Interview: We Happy Few’s Naila Hadjas

Compulsion Games has been turning heads with We Happy Few, a tripped-out alternate-history survival adventure in a 1960s British dystopia. Players journey through Wellington Wells, a city harboring deep denial by way of mandated drug consumption; with careful attention to period-specific clothing styles, architecture, technology, and urban decay, the struggle to survive becomes both beautiful and tragic. Bearing these things in mind, NerdQ’s Erik Meyer chatted with Naila Hadjas, PR and Community Manager at Compulsion, on the ins and outs of the project.

Erik Meyer: The ’60s retro aesthetic draws the eye, as does the incorporation of a mandatory mood-heightening hallucinogenic; describe the genesis of WHF. What was the initial spark that started the project?

Naila Hadjas: Guillaume Provost, the Creative Director and CEO of the company, wanted a game centered around drugs, masks, and dystopia. From there, our Art Director, Whitney Clayton, who had just returned from a trip to England, was really inspired by her trip and wanted to draw English towns. Alex Epstein, our Narrative Director, took those ideas to create the premise behind Joy. He wanted to touch on happy drugs, the positive front people tend to put up, memory, and how we tend to alter it. The ’60s made sense from that point on, as the ’60s was a time of optimism for the future (after the war), and denial of the past, so it kind of all fell into place.

EM: Small touches bring the feel of the dystopia to life; when Arthur takes Joy, he swings his arms and says things like, ‘Snug as a bug on a drug.’ The incorporation of an Art Deco look and Uncle Jack as a media personality also adds artistic depth to the experience. What are your favorite unique additions to the game, and can you describe Compulsion’s process as it settles on the details of the world?

NH: The game is full of references and small details. In our game, society is in denial of its history, and one way they cope is to obsess over a fantastic idea of the future, much like real 1960s, but in our case it’s much more extreme. We try to illustrate this as much as possible by mixing old world elements with futuristic elements – such as Tudor architecture sitting next to brutalism, people in retro, mod fashion using old world shops, such as butchers and pubs, and sleek, 1960s interiors sitting inside historic buildings. We also have retrofuturistic technology that serves very little practical purpose, other than looking sleek and exciting. These elements all evolve from a mix of narrative direction, art direction, and game design needs. Another example would be how our composer creates the score, designing with instruments from the 60s, such as a Vox Continental or a Moog modular.

EM: A successful Kickstarter campaign provided capital for the game; describe that process. What did you learn by engaging in crowdfunding? How did that process inform you about the gamer community?

NH: More than capital, we wanted a passionate community for WHF that we could get good and honest feedback from. Open development was our goal, and we knew that with the help of the community, we would build a better game.

We learned that one post on the internet can change everything. Thanks to a post on imgur, we managed to meet our goal, cutting it very close to our deadline. The gaming community appreciates communication and transparency from developers, especially if they invested in the project. Taking the time to explain decisions, processes, and how things are built to them really helps build trust and clear up misconceptions. After all, we are all passionate about games, and talking to them as fellow fans and not as consumers can go a long way.

EM: A huge part of WHF is the survival/crafting element. As a downer, you have to survive, and finding materials to make things from becomes essential. How have you worked to differentiate the challenges and in-game inspiration for tools and weapons from the strategies employed by conventional AAA success stories?

NH: In some cases we create totally weird tools or weapons because they are appropriate for the world (which is itself weird and not always following the rules of reality). Other times, the design for a tool/weapon is a not-so-sly jab at action game conventions such as the “enhanced” crafting series of items: enhanced rock (it’s a rock improved by sharpening) or the enhanced brick (a brick improved with a bunch of pointy screws held in place by duct tape). Honestly, hitting someone with a brick would pretty much put them down, but with an enhanced brick, you get to add bleeding damage over time because, you know, pointy screws. So we enjoy adding some insult to the injury. We can do this because while the subject matter of the game is serious, the mechanics (and the world’s twisted rules) allow us more latitude for fun in core design.

EM: A number of status bars (Health, Joy, Hunger, Thirst, and Fatigue) mean players have to keep moving in order to provide for themselves. Sometimes, this means Arthur has to take a pill to get through a Joy detector, and sometimes it means he simply has to sleep. Do you see these kinds of mechanics as challenges to overcome or as constant needs that push the story along?

NH: They are constant needs. We have survival game DNA after all, even though we mutated into action/adventure. Starvation, blending in, and surviving by any means are mechanics that support the entire premise of the game.

That being said, we have also made it so that our survival mechanics are optional – if you would rather just play through the game without worrying about your survival needs, that’s just fine with us.

EM: WHF has an organic feel (wooden buildings, tweed jackets) and uses careful lighting effects and sound to both surprise and delight. Is this simply nostalgia and well-crafted assets? Describe Compulsion’s attention to the sensory level of the player experience.

NH: Our setting is 1960s, dystopian Britain, so we try to push these influences as much as possible  – which means lots of tweed! Our artistic vision mixes super iconic elements from both traditional England and retro-futuristic 1960s. Our Art Director grew up on British media, and our Narrative Director is a history buff, so we like to think that we’re pretty sensitive to details. Getting the right types of iconic details right, and emphasizing those details, is part of what makes a cohesive and rich direction that resonates with people. We try to push an organic feeling whenever we want to show historic, traditional England, and a more sleek and sharp feeling when we use 1960s, modern elements. Our lighting style is thanks to one of our environment artists who happens to also be an amazing lighting artist. He uses very punchy, expressive colors. We also try to make sure the lighting complements the compositions in the spaces and also directs the player to important narrative elements.

EM: I was a kid in the ’90s and remember staff at my high school handing out Ritalin to students at lunchtime; I should underscore that a lot of my classmates took Ritalin. While the medication element of WHF highlights larger flaws in Wellington Wells, to what degree do you feel the game lifts from and comments on similar challenges in modern living?

NH: A lot actually. Happy drugs are a big part of North American culture. Millions of people are on anti-depressants. People take Valium to calm down. Kids are fed Ritalin and Adderall so they’ll behave properly in school. Instead of people being restless, they have ADHD, and it’s treatable.

It’s not a game about anti-depressants being bad, obviously. We know a lot of people who’d be miserable without them. But a good horror story is grounded on real life. Our horror story is about people who force themselves to be happy when they’re really not.

EM: The game has already turned heads, drawing comparisons to BioShock. The world of WHF certainly feels unsustainable for its inhabitants, but it is at the same time beautiful. Do you feel the game’s solid implementation is what grabs players, or does concept rule the day? As you look ahead as developers, where do you see this ship sailing?

NH: We are aware that the concept and the aesthetic of the game is what draws people to us. A lot of people were disappointed once they found out WHF was a survival game, thinking there would be no story. The beauty of game making comes from the fact that we can create new games, new stories, but also new ways to tell those stories. With WHF, we wanted to explore environmental storytelling. Instead of having a linear story, the player discovers the world at his pace and gets to put the story together himself. You may put something together in your mind that turns out to be false when you trip over another clue. That creates an immersive feeling: life doesn’t give you all the clues in order.

In case you missed it, here’s the the announcement trailer:

Author: Erik Meyer

Erik edits content, writes articles, conducts interviews, and draws silly things for The NerdQ. He also produces Planning Session, a comic showcasing dev discussions.

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