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Narrative and mechanical design in video games don’t always happily co-exist.
In fact, games where the two synergize harmoniously together and produce a unified whole tend to be more the exception than the rule, particularly in the triple-A space.
But examples where they do intertwine tend to stand out: the Bioshocks, or Edith Finches, where the environment tells a story as well as the characters and plot, and where mechanics aren’t just to give the player something to do, but a narrative tool that contributes to constructing a living world.
For Alex Epstein, the narrative director of Compulsion Games' dystopian action-adventure/survival hybrid We Happy Few, crafting the story was one of the central pillars around which the rest of the game was spun together.
“We started development of the story early, I would say two months into a 4.5 year development,” Epstein says. “Everything iterated back and forth among the departments.”
Instead of structuring a plot and putting together a world around it, the team at Compulsion began with some broad concepts.
“We started with a few mandates: an isolated town that takes drugs and wears masks; Britain in the early '60s; no kids. From there, we retro-engineered the story. Why are they taking drugs and wearing masks? Probably to deal with a trauma. What sort of trauma? Why not something to do with the kids? If it’s Britain 1964, it probably is a trauma associated with World War II.”
Each piece led to others. After roughing out some ideas about the setting and the time period, more details started to fit naturally into place. “Given the drugs, it made sense that the characters all have individual traumas in their past, in addition to the overall ‘original sin’ of the town.”
"We did redo some of the cinematics. There was a bit of carnage - maybe 15 percent."
Of course, the scope of the story continued to grow and evolve, multiplying in size alongside the game world. Initially debuting on Steam's Early Access service in 2016 as a survival-focused roguelite, We Happy Few launched in August of this year as a much longer and more narrative-dense game.
“The story really fleshed out over the course of development,” Epstein remembers. “We planned a replayable game with a 3-4 hour playthrough, with primarily systemic encounters. There are plenty of people who replay it, but it is now structured as a 20-30 hour playthrough, with many handcrafted encounters. At a certain point the studio head came to me and said, ‘People really like these goofy characters, can we write more of them?’ So I did.”
It wasn’t all painless and productive, of course. Cuts had to be made in some areas and content added in others to ensure consistency throughout the narrative, but the dev team had to work with limited resources.
“We did redo some of the cinematics. There was a bit of carnage - maybe 15 percent," says Epstein. "We made some of the major NPCs scarier, for example, because they weren’t making enough of an impact. We also had to come up with just more story. We didn’t have the bandwidth for new cinematics, but we only had the cinematics for our 4-hour playthrough. So we created about 40 audio flashbacks that tell you more about the inner life and the past experiences of the player characters.”
Luckily, some of the obstacles that every procedurally generated survival game faces were fairly trivial for the We Happy Few team. Epstein says that feedback from players during the Early Access phase led to them paring back survival game systems like the hunger mechanic, so that a growling stomach was no longer a death sentence.
“It’s just a debuff [now]," says Epstein. "So that doesn’t really affect our narrative at all.” And they also avoided issues with procedural environments by implementing a linear story that unfolded in discrete chunks.
"We put a great deal of environmental narrative in the game […] So how you play the game, do you ransack every house and read every note, and how the map is laid out all affect how you absorb the story of the world. "
“At a certain point, you know you need to get to the Train Station for the next bit of story. The Train Station moves around, but it’s always the next bit of story at that point," he continues. "That said, the way the player experiences the story changes with the landscape. We put a great deal of environmental narrative in the game. You find bits here and there, and you have to put it all together in your head. So how you play the game (do you ransack every house and read every note) and how the map is laid out, all affect how you absorb the story of the world.”
By incorporating little narratives into the environments and building out the skeleton cast into a motley crew of quirky characters, Epstein believes We Happy Few creates the illusion of a coherent whole than a random collection of independent parts. The pressure to build and expand its narrative also helped the dev team hone in on a few of the game's key themes.
“It gave us an opportunity to flesh out the world story, and the relationships between the characters in the world. The world became one where people know each other, and know the player character, and have feelings about them," concludes Epstein. "We kept discovering ways we could amplify the theme of memory and denial, which is what the game is about. We realized that we could take this fact and that fact and make a greater whole by weaving them together. So it was a process of deepening and enriching the story -- revealing more about it -- rather than changing it.”