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Weekly Journal - The evolution of environmental storytelling
This week we will touch on the evolution of environmental storytelling throughout the development of We Happy Few! Don’t worry, this won’t spoil the main story before the release of the full game, but instead will focus on the many ways there are to tell a story outside of cutscenes and the central story, and how our writers extraordinaire, Alex Epstein and Lisa Hunter, approached it as the game grew bigger.
Since our game is procedural, environmental storytelling is key for submerging the player into our vibrant world. It was particularly important during Early Access, because we didn’t want to spoil any of the central story but wanted to introduce the world and its eccentricities. Before we start, let’s define story and narrative: story is what happens to the main characters, narrative is everything that makes you care about the world and its people.
For those of you joining us now, We Happy Few takes place in 1964, in the fictitious city of Wellington Wells, England. In our alternate history, the citizen of Wellington Wells are hooked on a happy drug called Joy, in order to forget a traumatizing event that happened in the past. Living in blissful denial, the Wellies do not take kindly to anyone not taking their Joy, as they view them as a threat to their happiness. We Happy Few is the tale of three people who no longer want to partake in this make believe society.
Inspirations and challenges
British culture has been an inspiration not only artistically, but also in the writing of We Happy Few. There is a parallel between the way our narrative is written and how many famous pieces of British literature are structured. Much like in a Dickens novel or Shakespeare play where a huge cast of characters are all interrelated in non apparent ways at first, but all become connected at the end.
One of the ways the game grew with each milestone (Kickstarter, Early Access etc.), was the addition of quests (or as we have called them in the past, encounters). More quests meant more characters, therefore more lore to expand on and more depth to create - a tree whose branches just keep on growing and intertwining. However, we can only do so much with dialogue - only through environmental storytelling such as notes, poems, newspapers, song lyrics, snippets of conversations, posters and graffitis can we truly communicate to the player the depth of our world. A world is much more believable if you can uncover the relationships, hopes, insecurities, dreams or grudges of its individuals. A quest feels less like a quest when the player’s emotions are involved.
One of the challenges our writers faced was Early Access. We Happy Few was always going to have a core story, and we wanted to try a new approach, creating a survival story based game in a procedural world. However, we felt that that new approach required massive input from the community, hence why we went on Kickstarter and Early Access. But, we couldn’t add any story to our Early Access, as it wouldn’t make any sense to spoil our main story before the final release. Everything is intertwined in We Happy Few and adding lore to the world without saying too much about the main story was a struggle.
Another challenge our writers face is the conciliation of gameplay and narrative. Some gameplay design decisions might not fit at first with the world we are creating, but this doesn’t discourage our writers. There is a rule in improvisation that is called the “Yes, and.” rule. This means that when presented with a new idea or concept, you never say no to it, you say “Yes, and.” If our design director wants a box in the middle of a district that spawns random items, at first this might not make sense to the narrative department. Why would it spawn random items? The writers will not shut down the idea, they will expand on the idea and create a reason for it to exist in our world. As in game, gameplay comes first.
During the early stages of the game’s development, we did not focus heavily on narrative. Our focus at the time was about creating the story, the characters, and the world lore in general. Not much can be taken away from our world other than it is taking place in a quaint and odd English town with strange folks, a little reminiscent of Hot Fuzz and The Prisoner.
We also weren’t sure yet what we would need to do on this front - as you will see, feedback and enthusiasm from players made us expand our plans on this front .
PAX East 2015 contained the first environmental narrative in the game - a couple of small encounters that contained no dialogue, no written material, but a story told through props and staging. One of these was the first version of the “Odds n Ends” shop, which was locked up, alarm sounding, and no way in - unless you found the secret passage out the back. Inside you found a dark building, discoverable with a torch, and dead bodies strewn around the floor. A story that you could discover through lighting, layout and props alone.
It turns out, players found these parts of the world the most interesting part of what we were building. This was the first indication we had that we would have to expand the story we were telling, and focus more heavily on these moments (and less heavily on a systemic world). So, in the first playable Kickstarter build, Arthur starts with someone else in the shelter, Mrs. Stokes! Mrs. Stokes unfortunately did not stay for many versions but at the time, but the player could find a piece of her diary next to her where she would describe her breakdown as she was slowly getting off her Joy. This is the very first note we added to the game, which we expanded significantly after this point. It had voice over acting at the time, from Arthur’s voice actor, but we opted not to do that in favour of a journal based system.
It was also the first implementation of Uncle Jack through the radio and on televisions, which was a huge step forward in setting the tone and the rules of Wellington Wells.
NPCs then also had some barks (voice lines they “bark” at you while you’re walking around), mostly for gameplay reasons to give feedback to the player about their conformity status. However, we made sure these were themed appropriately to enhance the feeling of a living, complete world.
This was also the first implementation of the newspaper. Mostly good news! The Garden District also makes its first appearance with its war torn houses and strange graffitis. The Village now has billboards showcasing Uncle Jack and other propaganda posters highlighting a victorious past or a bright future ahead.