Failure by design: We Happy Few, and five other games whose worlds disappointed

Even more frustrating than a bad game is a bad game that could easily have been great, but for a few poor design choices. It’s especially frustrating when a developer builds a fascinating world but doesn’t give you anything exciting to do in it, or puts obstacles in your path that stop you exploring. 

That’s exactly what happens in We Happy Few, a story-driven adventure game that came out in August 2018.

We unhappy few

We Happy Few is set in a 1960s alternate-history Britain in which Germany and its allies won World War II, but the fictional island of Wellington Wells managed to get rid of its Nazi occupiers by making a twisted bargain. The islanders, sickened by what they’d done (I’ll avoid spoilers), turned to pills called ‘Joy’ to banish their guilt, swallowing them from morning to night.

The towns of the islands are run-down, and plague-ridden wastrels roam the countryside like zombies. But as you see in the game’s early stages, taking Joy – which is mandatory for everyone- – gives you rainbow-tinted glasses. Dirty streets with boarded up shops on either side turn into multicoloured boulevards lined with flowers, and you stroll down them to the gentle sound of orchestral strings.

An all-seeing Uncle Jack helps maintain the precarious peace through a radio station blaring through every speaker in town. He’s there to wake you up in the morning, entertain you with jokes about Germans in the afternoon, and remind you to take one last Joy before you slip off to sleep. 

The premise gripped me, and from the very start I was bombarded with environmental storytelling. One of the first houses I wandered into had a bedroom made up for a young boy and girl, toys scattered around. But in place of the kids were mannequin heads tucked into bed, and on the walls were etched the disturbing ramblings of the parents, who had clearly lost their children and invented their own fantasy world.

In a train station, I came across signs in both English and German telling children to take their seasickness pill, and insisting they take a shower before boarding the train (this ties in with the reason for the guilt of the island’s inhabitants). On an abandoned section of tracks I found a half-eaten cake on a makeshift unmade bed, alongside letters from a concerned mother to a runaway child, along with a message about the cake she’s managed to send to him. It all helped create a real sense of place.

Design limitations

While the background story of a conspiracy within the town failed to grab me, the detail of the world, and a string of eccentric characters, made me want to explore every grotty alleyway. Unfortunately, the entire game is seemingly set up to make poking around the world as painfully difficult as possible.

Just walking through the streets of Wellington Wells is a hassle. Island laws prevent both running and jumping, so doing either will set the entire town against you. If you’re caught, you’ll have to fight your way out of an ever-growing crowd, or duck into an alley to hide inside a bin for 30 seconds, after which everyone will magically forget you were there. You also can’t be out at night, either, so say goodbye to the possibility of a pleasant evening wander – if you do risk taking one the lanky policeman roaming the streets will give you a beating. 

As if to underline how tedious these rules are, you can unlock perks later in the game to override both of them, letting you sprint and jump, at any time, including under moonlight. The developer may have realized the game was better without these restrictions, and that they should have simply cut them.

Objectives are also miles apart, and while the towns are interesting, the acres of countryside between them aren’t. Most of the game is just sprinting (or walking if anyone is nearby) between faraway waypoints, occasionally stopping to munch a berry to stave off hunger. And yes, hunger and thirst are a thing, and – like an annoying, yappy dog – require your constant attention

While the Joy pills show the island in a different light, they’re a huge faff to manage. Normal people can’t tell if you’ve taken them, but checkpoints will automatically detect when you last took one, and sound the alarm if you haven’t popped one recently. Giant robots in town squares will also know if you’re off your meds and, late in the game, powerful NPCs can sniff you out and kill you in one hit. 

Taking Joy doesn’t make the game any less frustrating. A slowly ticking Joy meter marks the effect of the drug, and once it’s empty you start to show signs of withdrawal, which other people will recognize, causing them to attack you on sight. To keep up your Joy meter you must visit phone booths to grab another pill, but every time you take one you risk an overdose, which will again flag you up to the police. Basically, you can’t win.

The fact that the game was partly inspired by, in the creator’s words, “prescription drug culture – the idea that no one should be sad if they can pop a pill and fix it” (which is a long way off the point of medication for mental health conditions) only makes it more problematic.

It’s a huge shame. It’s not easy to build an original game world that immediately pulls players in, and in We Happy Few, the developers managed it. But their choices elsewhere made exploring that world a pain, to the point where it’s not worth it.

They’re not the first to squander a good thing in this way, either. Here are five other games that wasted their potentially fascinating worlds.

1. Mass Effect Andromeda

Potentially the biggest gaming disappointment of this decade. You can argue that it would’ve been impossible for Andromeda to live up to the Mass Effect trilogy, but it didn’t even come close. Where the trilogy created a sense of wonder and curiosity, Andromeda struggled to present original ideas, and its characters lacked the charm and personality that we’ve come to expect from a Bioware game.

While its myriad planets house some intriguing secrets, to reach them you have to battle through glitches (the lip-sync will go down in legend), boring fetch quests and a bloated opening that tries to explain too much at once. It was a huge opportunity missed – and one we can only hope the series can recover from.

2. Alpha Protocol

There are plenty of modern spy-thriller films, but surprisingly few such games, and even fewer that give you the power to change the world around you through your choices. RPG Alpha Protocol is therefore a rare breed. While none of the landscapes look impressive – you jet across the globe to Saudi Arabia, Rome, Taipei and Moscow – they’re full of interesting characters to meet and plot-altering decisions to make.

Unfortunately, the shooting is wonky, crouching behind cover is awkward, and enemy AI is all over the place, making the stealth sections virtually unplayable in places. 

I’d argue that it’s still worth playing for the story, and for the chance to shape the world, but it could’ve been so much better. Give us a sequel, pretty please?

3. The Order: 1886

Tying 19th century steampunk, overlooked 20th century inventor Nikola Tesla, werewolves and the Knights of the Round Table together neatly is no mean feat, and one for which The Order: 1886 deserves respect. More impressive than its gorgeous depiction of an alternate-history London, over which blimps constantly flit, is the way it digs deeper into its themes and inspirations than its slightly silly premise suggests, leaving you wanting to find out more about its world and those than inhabit it.

But your interactions with that world are simply boring: a mixture of quick-time events, by-the-numbers third-person shooting and slow, walking sections where plot was shoved down your throat. Its linear levels feel claustrophobic, and its story tails off without any proper payoff.  

4. Telltale’s Game of Thrones

The Game of Thrones universe is one of the richest ever created. It’s full of depth and history, conflict and love, and the relationships between its different factions and families span centuries. Given the success of the books, to say nothing of the TV series, video game developers would’ve been stupid not to take a stab at it.

Telltale’s episodic adaption isn’t on this list because it’s a bad game, but because it should’ve been better. The main players in House Forrester too closely mirror their more famous counterparts in the books, and it gives you far less freedom to meld their story than it makes out. There’s a reason the second season has been put on indefinite hold.

Oh, and you can add Cyanide’s 2012 Game of Thrones RPG to this list too. It’s unpolished to the point of being embarrassing. 

5. The Division (the launch version, at least)

Picking through the open-world ruins of Manhattan after a smallpox pandemic sounds like fun, but The Division is far too shallow. Its map is a mess of icons, none of which offer anything that you’ll be itching to do again. A forgettable story gets swallowed up by bland missions and progression that feels far too grindy. For a game so packed with things to do, it feels unforgivably devoid of life.

Its shooting showed a lot of promise, and its expansions and updates have been kind to it, but it still doesn’t live up to what it should’ve been. Let’s hope the sequel, out next March, does.