‘We Happy Few’s Feminist Phenomenology

We Happy Few on Steam

CW: spoilers and discussions of trauma and abuse

We Happy Few was released in 2016 by Compulsion Games, a small video-game studio whose work was, at the time, predominantly financed by Kickstarter funding. In the game, the player takes the role of three different characters: Arthur Hastings, Sally Boyle, and Ollie Starkey. Each character has their own background and motivation for trying to escape the dystopian world of Wellington Wells, itself strongly inspired by Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Arthur suffers constantly from the trauma of his older, autistic brother Percy being taken from him by German soldiers as a part of an armistice deal after the Nazis won WW2, and attempts to escape Wellington Wells in order to go to the continent and find his brother, if he isn’t already dead. Sally is a single mother who, in the knowledge that no children have been born since the city mandated prescriptions of a drug called ‘joy’, which induces both extreme memory loss and euphoria, knows that she can only raise her child in the wilderness of this world. Ollie is a diabetic military veteran who is haunted by visions of his daughter whom he relinquished to the Germans, and is determined to bring to the people of Wellingron Wells the truth about the German victory: that the UK conceded defeat because its military leaders didn’t realise that the German tanks were made out of papier mache.

Each campaign forces the player to take the minoritarian perspective of the victims of an unjust world, whether it is the perspective of a depressive, a woman, or an elderly diabetic. That the game takes place entirely in first-person perspective supplements this well: the character becomes the surrogate identity for the player, whose gaze afterwards cannot but be that of the character. We Happy Few therefore institutes a technics of the gaze, a phenomenological technics. It blends together, on the one hand the synthesis of character and player, and on the other game design, to overcome the toxic generalities of the western, white-male spectator. In the case of the game’s second storyline, that of Sally Boyle, this is the most starkly pronounced, in ways which I hope to explore here. But before that, an understanding of the ‘gaze’ as a concept must be established. In short, the gaze describes how saliency is defined in a visual or narrative field: it determines what rises out of the milieu of sensations, and what is suppressed. This concept is most often deployed with the specifier of the ‘male’ gaze, whose use as an analytic device is to point out how the media we are presented embodies and reinforces a typically male perspective on the world.

That the inclusion of Sally’s story can be called ‘feminist’ is itself an embarrasment, and this is partly an embarrasment on my part for appelating it thus. In truth, Sally’s story does little other than honestly detail what life is like for most women in the world today. Perhaps in our political conjuncture to speak honestly of women’s hardships ought still to be called feminism, but this as a qualifier draws the mere stating of fact into the world of ideology usually picked out by the ‘-ism’ suffix. On all this I can’t help but be totally upfront: I am a white male, and what strikes me about Sally’s story is likely only a surprise to someone like myself, for whom the struggles of a woman’s life are unfamiliar. Neither is it the case that I haven’t been recounted to, by woman friends, experiences similar to those to which Sally is subjected. However, the very effect of the videogame’s technics of the gaze is to eliminate the distance between speaker and listener. It poses the opportunity, not to hear the story of a victim of misogyny, but to play it, which is altogether to experience it (significantly in a very different modality than do most women: playing a video game, there is no real risk of harm to the player, and they can just as easily choose to ignore the story being told as they can pay attention to it).

Let me present a mechanic which the game uses to supplant the gaze of the player with that of the character, in its own way creating a female gaze. In each story, scattered throughout the city of Wellington Wells are floating, golden masks with which the player can interact to cause their character to remember something about their past. These objects are so visually tantalizing (they bob in the air and exude a royal sheen) that the player won’t think twice about interacting with them. However, the player also cannot know what the content of the reminiscence will be. It is the player’s decision in the end whether to queue one of these memories, but what is remembered cannot be decided in advance: this has the effect of forcing the player to experience the world through the gaze of the character. Sally’s reminiscences are mostly about her childhood. In one instance, her mother insists that she needs to get along better with her female classmates because the boys, with whom she shares more interests, will betray her and are only interested in her for sex (“they’re not your real friends”). In another, her mother forces her to wear ugly dresses because Sally dressing as she wants to (as a mod) is seemingly too provocative, and is at risk of giving men ‘the wrong idea’. These are not experiences I underwent growing up, but the normalcy of them as they occur in the lives of women should give us pause, especially with regard to how different a world it is for women than it is for men.

The ‘feminism’ of Sally’s storyline extends beyond the actual telling of her story as well: it is reflected in the change of gameplay mechanics between hers and the first story, that of Arthur. In the first story, if you manage to acquire a boiler suit, you are able to freely disable traps without provoking aggression from civilians or police, in the understanding that you are probably an engineer just doing your job. However, in the second story there is no option of acquiring a boiler suit, presumably for the very simple reason that, for the people of Wellington Wells, a woman could never be an engineer, and thus the subterfuge could never be credible enough to work. The number of missions you are able to sequentially complete in Sally’s story is also restricted by the fact that you need to constantly return to your house to nurture your baby. The second story is significantly more difficult than the first, but none of this difficulty feels artificial: the game is diegetically difficulty-scaled. Gameplay as a single-mother in a misogynistic world is more difficult because life as such a person in such a world is more difficult.

We Happy Few represents the most successful attempt at feminist storytelling for men that I have encountered in any media, whether it be book, television, movie or videogame. However, that is itself the crucial caveat: for men. At the end of each story, the camera swings back, and the player is divorced from their character, whom they now for the first time experience from the second person. On the one hand, this is a canonical recognition of the simple reality of media like this: at the end of the day, the player is not the character – we can turn off our computers or consoles and return to our comfortable, everyday world. Our privilege is challenged, but also knowingly restored. On the other hand, this separation of perspectives in the final moment of each story tacitly recognises the transience of the videogame’s technics of the gaze. The parallax that arises, splitting the gaze from the perceiver, as whom one has been playing, is a function of the very fact that feminist stories must be works of alienation in a misogynistic world of male spectators. The perspective is not released from the character, it is restored to the structural position which it has occupied all along: that of the male viewer who has been watching their screen – interacting with it, yes, through their keyboard and mouse, but of whom there is an a priori distance which no technics of the gaze can overcome, between the male gamer and the female protagonist.

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