Weekly Journal – Joy Retrospective

Hi everyone,  

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:

Weekly Journal -  Joy Retrospective

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!

Weekly Journal -  Joy Retrospective

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.

Weekly Journal -  Joy Retrospective

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?)