Paranoia: Happiness is Mandatory is a video game by the indie developers Black Shamrock (Dublin, Ireland) and Cyanide (Paris, France), based on the classic and interesting tabletop role-playing game (RPG) created by Greg Costikyan, Dan Gelber, and Eric Goldberg. Goldberg and Costikyan also helped design and develop the video game. Originally published (appropriately) in 1984, Paranoia is a dystopian science-fiction game set in the city-sized underground bunker known as “Alpha Complex”. According to Friend Computer (And of course, why would the glorious Computer lie about anything?), the surface world (“The Outdoors”) became overrun and devastated by mutants, secret societies, Communists, and/or secret societies of Communist mutants. Thus, under the “benevolent” control of the civil service artificial intelligence known as “Friend Computer”, humanity has happily and hygienically survived in Alpha Complex and must deal with the numerous threats to their “perfect” society.
“Everyone is Happy Here…Because Happiness is Mandatory.”
The tone of both the original Paranoia and the video game is tongue-in-cheek black humor. The tabletop RPG took obvious inspirations from dystopian books and films like 1984, Brave New World, Logan’s Run, and THX 1138. As a player, you are a “Troubleshooter” for Alpha Complex. Quite literally, your job is to find trouble, and shoot it. Friend Computer’s instructions and rules are often incomprehensible and self-contradictory, and always fatal if adhered to. Often, they are also fatal if NOT adhered to. Troubleshooters are expected to be constantly vigilant for any acts of treason (because failing to report treason is also treason). Any number of activities can be considered treasonous: questioning the benevolence of Friend Computer, having access to information beyond your security clearance, being unhappy, etc. Of course, Troubleshooters can’t actually specify which rules the suspected traitor is committing treason against: knowing the rules is also treason.
Admittedly, I am not as familiar with Paranoia as some of the game’s core fan-base. My first encounter with Paranoia the tabletop RPG was on YouTube in 2016, as an episode of a former Geek & Sundry show called “No Survivors”. The RPG one-shot featured an all-star cast of Wil Wheaton, Felicia Day, Laura Bailey, Jessica Merizan, Ify Nwadiwe, Hector Navarro, and Matthew Mercer (who would later provide the instructor V-O for the E3 2019 gameplay trailer), with Ivan Van Norman as the Game Master (GM) and the iconic Friend Computer. The one-shot, and indeed the tabletop RPG as a whole, is a comedy-of-errors. What makes Paranoia so enjoyable is the player’s knowledge that everyone in the group in one way or another is a traitor. Everyone seeks to double-cross the others while (or in order to) keep their own secrets. It’s an inside joke that colors the player’s suspicion and paranoia with fun. For all you Dungeons & Dragons fans, Paranoia is like an entire world where everyone (and everything, for that matter) has an alignment of Chaotic Neutral. I mention this because player interaction is at the core of Paranoia: it’s what keeps the game enjoyable and lighthearted.
“Good Daycycle, Citizen!”
But this is not a review of Paranoia the tabletop RPG, but rather Paranoia the video game. In a way, it helps that I’m not as familiar with the original as most tabletop gamers: I can weigh the video game on its own merits rather than leaning on decades of nostalgia. As I begin the game, I am asked to create my Troubleshooter. There is a preset selection of seven characters, with no character customization. You then pick a name, and a three-letter sector. Names in Alpha Complex consist of a name, your security clearance, your sector, and your clone number.
Security clearance is color-coded and from lowest to highest is: Infrared (Black), Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, Violet, and Ultraviolet (White). Infrared citizens live dull lives of menial labor and heavy medication. Ultraviolet citizens have nearly unrestricted access. Because Ultraviolet citizens are the only citizens that may (legally) access and modify Friend Computer’s programming, they are respected, and in some cases, worshiped, as “High Programmers”. All Troubleshooters start with “Red” clearance. Security clearance is based on Friend Computer’s trust in a citizen, rather than competence. I mention clone number because humans in Alpha Complex are cloned, rather than born. Each citizen (including the player) is assigned six clones, which are used to replace a citizen upon their death. Since most wounds are fatal in the tabletop RPG, a player can negotiate or purchase additional clones by bribing certain citizens or gaining sufficient favor with Friend Computer. This mechanic also extends to the video game.
I take inspiration from the YouTube video and I model my character after Mercer’s: Marduk-R-GAS-1. (Yes, I picked “GAS” for “Geek & Sundry”.) Often character names are funny references to other characters and games (for example, a fantasy-obsessed citizen named “Frod-O-BGN-1”). The game begins with a somewhat wordy tutorial explaining how to walk, interact with characters/objects, how to use Hygiene Stations for healing, how to assign skill points, how combat works, etc. Each clone comes with a unique mutation. My first clone had Telekinesis to blast away at obstacles or enemies. But my next clone (Marduk-O-GAS-2) instead can create a Shockwave that stuns anyone within the blast radius.
