Welcome to our new journal format! As we approach the final release of the game, our weekly journals will be looking back on development, at the evolution of individual parts of the game. Think of the next few months as a gigantic recap on the growth and change of We Happy Few over the past four years.
To start, we chose something that hopefully you’re all aware of: Joy! Why it exists, how it changed during development, and where it is now. For those of you who are just starting to learn about We Happy Few, Joy is the fictional drug that the citizens of Wellington Wells take to be blissfully happy and ignorant of their past. It’s manufactured happiness, in convenient pill form.
Joy: Why make a game about happiness?
When we began development on We Happy Few, one of our core pillars was survival based gameplay, in an urban setting, with a procedural world. We wanted to expand on the traditional survival gameplay (food/water etc) in an urban setting, and one idea was to incorporate fictional drugs into the survival loop - pharmaceutical drugs, not illicit ones. We also had themes we wanted to explore, like memory loss, dystopia and ghosts of the past, and artistic inspiration from 60s culture (eg psychedelics).
Joy was born initially out of the desire to make the narrative and lore of the world more fun than your regular dystopia. The typical vision of a drab, controlled society like 1984 was less interesting to us than something like Brave New World. So, Alex (our narrative director) derived from these gameplay concepts the idea of society obsessed with happiness. If people were obsessed with happiness, we felt like it was because something bad had happened in the past; a trauma that they wanted to forget. The idea was born that citizens would voluntarily take a special drug, Joy, that kept them happy. That way, they wouldn’t need to worry about “that nasty business in the past” as Alex would probably phrase it. This was very organic and took years to develop completely, during which time we iterated on both gameplay and narrative, cross inspiring from both in the process.
We also wanted to incorporate this into gameplay, so that there would be a new mechanic for the community to play with. Because we were building a dystopian world, where everybody wanted to ignore unhappiness, it flowed pretty well that Joy would help you “blend in” with all the regular PCs. That’s roughly how Joy began in early to mid 2014, which as many of you know, eventually became this:
Many of the other aspects of the game have become iconic because of their relationship to Joy - for example, our Downers are very specifically people who have gone off their Joy. So in one sense, We Happy Few began with Joy.
The first implementation of Joy was, as most prototypes are, pretty bare bones. It was more important to build the other building blocks of the world, so we didn’t get around to this until early 2015, around about the time of our first demo at PAX East. There was a simple joy pill that you could pick up in the environment, and use either in your inventory or in a quickslot. When you did this, a small meter appeared on screen, which reduced over time, and while active allowed you to conform a little bit. That was it!
However, we had bigger plans: over the year since coming up with the idea, Joy had become something that also altered your vision, to make the world seem a happier place. So by the time we launched on Kickstarter, Joy came with visuals that made it very clear when you were on Joy, and off Joy. We also needed to have a negative aspect to taking Joy, otherwise it was overpowered. So, we developed the concept of a Joy cycle, including a crash, which would be more intense the more Joy you took.
So, this was a start, but several issues became obvious very quickly:
- First, the visuals were a prototype just like the gameplay was, and really not what we wanted. Over time we would need to improve them, particularly as the Joy effects would need to change alongside environmental changes.
- Second, the benefit of the mechanic was clear, but the downside was immediate and not particularly challenging - it didn’t require the player to make strategic choices over the long term about when they took Joy. Plus, as all of this became more complicated, we would need new ways of displaying this to the player on the HUD.
- Third, how could we add this long term disadvantage, but maintain the lore that this was a society that could perpetually take Joy? (Aka, why could NPCs always take Joy but you would eventually crash?)
The visual side was the easiest, as it evolved naturally alongside the world. For example, this was what it looked like on Early Access launch.
However, the gameplay side took a bit longer than we had hoped to iron out. It became a challenge to balance how drug dependency worked in real life versus in the game. During Early Access we did develop two important additions: the withdrawal and overdose states. Crash became the very long term side effect of prolonged Joy use, and withdrawal the short term side effect of “coming down” from Joy. Overdose limited your abilities in game, but only happened if you took too much Joy in a very short time. One thing we did do was change the prototype bar into a status icon:
A surprising element that became clear over time was how the community spoke about Joy. In addition to the community’s enthusiasm for all the silliness surrounding Joy, some feedback was from a more sober angle (pardon the pun). We had several people write to us explaining how they saw Joy as a representation of modern antidepressants, which helped them think differently about their depression and issues they were going through. These comments appreciated how we were discussing issues like mental illness, or prescription drug abuse, or even less overt issues like the “facebook culture” of always showing the “best side of you”.
As developers, we want games to be fun or engaging. However, occasionally we stray into real world topics, and when we do it’s important to treat them with nuance. So, treating the concept properly, while still making an interesting mechanic, was constantly on our minds throughout development.
As many of you who have played the Life in Technicolour Update will know, that final Early Access update was focused on Joy. We wanted to amp up the visuals, including by manipulating more of the world itself (and not just the lighting), and by making the positive and negative stages more visually distinct. We also changed the audio to give a more hallucinatory experience, eg Wellies laughing when they attack you (if you’re on Joy). This led to the final version of the Joy visual effects:
We also wanted to make sure the transition itself was suitably interesting:
At our current stage, we have (finally!) settled on the Joy mechanics, and in particular we have finalised the lore reasons and mechanics behind the long term side effects of Joy on the player characters, which we’re very happy about. “Crash” as a concept made some sense, but not in the way we wanted. We now believe Joy makes sense within our world, and properly fits as a unique element of the game. Without wanting to give away too much, this is the final Joy HUD icon in various unordered states, which we hope you like:
We’ll leave it to your imagination to figure out how this will all work for the final game.
Joy remains a core part of We Happy Few, and there’s a lot more to it than what we’ve mentioned here. During development, we have seen a great deal of enthusiasm for Joy (maybe a little too much for some folks…), and we hope you will enjoy it in the final version.
So, that’s it for our first retrospective! If you are curious about a specific part of how the project or the studio have developed, let us know. We’ll do what we can to respond.
Thank you for reading, and don’t forget to take your Joy.
Discuss this post here