We Happy Few Interview: How Compulsion Pulled Back on Survival Gameplay and Put Narrative (and Puke) Up-Front

We Happy Few Interview: How Compulsion Pulled Back on Survival Gameplay and Put Narrative (and Puke) Up-Front

Richard Walker

It's been almost two years since We Happy Few first came to early access and the Xbox Game Preview program, and in that time, Compulsion Games' survival experience has been through some fairly significant changes. Like, making vomit an important part of the game, for example.

Initially focused upon survival-based gameplay, the Contrast developer took on board feedback from the community during early access, and since the audience expected some sort of narrative-driven BioShock-style experience as the trailers had suggested, discovering that after the intro you were playing a survival game, apparently left some players cold.

Consequently, Compulsion went back to the drawing board for We Happy Few, meaning more work for Narrative Designer Alex Epstein, who practically wrote everything in the game, except for letters, documents and other environmental text you'll find lying around (these were penned by Lisa Hunter).

We sat down with Epstein to discuss some of the changes that have been implemented for the final version of We Happy Few, ahead of its release next month, finding out more about protagonists Arthur, Sally and Ollie, weapon crafting, what survival elements remain, and how the narrative has developed.

For more We Happy Few, read our recent hands-on preview here.

What did you learn from We Happy Few's early access phase?

We learnt that players really liked the handcrafted encounters, and the game being more roguelike, more systemic. It was always going to have a main narrative, but they told us that they were less interested in hardcore survival and more interested in an adventure story. So we had an adventure story which we hadn't shown people that we've fleshed out, we've deepened it. So now there are the audio flashbacks that you have, [and] there are many, many more encounters.

Do you know exactly what it is you dialled back and what you brought to the fore?

Yeah. So originally you could die of thirst, die [due to] lack of sleep. You can no longer die of thirst, but you will want to drink from time to time or you'll be de-buffed. Then instead of having four hours of gameplay, our playtesters tell us we have more like twenty.

And you have three characters now...

Well, we always had three characters and they were always going to have their own story, so it's not that you play the same events with different characters. They are different stories. And even if you have an encounter with the same individual, it is a different encounter.

Do you play as Arthur first and then move on to Sally then Ollie?

Yep. It's Arthur, Sally, Ollie.

So what are the significant distinctions between the three protagonists?

Arthur's and everyman: basically every character Hugh Grant has ever played. He's unremarkable, he can disappear in plain sight, he can sit on a bench and open a newspaper, and people wouldn't know he's there. Sally is famous. She's adorable, sparkly and bubbly, and she's a socialite. She makes drugs for the rich and famous, and is a genius chemist, so her playthrough... she's more inclined to take you out by spraying something in your face than clobbering you over the head with a mallet. Then Olly is more likely to hit you over the head with a cricket bat, because he's a soldier. They all have stealth, they all can fight, but with Sally you're going to want to be less full assault mode and more sneaking around and injecting people in the neck.

And they all have their own individual narrative and thread. Do those intertwine at all?

They do. Arthur meets Sally, [and] he has a story chain, there are three times they meet, and each time you see the same scene, but it's not really the same scene. They remember it differently; Arthur interprets what she said in different ways. The game is about how we remember things in not the way they literally happened, and how it suits us to remember [certain things]. Everybody has a different memory.

Will We Happy Few have different endings based on the choices you make? Because even early on you have quite significant decisions, like whether to take your Joy or redact certain articles or not. Will those things have an impact?

Arthur will have a choice at the end of the game.

And obviously you don't want to spoil that. What about crafting and weapons? What can we expect in that regard?

We've got a lot of that. There are a lot of crazy weapons that you can craft. We've been adding a lot, like a flaming lead pipe, electrical weapons. Crafting is a big part of the game, so I think if you want a confrontational style, there's plenty of meat.

What would you say is the most outlandish weapon you can create?

There's an electrified hammer pipe, which is spikes plus an electrical jolt. There are a variety of things you can throw like a vomit bomb; throwing up is a big part of the game. And Sally has a berserk atomiser that drives people... berserk!

