Following the unanimous overturning of the Classification Board's original RC rating for We Happy Few, Compulsion Games has expressed sympathy for the statutory body. The studio — and Aussie gamers — is glad that the RC rating was overturned, but one We Happy Few producer isn't sure the Board could have ruled any other way.
In an email with Kotaku Australia, Compulsion Games chief operating officer and producer Sam Abbott said he wasn't sure that the Classification Board had any room to move, given the constraints of the rating guidelines.
"I think originally the board made the best decision they could given (a) the guidelines they work within, and (b) the information we provided them," Abbott said. "I'm not sure I'd make a different original decision given those constraints."
Abbott went on to explain that Compulsion Games could have outlined more information about Joy — the drug that is a centrepiece of the dystopian society in which We Happy Few is set — including the positive and negative aspects of its consumption.
"If I was going to provide suggestions to other developers who are concerned about running into these issues, it would be to make sure that any drug related stuff is couched in the appropriate context inside your game, and making that context very clear in your submission materials."
The producer noted that the Classification Board guidelines are reviewed every couple of years, and he expressed sympathy for the complexity of the framework that the Board operates under. "Ratings decisions are a complicated subject, because I think we can all agree that some things should be banned, but beyond the obvious 'Illegal' baseline, few people can agree on what those things should be."
The Classification Board noted in their media release that they sought guidance from Gearbox Publishing regarding the use of drugs in-game, and that the clause surrounding incentivised drug use — as it stands in the current guidelines — includes the following: new skills or attribute increases, extra points, unlocking achievements, plot animations, scenes and rewards, rare or exclusive loot, or "making tasks easier to accomplish", the latter of which We Happy Few fell foul of in the original rating.
A player that takes Joy can reduce gameplay difficulty, therefore receiving an incentive by progressing though the game quickly. Although there are alternative methods to complete the game, gameplay requires the player to take Joy to progress.
In another sequence, the player is seen in first-person view, entering a telephone box that contains three large pill dispensers, each holding a different flavoured Joy pill. The player consumes a Joy pill and a swarm of brightly-coloured butterflies appear as well as rainbows and coloured pathways on the ground, improving speed and visibility for the player.
In the Board’s opinion, the game’s drug-use mechanic making game progression less difficult constitutes an incentive or reward for drug-use and therefore, the game exceeds the R 18+ classification that states, 'drug use related to incentives and rewards is not permitted'. Therefore, the game warrants being Refused Classification.
- Classification Board decision on We Happy Few, 21 May 2018
Abbott went on to stress that while addiction to legal medicinal drugs is a genuine problem, being able to talk about it openly is a crucial element in combating that problem too. "Drugs aren't just lsd and cocaine, they're also antibiotics, ibuprofen and your dad's blood pressure medication," he said.
"Preventing the discussion of drugs generally for having 'positive gameplay effects' deprives people of debate (eg. how do you deal with topics of addiction if you can't talk about how drugs make you feel). It's also a bit unfair to video games, as other mediums are free to discuss these subjects. But, maybe some people won't agree with that."
I asked if it was possible for Compulsion Games' submission to be publicised, but it was explained that the developer provided substantial plot and lore spoilers in their appeal to the Board and weren't ready for that information to be public as of yet. Abbott revealed, however, that their appeal was about 20 pages and had a video approximately 30 minutes long.
"Other than the issues about content, reviewing the cost of the appeal process might be worth it, because indie teams will simply not be able to afford the $10,000 entry fee, nor the resources to find legal support to write a formal response. Without Gearbox on our side, we may not have been able to do it."
Abbott also wanted to thank everyone who made a submission, as well as the Australian gaming public. "That's cool of you guys, and we're very glad to have been successful."
I've contacted the Classification Board for more information about the We Happy Few review process, including the amount of submissions made, whether the Board will publicise those of their own accord, and when the review panel's report will be released.