Gunfire isn’t common in my life. I don’t go to sleep worrying that my sister might get shot on the swing at the park. I don’t have gang members pressuring me to fight for them. I don’t worry that my best friend will violently turn on me some day. This is, however, the reality for many Chicago youths—and for the main character of Culture Shock Games’ 2017 release, We Are Chicago.The stories Jesus tells have a narrative purpose, and there’s a reason he doesn’t go into details about the Prodigal Son’s long walk home or what he ate for breakfast the morning before reuniting with his father.
We Are Chicago is a narrative-driven video game along the lines of That Dragon Cancer and Life Is Strange. Players experience a week (or two–three hours of gameplay) in the life of Aaron, a black high school student about to graduate who deals with the influence of gangs, fear for his sister’s safety, poverty, and the pressures of school. The game is based on true stories about black people growing up in poverty and the dangers they face living in Chicago’s South Side; the team at Culture Shock interviewed people from Englewood, one of the most crime-stricken neighborhoods of Chicago, to inspire the harsh realities portrayed in the game.
I admire the spirit and ideas behind the game. I really do. I appreciate that proceeds from sales go to the nonprofit organizations All Stars Projects of Chicago and Reclaim Our Kids to support Chicago youth. But I can’t help believing that We Are Chicago’s mission—a mission to educate and to inspire empathy in players—fell flat.
The Importance of Story
Story-driven games are supposed to be exactly that, full of story. Story is such a powerful tool—so powerful that Jesus used it all the time to talk to his followers. The stories Jesus tells have a narrative purpose, and there’s a reason he doesn’t go into details about the Prodigal Son’s long walk home or what he ate for breakfast the morning before reuniting with his father.
We Are Chicago goes into the minute details with the intent of realistically portraying the life of a teenager living in poverty. But it doesn’t pause to consider the narrative point behind these events, which, instead, drags players through mundane activities like setting the table and counting out one dollar bills in change as a fast food teller. The message that Aaron is living a difficult life and has a tedious job is received, but it’s given at the expense of pacing and the opportunity to tell a powerful story. The mundane aspects of Aaron’s world could have been shown in concurrence with the challenge of poverty; I’d have much more appreciated trying to balance the checkbook or buy clothes and school supplies on a meager budget than picking up a plate from the cupboard and moving it to the table.
The game never lets you forget it is on a mission to educate. Most of the player’s time is spent listening to characters talk with each other about school, college, gangs, violence, and how much they wish their lives could be different. The teenagers don’t talk like kids should, giving far too eloquent observations about life to each other, such as when one of Aaron’s friends tells him, “It’s hard to balance being safe with being brave,” or “They felt like society gave up on ‘em, so they gave up on society.”
This heavy-handed approach to mission rubs me the wrong way. I want to feel emotions for these characters because I see what their lives are like and then experience it through gameplay, not because I’m told about it through stilted dialogue; that’s the whole point of a visual medium. The voice acting is also so poorly delivered that characters sound like they’re talking about the weather rather than witnessing a crime.
While the characters he interacts with are voiced, Aaron is not. The player selects a response from a list for that situation. His textual dialogue is no doubt an attempt to allow unempathetic players to identify with him more. But since Aaron is a developed character with thoughts, goals, and aspirations that the player does not choose, this decision lends itself more to awkwardness than to empathy. There are a lot of uncomfortable pauses and frantic attempts to choose a dialogue option before the timer runs out.
There is a neat touch when Aaron is trying to focus on a test at school, but thoughts about the safety of his sister, his plans for graduation, and fear about being caught by the gangs fill his head instead of the answers. This is a unique method of visually showing Aaron’s struggle that I appreciate and wish was a more present component of the game.
The Importance of Choice
It is worth noting that I actually love linear gameplay (as opposed to open world); the reason I appreciate linear games like Final Fantasy and The Last Story is because they can tell such powerful tales and can unfold as dramatically as a book or movie. In addition to missing story-based opportunities, We Are Chicago gives the impression of choice when there is, in fact, none.
Regardless of which dialogue option I choose, Aaron is going to protect his sister, refuse to join a gang, lie to his mother, and graduate from high school. Every so often, I am warned that a character “will remember” what I said to them, but I’m still unsure if those notifications affected future interactions or were just filler text.
One of the game’s saving graces is Aaron’s relationship with his sister, Taylor. She is a delight to interact with and to see her grow up in dire circumstances while retaining a cheerful nature is heartwarming. I am struck by how much more I could have felt impacted by the game if I—as Aaron—had been given the choice to join a gang or not, to see the impact that decision had on Taylor’s life.
I greatly admire the noble message that We Are Chicago is trying to get across, even though the result is not digestible by its audience. For now, I recommend donating directly to those charities to support Chicago’s youth rather than shelling out the $16.99 for this game. We Are Chicago is a story worth telling in a way audiences can’t ignore, which, sadly, doesn’t happen here because of awkward pacing and stilted dialogue.