Happy Game is not a happy game
The concept of taking something that is meant to be cute and heartwarming and twisting it into something disturbing and downright messed up is not exactly new; we’ve seen it dozens of times with properties like Alice in Wonderland for example. Likewise, Amanita Design is not a new player in the adventure game scene, with a pedigree of releasing games like the Samorost trilogy, Machinarium, and Botanicula. Their bread and butter is surreal, hand drawn imagery, but as far as I know they have never gone in the direction of taking their content into the realm of horror. That is until Happy Game, Amanita’s most recent release. A game who’s opening warning screen makes sure to immediately tell you that, despite what the title says, it is not in any way a happy game.
In Happy Game you play as a child who has been trapped in a nightmare by a terrifying ghost-like creature that manifests as a giant smiley face. In each of the game’s three acts you must help the child get back one of the things in their life that make them happy: a ball, a stuffed rabbit, and a puppy. This is no easy task, as the horrible monsters manifested by the smiley face would love nothing more than to lead the child into a gruesome death, whether that means devouring them, ripping them apart, or any number of horrifying fates. Gameplay is very simple: the left stick moves the cursor, the right stick moves the child, pressing A allows you to grab and interact with an object with the cursor. This is unfortunately where Switch becomes the not-ideal platform for Happy Game, as controlling the cursor with the stick is sensitive and clumsy. The cursor does snap to interactable objects when it comes near, but this gets iffy when you’re hovering around more than one interactable object at once. At the end of the day this game was very clearly designed with a mouse in mind, and the move to an analog stick just doesn’t work as well.
As said before, gameplay in Happy Game is very simple even down to the puzzles. Veterans of the adventure game genre or even players of previous Amanita titles may expect an exploration aspect where you are collecting items in order to use them elsewhere to solve those puzzles. You will not find either of those in Happy Game. It’s more akin to a series of vignettes in which the player must solve a self-contained puzzle that can range from feeding rabbits carrots so that they get fat and distract a much larger cannibalistic rabbit to something as simple as figuring out a way to interact with a certain object until something happens. Much like the gameplay these puzzles are very straightforward, sometimes to its detriment. A few too many of them are quite literally just performing the same action or series of actions over and over again until the game finally moves forward with the scene, and somebody looking for more complicated problem-solving than that likely won’t find what they’re looking for here.
Where Happy Game shines is its beautiful hand drawn artwork and environments, a signature feature of any Amanita game. The creatures that torture the child throughout their dream are genuinely creepy and a lot of them are really unique. While the idea of cute things being twisted into terrifying things isn’t new, the more surreal take on the concept makes one heck of an impact. It should be noted that the imagery in this game can get incredibly grotesque and disturbing, and if you don’t do well with that type of content I would suggest you give Happy Game a hard pass. If you don’t mind that type of content you will find it in spades in Happy Game, as the entire game is drawn and animated with a style that might approach the work of horror artists like Junji Ito.
Overall Happy Game is a bit of a complicated game to recommend, especially on Switch with its unruly controls, but one that ultimately comes off as a positive experience. Well… as positive as a game about waking nightmares can be, at least. Even with the sometimes overly simplified minute to minute gameplay, the art direction and sound design are masterful to a point that pulls this game up to a higher level than it would likely be if it had been in the hands of a less noteworthy developer. Those looking for a short, simple game that will work hard to creep you out and disturb you over the course of about two hours will likely come out of Happy Game happy, but those hoping for something more in line with a game like Machinarium have a chance of walking away at least slightly disappointed.