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E3 2018: Fighting Conformity in the Demented World of We Happy Few

3 min read

One of the newest members of the Microsoft development family, Compulsion Games has been working on the dystopian action adventure We Happy Few for quite some time. What began as a procedural roguelike has morphed into a much more narrative-driven experience, and considering its fascinating backdrop, hilarious dialogue, and menacing enemies, that was a wise decision.

Having recently played a 45-minute demo of the reworked game, we came away excited at its potential, enamored with its writing, and slightly creeped out by its unsettling characters.

Set in an alternate version of 1960s England, We Happy Few tells the intertwining tale of three rebellious citizens trying to escape from the city of Wellington Wells. A drug called Joy has been forced upon the populace, turning otherwise pleasant peasants into stressed-out sheep cowering under an authoritarian regime.

We Happy Few Screenshot

We played as former journalist Arthur Hastings, who awakens from a Joy hangover to find himself lost in Wellington’s maintenance tunnels. After making our way out, we emerged in the colorful and seemingly tranquil district of Barrow Holm. Dotted with abandoned homes, Barrow Holm is a fully explorable, open-world area, underscored by a sense of desolation and sorrow.

We retrieved a map at the top of a lookout tower, directing us to a buried treasure a few yards away. We picked flowers that we could eventually craft into helpful items and wandered through the remnants of the district’s former inhabitants. A nightmarish stuffed animal tea party sits in the middle of a field. Children’s toys are strewn about, dirtied and torn. Despite the cheery colors, something very, very bad happened here. Picking up tidbits of narrative, we eventually bumped into a resident who offered us a way out of Barrow Holm in exchange for a few items required to operate a gate.

The demo shifted gears here, as we were asked to infiltrate the well-guarded camp of a local gang. We Happy Few doesn’t shy away from action; after sneaking into camp, we were caught red-handed and thrust into a ridiculous, makeshift fighting pit where we learned the ins and outs of We Happy Few’s melee combat. Grabbing a large stick, we went mano a mano against a frightened fellow named Danny Dafoe. Danny turned out to be a former co-worker still angry at us for making fun of his lousy writing; given the choice between a non-lethal club or a decidedly deadly pointy stick, we went with the club. Danny might have been a jerk at work, but he didn’t deserve to die.

E3 2018: Fighting Conformity in the Demented World of We Happy Few

Or perhaps he did? It’s up to the player to make these sorts of decisions in We Happy Few, each having ramifications the further you press on. We weren’t as kind to the remaining guards, using a combination of stealth and straight-up roughhousing to take out the baddies, steal the requested items, and hightail it back to the gate.

Our next stop was a dilapidated village overrun with aggressive locals (colloquially called “wastrels”) strung out on Joy. Starved and wearing tattered clothing, the wastrels didn’t take kindly to our fancy duds. Only after finding a few key ingredients could we properly dirty up our suit and conform, though not before accidentally (and optionally) throwing down with a few wastrels guarding a treasure chest.

Ultimately, we opened the gate and made our way to the train station, though getting there required a combination of smart stealthing and plenty of fleeing. Taking on multiple enemies at once isn’t a great idea in We Happy Few, especially when they have billy clubs and you have an (admittedly sharp) umbrella. But fight we did, until we entered the train station.

We Happy Few Screenshot

As we tussled with more guards, we endured several flashbacks about our lost brother Percy, regretting our decision to leave him in the clutches of the authorities to save our own skin. We also meet the gruff, potty-mouthed Ollie, who has taken up residence in the train station and is defending his position from wastrels. When we finally reach him, it’s revealed that Ollie is an old neighbor who may be our only way out of this deranged town.

We still have a million questions about We Happy Few. What was life like before the occupation? What made neighbor turn on neighbor? How in the world did the world get like this? The demo hints at life before wartime, but with two more playable characters and over 20 hours of story in front of us, there’s a lot more discover when this strange, well-written game finally arrives on Xbox One August 18.

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How American Vandal expertly crafted a doc (that just happened to be fiction)

5 min read

The American Vandal creative team chats with Ars at ATX TV Festival 2018.

