Interview With Alex Epstein, Narrative Director at Compulsion Games.

"I think the best speculative fiction takes something that’s true about our own society, and amplifies it, and then lets you visit for a while. Hopefully when you come home, you see your own world from a new perspective." -Alex Epstein

Indie developer Compulsion Games has been making noise in recent months with their unique dystopian tale We Happy Few set to be released in the coming months.

Using the procedurally generated town of Wellington Wells (the team’s love letter to the psychedelic overtones of 1960’s England) as the backdrop, the title attempts to ask poignant questions about the reliability of one’s own memory, the nature of reality, and the validity of happiness. You play as Arthur Hastings, a redactor (a worker tasked with removing the unsavory bits of information from media) who has been recently outed as a downer, a citizen that has decided to go off of the game’s psychotropic stupefacient, Joy. We join Arthur on a journey to uncover his past and make sense of the new world around him.

The game has recently been released in Pre-Alpha form to give consumers the opportunity to get a taste of what the team over at Compulsion has in store for us.

I got the opportunity to speak with the Narrative Director Alex Epstein to learn more about the themes and influences we can expect to see in the new title.

Prox: Was there a symbolic reason that the team chose an alternate version of 1960’s England as the backdrop for the game? What were some of the creative and artistic benefits of this decision?

Alex: I think Whitney decided that 1960s England was groovy, and we should do our next game there. It’s probably not an accident that it was also time when hallucinatory movies like BLOW-UP were beginning to question the smug self-satisfaction of the 50s.

Prox: What are some themes that we can expect the story to discuss?

Alex: Memory and denial. Arthur’s story begins with a decision to stop forgetting. But remembering is not as simple as that. We remember things the way we want to remember them, not the way a camera might have recorded them. There will be revelations along the way and, I hope, a striking revelation in the finale. The other player characters also have stories about things in their past that they don’t remember, or don’t remember truthfully. I hope that’s vague enough!

Another question we toy with is: is it better to be happy, or honest? If your happiness is based on a drug, is it real? We like to think we have free will, but our actions are determined by our body chemistry. If you can be happy popping a pill, why not? At first glance the game is about a dystopia where choosing happiness is destroying their society. But the game still asks what happiness really is? Would you take the red pill, or the blue pill?

Prox: Is there a particular drug or substance that Joy was based on?

Alex: It’s a cross between Valium and roofies. It makes you content, and makes the unpleasant past comfortably vague. It doesn’t erase memories; it just makes it possible to suppress them if you want to. That’s why Wellies are so anxious about Downers. The past is still there, and can be summoned up by an awkward question. Best not to talk about these things, it just upsets everyone.

Prox: The game appears to be very much story driven based on the previews and snippets we’ve seen so far. With such an emphasis on story, why did the team decide to make the game open world as opposed to being linear? What does the open world aesthetic add to the experience and story?

Alex: We’re a small studio — there’s just about twenty of us. We can’t make a handcrafted landscape the size of a AAA game’s environment. So we decided to allow the landscape to emerge through procedural generation. 

But it also fits in with our theme. Wellington Wells is never quite the way you remembered it. Is it really different from the last time you played? Or are you just remembering it wrong? 

Prox: While Guillaume has cited Brazil as an influence on the game, was the team also inspired by other science-fiction dystopias like Huxley’s Brave New World or George Orwell’s 1984? What are some other works that impacted the direction of the game?

Alex: Michelangelo’s film Blow-Up is a big one for me. Visually, Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange and Truffaut’s film of Fahrenheit 451. 

Thematically, my biggest inspiration is probably Facebook. Facebook is a text that presents your friends’ lives in the best possible light. Most people rarely have a really bad day on Facebook; you’re really not supposed to put your doubts on display, just your victories and your wit. You can mourn, but only so your friends can feel good consoling you.

Brave New World isn’t really an influence. It’s more a quick way of referencing a society in which everyone takes a drug. 1984 is really not a touchstone. Our society is not ruled by an omnipresent state. It’s your neighbors who correct your misbehaviour. It’s a conformity society.

In terms of my general approach to writing, I’m always inspired by Neil Gaiman: the way he weaves fairy tales and legends and myths into a contemporary reality. Obviously The Pied Piper of Hamelin is part of our game. So is “Peace in our time,” and “Now is the time to dare and endure,” and the Pirates of Penzance, and the King Arthur legend (which my novel was about), and Cabaret, and American politics from Watergate to now, and everything else I’ve read or absorbed over the past few decades. The nice thing about being the sole writer is you can pack all sorts of goodies into the words for the audience to dig out, and no one here asks me why the Bobbies all have such distinctive last names.

Prox: Ultimately, what is the team trying to say about the hedonistic and happiness obsessed society we live in today?

Alex: I like to say that the moral of the game is, “Don’t do drugs, unless you want people to like you.”

Seriously, though, I don’t think we’re trying to say anything. I think we’re trying to ask. This isn’t a propaganda piece. It’s an investigation.

I think the best speculative fiction takes something that’s true about our own society, and amplifies it, and then lets you visit for a while. Hopefully when you come home, you see your own world from a new perspective.

Prox: Who are some of the team’s favorite contemporary artists?

Alex: Neil Gaiman (Sandman, Neverwhere, American Gods). Neal Stephenson (Snow Crash). David Simon (Treme). Randall Munroe. Kate Beaton. James Carville. 

Prox: Tips for aspiring indie developers?

Alex: Oh, Lordy. 

I guess the bit of advice that you haven’t already heard from everyone else is: “Don’t just accept criticism. Seek it. Embrace it."

Prox: Information on upcoming releases and projects?

Alex: We’re gonna be on this one for a while, Lord willin’ and the creek don’t rise. 

But I’ve always wanted to do something about space whales.

Prox: Final Thoughts? 

Alex: I’d like to say thank you on behalf of the group and ourselves, and I hope we passed the audition.

You can learn more about Alex, We Happy Few, and Compulsion Games, here.

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