My first mandatory (and fun) assignment from Friend Computer is to meet with my Team Leader…who is currently attempting to purchase an illegal Vendicode from a shady dealer. Paul-R-MUR-6 runs off to his debriefing with Friend Computer, but not before informing me about my Secret Stash. All items given for missions are taken away after the mission is complete, so any items you want to keep must be deposited into the Secret Stash. I realized the importance of this after I went to sleep after one mission and found that all the weapons, hacking tools, etc. that I had spent so many credits on were all gone the next morning.
I take the opportunity to try and interact with some of the other citizens in Alpha Complex. Unfortunately, my efforts lead to trouble. Most NPCs can’t be interacted with, and my attempt to click on a Red-clearance citizen on a bench resulted in Marduk destroying the bench. I receive 10% Treason for vandalism. I find a Yellow-clearance NPC I can interact with, but attempting to do so results in a Level Two Infraction: 10% more Treason for attempting to speak with a higher ranked individual. With 20% Treason, my Status has gone from “Questionable” to “Deviant”. The Treason Level system is really cleverly done. I find myself pausing to consider every line of dialogue and every object I click on. Even briefly crossing into a zone marked for another color clearance can raise your Treason Level. You can try to lower your Treason Level by confessing crimes to Friend Computer in a Confession Booth, but this often requires a relatively-high skill check, such as Psychology. And of course, answer wrong and you might be suspected by Friend Computer of failing to report treason…which is also treason!
“A Fun and Mandatory Assignment…“Fun” Not Guaranteed.”
After an evening’s rest, I am summoned to meet with Friend Computer in the Briefing Room. The design of Friend Computer is genuinely intimidating. The briefing room is a gigantic screen displaying a giant, blue eyeball. On each side of the screen is a giant laser cannon, constantly pointed at your character. My character is so tiny in comparison that I always feel on-edge (and dare I say, *PARANOID*) when in the Briefing Room, watched by the all-seeing Friend Computer. Friend Computer is the only character with V-O in the game, so the cold and emotionless voice catches my attention even more whenever Friend Computer speaks. As in the tabletop RPG, the true antagonist of Paranoia: Happiness is Mandatory is Friend Computer, and it is immediately evident. You are being watched, you are being judged, and at any moment, Friend Computer can vaporize you.
Here in the Briefing Room, I learn that the previous Team Leader was terminated for treason. With his sixth and final clone killed, I am assigned to take his place as the new Team Leader. I am given three starting companions to form my team: a “Tech Guy” (Alice-R-MOP-1), a Happiness Officer (Ryan-R-MVY-1), and a Hygiene Officer (Betty-R-KLN-1). Each fulfills typical niches in RPGs. Tech Guys are good for crafting or hacking past computer-based obstacles. Happiness Officer is a support class whose drugs can boost combat performance or even heal slowly over time. I suppose Hygiene Officer is more of a healer, but since first aid is self-applied in this game, the Hygiene Officer’s recovery boost can really only benefit Betty. As missions continue over time, I got access to other companions and character types. For example, a Loyalty Officer can interject in conversations to persuade or intimidate certain citizens.
It is on these missions for Friend Computer that I really start to experience the grind of the video game. Some of the missions had interesting objectives like interrogating citizens, but these scenarios almost often devolve into combat sequences. Combat is real-time, and before each mission, Friend Computer gives me a Vendicode to redeem for my party’s armor and weapons. I was disappointed that combat didn’t really involve a lot of strategy. Mostly I just click on enemies and my party fires wildly until they finally hit something. My guess is that a shot’s accuracy is determined randomly with “die rolls” that are calculated off-screen and never displayed. I suppose putting more points in combat skills could improve the odds of landing a hit, doing so didn’t seem to make too big of a difference. Even my Combat Officer that I later acquired (Gilliam-O-CRM-1) seemed to have the same luck scoring a hit as my more social skill-oriented Marduk.
You can try to protect your party in the meantime behind cover, but you can’t actually attack from behind cover. Why? Because then they will fire *through* their cover to do so. No shooting over anything: any object in a straight line between your character and their target will be hit. So before you’ve even started whittling away at the enemy’s cover, you’ve already blasted away your own! I suppose this can provide an additional challenge for gamers, but really what it means is that your character is going to die…a lot. Fortunately, there are certain points where the game lets you reset to a checkpoint rather than have to start over with a brand-new clone, but either way, the consequence of dying means losing most of your inventory…which makes that fight even harder the next time around.
“Only Traitors are Unhappy.”