AUSTIN, Texas—Among the reasons Netflix’s American Vandal worked: dedication, not just to the bit but to the DNA. The creative team had an obsession with true crime documentaries, obviously. But they didn’t set out to make an homage, showrunner Dan Lagana and co-creators Dan Perrault and Tony Yacenda told Ars at this summer’s ATX TV Festival. Instead, they wanted to approach their fictional, scripted high school drama the exact same way Sarah Koenig (Serial) or Andrew Jarecki (The Jinx) would—like they were creating the most important documentary in the world.

“We didn’t want to do a parody. We love that stuff,” Yacenda later told the crowd during the show’s panel. “Sarah Koenig is a genius, what she did bringing us in as an unreliable narrator told a story in a way journalists wouldn’t before. We thought maybe we can do this for fictional narrative… if we use the tools our favorite documentarians use to get the audience to care, could we get people to care about dicks?”

The answer in retrospect is clearer than whether or not Adnan did it. American Vandal may look like a joke-y investigation of some juvenile high school prank at first glance, but over the course of its eight-episode first season, the show revealed layer upon layer of sharp social commentary. It dealt with the justice system, social media’s impact on our perceptions of others, and the complications of attention and crowdsourcing in reporting just as much as the show depicted the unbelievable hubris of a teen male. The surprise hit landed on “best of TV” lists everywhere at the end of 2017 (Ars included), and the team even snagged a prestigious Peabody Award this spring.

And while the story itself deserves much of the credit, talking with Yacenda, Perrault, and Lagana reveals that their approach to the show’s tech and production may have been just as clever.

Documentary DNA

The first rule of documentary filmmaking may be to simply always have the camera running. You need stuff—action footage of your subject, spontaneous happenings buried in b-roll, and lots and lots of interviews. The Vandal team knew this well; Perrault and Yacenda previously made many documentary shorts, including a series of faux-30 for 30s on things like Space Jam and Rocky IV.

Given that Vandal set out to be a series from the start, the amount of content recorded this time around sounds staggering. Perrault took upwards of 9,000 images in a day or two in case the team needed an impromptu iPhone still later on (and the Vandal team definitely used iPhones; production enlisted roughly 30 of them). Yacenda would have actors improv before ever shooting a scripted take in order to have more “real” footage in the can; he shot individual unscripted doc-style interviews with actors in character, too. The team even recorded extra voice-over tracks after filming everything else to increase the flexibility for everyone in the editing suites.

Yaceda, Perrault, and Lagana also made the decision to let Tyler Alvarez (the actor starring as A/V club whiz Peter Maldonado) conduct his own reporting and documenting throughout production. The team says the young actor got good at it quickly, writing out questions to grill his peers and pursuing his own theories with the tenacity of a young journalist trying to prove himself. They needed to tell him to dumb down the inquiries at times so as to not ruin the story. “He could absolutely run a three-hour interview with Alex Trimboli,” Perrault says.

The Vandal team’s documentary ethos naturally extends off-script, too. They hired a director of photography who previously worked on Netflix’s Amanda Knox documentary and Chef’s Table. They snagged editors who previously cut for Michael Moore. Production values soared so sky high at some points that they even had to be reined in occasionally. (The show does, after all, focus on a documentary made by high schoolers.)

“It was a producer’s dream,” executive producer Joe Farrell said during the show’s ATX TV Festival panel. “Someone would come say, ‘Hey, we probably didn’t get that shot.’ Well, they’re 17, they probably wouldn’t have gotten it anyway.”

Nana know-how

American Vandal‘s technical abilities didn’t only manifest off-camera, of course. One of the show’s most charming elements was its ability to take the familiar crime documentary tropes—courtroom footage, digital scene recreations, direct evidence visuals, etc.—and translate them into high school use. The team spent loads of time hanging with, observing, and interviewing genuine high schoolers to get this just right… and they built one of the best and most insightful high school life depictions (as told through a crime documentary lens).

“We watch a lot of true crime, so we’d take all the elements from paper trails to signed confessions and ask, what’s the high school version of this?” Perrault tells Ars. “The obvious answer to that is kids’ social media. Instead of court docs or confessions from the Averys, it’s Facebook comments as to whether you drank 11 beers or not.”