Is it slightly weird to see how much the game has evolved from the initial concept, announcement and early access stages to where you are now?

I would say every game in development teaches you how to develop it, so by the time you're done, you realise pretty well what you should have done.

Is the finished product what you envisaged pretty much? Has it ended up how you thought it would?

I think we have an organic process, so I can't speak for Guillaume (Provost), who's the studio head and the Creative Director, [but] we're a studio that has kind of a flat structure, so Guillaume hires immensely talented people like Whitney Clayton (Art Director), David Sears who did SOCOM, who is our Design Director on this game, and then, y'know, lets them rip. And it's an iterative process, so you don't want to draw up a design document and then just make that design document, you know?

Field marshal Von Moltke said “no battle plan lasts beyond meeting the enemy,” you know? So you make stuff and see how it works, and if it works, you do more of that. And we had things in our design that we thought were not that great and then we had other things where we said “if we do this and this, then we can do that!” It's a flexible process for us, but we don't have to wait and see if Paris approves of what we did.

Narratively, what would you say are your influences?

Narratively, Neil Gaiman. It's a game with a lot of references and a lot of inspirations. Everything from Shakespeare and the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam to Monty Python. There's a great deal of Monty Python - one of the weapons you have is the pointy stick

Did you kind of immerse yourself in British culture?

I've been immersing myself in British culture for years.

Do you live here then?

No, no. I live in Montreal.

You're just interested in British culture.

I have an English degree from Yale, and I've always been a big Winston Churchill fan.

Was it important to get proper British actors in or did you use guys capable of performing good British accents?

What I discovered is that Canadian actors can do excellent British accents or act. So we went to London cos we need them to do both. So Alex Wyndham who plays Arthur was on Rome, Charlotte Hope who plays Sally was on Game of Thrones. We have a fantastic cast, most of whom I have never met because I'm sitting in a studio in Montreal and they're sitting in London. We have some people from Plymouth. We've found a few people in Montreal who are legit Brits, British ex-pats, but almost everybody's actually here.

Is it weird as the Narrative Designer not to have a direct link to the actors?

Not at all. It really doesn't matter. In fact, I'd rather not know what they look like because you're not gonna see it. I had an actor I thought was probably about 40, I think he's about 25. I would not maybe have given him older roles but his voice is older so who cares? We had a pint last night with one of my voice actors who is Sammy Lee.

She's done like 15 different significant roles and even more small roles. We have these little ladies who wander around and scream at you if you do something wrong and I gave her the instruction, she's graham chapman in a dress, you know, 'helloooo!' So, I found it made absolutely no difference, it is not any better to have them in a studio.

The game itself, it's out next month. What are you most excited about our players discovering when you play the game?

What I'm most excited about people discovering is up until people get to play the full game, they're not going to realise how much we've interwoven the world and the stories but not in a symmetrical logical way, more in the way that the world is a mess and you learn things out of order. Things don't always match up and people don't always tell the truth, in fact, they almost never tell the whole truth.

You know, we have this conceit in video games that everybody tells you the absolute truth except the villain is allowed one big lie in the middle of the game. And in reality people will generally tell you up to 80% of the truth and they'll rarely tell you less than 20% of the truth and it's all in the middle there so we have a technique that we use called the translucent lie. So a transparent lie is when you can see the truth, a translucent lie is when you can see the truth but also the nature of the lie tells you something about the person who is telling you that lie. So you can go, 'why are they telling me that lie?'

We use tangents, we use absences, there are mysteries that we set up that we may not answer because you don't always get all the answers. So it's an intentionally messy way of telling the story which I call dirty narrative which I think allows people rather than when we push story at you we push you out of the story. I think when we allow you to ask your own questions and find the answers you pull yourself into the story. So I'm really excited to see how that works out.

We Happy Few launches for Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and PC on 10th August.

  • Charlotte's last name is "Hope", not "Cope". Good read, the game sounds good.
  • Really your post is really very good and I appreciate it. It’s hard to sort the good from the bad sometimes.You definitely put a new spin on a topic thats been written about for years. subway surfers online
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