Fortunately, this is an RPG, so the combat doesn’t take up too much of the game. But unfortunately, the game’s RPG elements are just as repetitive and bland as combat. Alpha Complex isn’t pretty to look at. I get that it’s sterile, and hygiene is mandatory, but almost every room and hallway looks exactly the same. I think that’s why I like Friend Computer and the Briefing Room so much: it’s big, it’s menacing, and compared to the rest of the setting, it’s impressive to look at. So as you wander the halls of Alpha Complex from objective to objective, none of it is really interesting to look at. The companions and NPCs all use the same character models and animations, so none of it really stands out. So many times I was in combat, I found myself using the wrong companion because all of my companions looked exactly the same. So many times, I just clicked on the objective ahead and just stared at the black “fog-of-war” space just waiting for my party to arrive.
The dialogue does have a good sense of humor. I got a few good laughs out of saying “I’ll remember this moment.” (a la Telltale Games) and accessing a computer with “GUEST” (“Only an administrator would use such an advanced password.”). However, because the only voice-over in the game is Friend Computer, most of the game is silently reading long conversations. And the dialogue really is long: I’m talking paragraph after paragraph, sometimes spoken by a single character. I found myself towards the end of my playthrough spamming the “Continue” button, just so I can finally get to the dialogue options. At a certain point, you have to stop reading the dialogue because suddenly words are just vomited onto you and a single character’s dialogue can go on for several minutes before I (or even just a different character) can chime in.
The dialogue system can also be limiting for player choices. Most skill options are unavailable unless you have, say, a Psychology skill of 4. You are only afforded three skill points to start, with a 1 in each skill. So this means that you would have to dump all your skill points into a single skill and hope that was the right skill to go with. As your character is promoted, you level up and get an additional two skill points for each clearance level. So you can either try to raise a different skill score, or continue dumping into a single skill (because the difficulties do go up as your character levels up). You can’t accuse a companion of treason without cause. If Alice accuses me of treason for hacking a vending machine, I can’t retaliate until she actually commits a treasonable offense herself. You can’t choose to knowingly betray Friend Computer. See an interesting character advocating the liberation of Alpha Complex from Friend Computer? Well, every option is a variation of, “Die, traitor!” In the tabletop RPG, players follow Friend Computer with blind obedience because it is the most likely way to avoid treason. But in that specific scenario, it becomes blatant railroading of the player’s options. There’s a difference between the player feeling like they have no choice and a player actually having no choice.
Probably the most egregious example is when I was Red-clearance at 70% Treason Level, and I failed to accomplish my “side quest” of testing a new Bouncy Bubble Beverage flavor. My Treason Level reached 100% and I was attacked by Internal Security (IntSec) for failing to voluntarily report to a Termination Booth. My clone was then birthed…at Orange-clearance. So by failing the objective and dying, I was rewarded. I know I should have felt happy to have new access to better equipment and privileges, but all it felt like was that I had been promoted simply for the sake of the game continuing to move the plot forward.
“Report Any and All Treasonous Events That Occurred During Your Assignment.”
I feel bad because I really wanted to enjoy Paranoia: Happiness is Mandatory. But I ended my playthrough bored and frustrated. Too much of the setting feels cut-and-pasted, with a new color scheme to indicate where you are and are not supposed to go. The sterile dystopian aesthetic creates an intriguing atmosphere, but the graphics aren’t strong enough to bring that atmosphere to life. Combat is click on the enemy and hope that your party can hit them more often than the enemies can hit you. Dialogue can be humorous, but it’s too long and wordy to really enjoy. With bland combat and conversations, the game feels dull and devoid of any action. You can’t really play the combat-oriented tactician or the social-oriented schemer, because the game doesn’t really give you enough agency or variation for either of those playstyles.
Maybe you should buy Paranoia: Happiness is Mandatory if you’re really that curious and/or desperate to experience the Paranoia setting, and you can’t find anybody to play the tabletop RPG with. But if you do have a few friends available, I’d encourage you to use your money to buy the tabletop version instead. If there’s any positive note I can leave this review on is that Paranoia is one of many tabletop RPGs (like D&D) that are experiencing a revival in recent years. Newer, younger players (such as me) are picking up their pens and papers to explore these games, and Paranoia: Happiness is Mandatory does have a part to play in reaching out to newcomers. To quote 1984 by George Orwell: “In a sense, it told him nothing that was new, but that was part of the attraction.”
Do you agree with our report, Troubleshooters? Or are we traitorous mutant Commies that you are going to report to Friend Computer? Let us know in the comments, and keep an eye on Geek Girl Authority for more news and insight into the latest video games and more.
We rate this game as 2.8 out of 5. Paranoia: Happiness is Mandatory is available now on the Epic Games Store for PC. A PC copy of Paranoia: Happiness is Mandatory was provided to Geek Girl Authority for this review.
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