The ubiquity of phones being used in production helped to this end, but the Vandal team would run into instances when major social media platforms wouldn’t agree to having their likeness appear (because maybe Instagram, for instance, wouldn’t want to be viewed as the platform of high school keggers). So the team thought through informal rules for social media shooting—what prompted a character to pull out their phone? Why would they save something to a camera roll versus sharing on snapchat?—and then relied on their VFX guru, Peter Poot, to take those raw images and make them indistinguishable from the social media we all consume daily.

“[Fake social] would shatter the whole illusion. If legal says we can’t use that, well we’ll blur it,” Yacenda recalls. “We can’t make something that doesn’t exist. Our audience is so media literate that even if the font is slightly off, it could take you out. ‘No, that’s not what Snapchat looks like.’”

Combining all these production threads likely brought about the technical culmination of Vandal’s first season: episode 5, which is called “Premature Theories” but better known for a sequence called Nana’s party. Inspired by someone in the writer’s room who actually threw a party at their Nana’s place in Framingham, Massachusetts, back in 1999, Perrault says, the sequence blended the team’s genuine documentary-making blueprint, deep knowledge of teens and their social media habits, and savvy (and adept) filmmaking techniques. For viewers, it’s a (deeply, deeply funny) flurry of post-event interviews, social media glimpses from all angles, and digital scene recreations you won’t forget any time soon.

“Nana’s party took so much time,” Yacenda recalls. “Post took so long, graphics took so long. Our sound team did a great job—we had to come in and couldn’t just get standard party walla. We needed people talking at various points of the party so viewers can hear it just enough. So getting all those layers perfectly, that was one of the more labor-intensive sequences from a technical perspective.”

Evidently, there are many, many more of these hyper-detailed flourishes awaiting anyone ready to dive into season one, whether it’s for the first time or for a rewatch while anxiously waiting on season two (which has been confirmed, but details remain unannounced). “All the [social media script] is incredibly intricate,” Lagana said during the panel, responding to a question about whether some of the clever, complex in-jokes occurred by happenstance. Perrault quickly confirmed this, chuckling to himself as he encouraged those in the room to pay close attention.

“It’s one of the funner details to play with,” he interrupted. “Actually, if you pause things, you’ll even notice things laid into the background—like one of the characters might call Wingstop three times a day.”

Listing image by Tyler Golden / Netflix

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Gaming ‘Perceptions Of The Dead 2’ Tells Sometimes Cute, Sometimes Spooky Ghost Stories

0 min read


After a live stream from a haunted hospital, Jill has found herself not just investigating hauntings, but dealing with the fact that ghosts are real. Some of them could even use her help, too, but when she tries to do something for a ghost who’s been following her, she starts to see some of the more unsettling sides of ghosts in visual novel Perceptions of the Dead 2.

Perceptions of the Dead 2 will have you working to find Jill’s missing friend, Tyrone, while also doing what they can to help out a spirit in need. Doing this will require a little help from Jill’s friends to get the job done, and you can get to know these charming, quirky people while you’re all working together. Just be careful of the decisions you make involving these people, as you can accidentally change the course of the story in some dangerous ways with some seemingly innocuous choices.

Perceptions of the Dead 2 is gorgeous to behold with some truly wonderful characters and connections between them, offering a narrative treat for those who like stories of friendship and scary things like living in the world of the dead. But with great pals, including some less-than-living ones, is it really all that scary any more?

Perceptions of the Dead 2 is available for $7.99 on and Steam. For more information on the game and developer Ithaqua Labs, you can head to the developer’s site or follow them on YouTube and Twitter.

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Cell-sized ‘microlasers’ could regulate brain activity

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Even in their rough state, the bead lasers can work for at least five hours of continuous use, even if you immerse them in blood or other less-than-pristine environments. They don’t wear out quickly, either. The team found that beads pulled “off the shelf” months or years later still function as lasers. And if you need to redirect the lasers, you can use the same infrared light you’d use to excite them.

Refinement is necessary before this is useful. Researchers are still looking at how they can tweak the nanoparticle elements and the makeup of the beads themselves to both optimize performance and determine the laser light they get. The implications could be far-reaching, though. Berkeley noted that you could use this to control neuron activity, which might help with brain diseases. It might also be helpful for sensors that detect chemical and environmental changes, or a new wave of optical chips. Any of these developments are likely years away, but there’s a lot of potential in these minuscule pieces of plastic.

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