It’s somewhat ironic that a game which has struggled at times to explain itself to an over-excited fanbase, has a narrative mechanic by which its main characters interpret the same encounter in different ways.
“The game is about memory and denial; it’s about how we remember things, not as they necessarily happened, but in a way that suits us,” continues Epstein.
“So, you’ll find that many things are different in your playthroughs. From playable character to playable character, landmarks may move around. Arthur might remember a conversation happening at Sally’s house, but Sally remembers it in a park,” he explains, something that’s possible thanks to the procedural generation that creates the game’s four main islands.
“We all remember things in ways that suit us. In Arthur’s playthrough, he is the hero, or the victim, of events; it’s not his fault. Sally comes across as a bit of a flake, a bit of a dangerous mantrap, even though he’s mad about her. But maybe he was not listening carefully, because Sally’s explanations sound a whole lot more convincing in her playthrough. Sally even remembers saying some things that Arthur flatout does not remember.”
After all, he explains, who hasn’t had a conversation where you remember things differently from someone else?
“The dialog of a run-in between Arthur and Sally, or Arthur and Ollie, probably won’t be exactly the same in the different playthroughs, and it’s worth listening carefully to what’s said and unsaid. At least, I hope it is!”
It certainly sounds like an intriguing concept, one that will add further depth to a game whose multiple storylines and procedurally-generated environments are already shouting out for multiple playthroughs.
The striking style and triple-A quality of We Happy Few’s graphics certainly didn’t make things easier for the team when managing expectations, with the visual concept driven wholly by art director Whitney Clayton.
“It ended up being that, because that’s what our amazing art director Whitney wanted to create. She wanted groovy dark britannia, it’s swinging London, it’s [iconic 1966 thriller] Blowup, Clockwork Orange, The Avengers, The Prisoner. That was something she was interested in exploring,” Epstein explains.
“The location came from the art, we wanted to do a game with drugs, we wanted to do a game with masks. People are hiding something from themselves, some terrible trauma, and if it’s Britain in 1964 then it’s probably something to do with the war.”
SPREADING THE JOY
To create all the extra content, the game’s team has swelled in size from seven to forty people. It’s not a big team, but they’re all developers, as other tasks have been taken on by Gearbox’s growing publishing arm. Austin Malcolm, head of PR for Gearbox Publishing, tells us: “Our side works on QA, user research, business certification, distribution, PR, marketing, and so on.”
We wonder how marketing a game like We Happy Few, with its very public development curve in Early Access, differs from a typical ‘behind closed doors’ scenario.
“With [any other] game you’re just telling people, slowly revealing it,” Malcolm answers. “With this one, that’s had such a strong community in Early Access and Kickstarter, it’s more about education, finding opportunities to get in front of people who already know about this game and educating them. It’s less about shouting out ‘this fun thing’ and ‘this fun thing’, and more having a detailed talk. Because there’s so much more to this now. The game has changed significantly, what you played was a quick four-hour open world survival game, but with all the narrative encounters added in, our average playtesters are coming in around 20 hours.”
Which is why the game has shifted from being a £23 title originally at Early Access to a full-priced £50 for its retail release. We ask Epstein if there were upsides to the Early Access process, apart from getting money in to finance further development?
“Certainly we learnt that people wanted a survival roguelike less than they wanted a series of crazy encounters with barmy characters,” he quips before answering. “There are upsides and downsides to releasing early, the upside is that you get feedback and you get a community, and the downside is that you’re always working towards the next build.”
He explains that a game with a strong technical core can release early and then simply ramp up its content. But that it’s harder with emergent gameplay coming out of multiple systems that interact in complex ways, such as in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.
With two games under Compulsion’s belt (the studio made Contrast back in 2013) and with a bright future thanks to Microsoft’s investment, a Compulsion-style of game has started to emerge.
“Our art director has what I like to call a hallucinatory art style, whatever we do next is going to be hallucinatory in some way. I think we do story games. So, yeah, I would say we have a personality,” Epstein tells us, adding later that “[Microsoft] has been very clear that what they like about us is what we do. So they want us to do more of that.”
Finally, after all the work and the studios expansion, we ask Epstein whether he feels that We Happy Few was overambitious? To begin, he tells us that composer Leonard Bernstein once said: ‘To achieve greatness, you need not quite enough time.’
He continues: “We were ambitious and I feel pretty good about what we achieved, so I’m not sure we were overambitious. There are always things we could have done if we had more time or more people working for us…”
For Compulsion’s next title, more time is only a possibility, but more people is now a certainty.
“We’re not going to go crazy,” Epstein tells us, unlike the inhabitants of his dark sixties fantasy world, “but yes the company will grow.”