It’s been a few years since We Happy Few was banned and subsequently re-rated R18. But someone very recently was apparently really interested in the reasons why, and they went as far as to submit a formal freedom of information request to the Government.
The Freedom of Information Act (FOI Act) is basically legislation that allows individuals, journalists and others the right to request information held by the Federal Government and any of its departments. There are exemptions for certain documents, and departments can always redact, or refuse to release, information for a variety of reasons.
But generally, the FOI Act lets regular Australians get access to a range of documents, emails, reports and data revealing more about the business of government, and how and why certain decisions are made.
And one of the things captured under the FOI Act is the right to see why certain video games are banned. I’ve reported before on people who have asked the Classification Board (via their parent department, the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications) for old decision reports into video games, like that time someone wanted details on Warface seven years after its release.
Here’s what a FOI’d document from the Classification Board looks like. The image above is from the application for Warface in 2012, which was eventually released in 2013. You can see at the top of the document how an FOI number has been attached, with an added detail noting which document it is.
Thanks to government legislation, departments have to publish a list of all documents disclosed under FOI requests. So you can imagine my interest was piqued today when I saw an old listing noting that someone had FOI’d “Documents relating to video game ‘We Happy Few‘” in late March:
Why the hell does someone want info on We Happy Few now, I thought? It’s even stranger given the FOI documents only cover the first ban and not the subsequent report from the Review Board, which ultimately reclassified the game R18+. Even developers Compulsion Games, who were initially caught off guard by the RC rating, said the Australian guidelines left the Classification Board with no choice at the time.
“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,” Sam Abbott, the producer on We Happy Few, told Kotaku Australia at the time.
What’s more interesting is that the document in question was the actual decision report into We Happy Few‘s first ban. This document was actually already made public through my reporting in 2018, although courtesy of the FOI process, that document now exists as a pink-coloured PDF that anyone can read and download.
Here’s a snippet of what I quoted from the report a few years ago:
In one sequence, an NPC is viewed on the ground, convulsing owing to a reaction from taking a Joy pill, which has subsequently turned bad. After several NPCs encourage her to take Joy and she refuses, fearing that it will have an adverse effect, they beat her with steel pots and a shovel, until she is implicitly killed.
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.
And here’s what the report looks like in full:
What’s interesting is that the FOI version of the document has an extra page which outlines the way the individual panellists or reviewers voted in this particular circumstance. In We Happy Few‘s case, the initial decision to ban the game was “unanimous”, and as per the normal process for anything banned in Australia, the then-director of the Classification Board signed off on it.
So that’s all well and good, but it begs the question: why does someone want this information about We Happy Few now?
One possibility, and one that we saw when Warface‘s old classification applications were dug up, is We Happy Few‘s developers or publishers. Looking at past decision reports and applications can be hugely useful for sequels or future releases. It might also not have anything to do with We Happy Few, but someone within the same publisher (like Gearbox) or another developer who remembers the ban and wants to avoid potential future landmines.
And it could also just be someone completely unrelated to all of that. There’s no public log of who submitted the request. But it’s on the record that someone is sniffing around old info for We Happy Few, which is interesting, if nothing else.