We Are Chicago review

Game Info
Platform Win, Mac, Linux
Publisher Culture Shock Games
Developer Culture Shock Games
Release Date Feb 9, 2017

We Are Chicago is a game with a message, and it never let me forget it.

Developer Culture Shock Games is a studio set on "giving a voice to underrepresented people," per its founder, Michael Block. Block enlisted a multiracial collection of residents of Chicago’s North and South sides to create a story about growing up poor and black in the city.

a powerful, likable portrait of black youth

We Are Chicago is the result, a game that often feels subversive in its depiction of cultures that games have rarely seemed interested in exploring. Culture Shock’s approach to characterization and dialogue can be grating, with heavy-handed asides about the struggles of growing up poor that feel more forced than moving. But in the game's quieter moments, main character Aaron’s story is a powerful, likable portrait of black youth.

Aaron’s story begins with a dour newscast, not uncommon in the South Side's struggling neighborhoods. Instead of solely focusing on violent crime and shootings, We Are Chicago's reaches more broadly, immediately tackling unemployment, a meager minimum wage and eventually, the importance of a good education.

Aaron contends with all of these in equal measure. He's a high school senior days away from graduation, and he's intent on being a good role model for his younger sister and a devoted son to his single mother. That's hard when everyone around him pressures him into doing the wrong thing. Over the game's brief span of time, Aaron's desire to make a better life for his family, against the odds, is on the forefront of his mind.

The game uses a dialogue-driven cutscene system to help define Aaron's commitment and shape this journey. A number of different speech options appear during most conversations with Aaron's sister, mother, friends and teachers. There's occasionally a time limit to choosing a response, and I was warned that characters would remember what I said at certain moments. This should be familiar to anyone who’s played a game from developer Telltale Games in the last five years.

Aaron's desire to make a better life for his family, against the odds, is on the forefront of his mind

This system gave me the chance to influence Aaron's path toward or away from the cycle of poverty. An otherwise silent protagonist, Aaron is a cipher for We Are Chicago's thesis about what can turn impressionable good kids toward bad choices. I was already inclined to go for the pro-education, positive self-talk options, but the game encouraged me to choose them anyway.

In conversations with Aaron's more easily influenced friends, I could agree with their hopelessness about going to college and other topics. These responses were labeled as "lies," however, which made the game's initial branching story paths seem more linear. I soon realized that the dialogue choices I weighed heavily weren't really choices at all: Aaron was destined to rise above his impoverished trappings, no matter what path I wanted to choose for him.

These conversations make up the bulk of the action, which isn't unusual for a narrative game. But We Are Chicago's moments of non-conversational gameplay are stranger. We Are Chicago's preachy dialogue was far more enjoyable to sift through than the game's slow movement and poor camera. A handful of scenes set at Aaron's fast-food job were even painful addition and subtraction exercises. This math minigame involves counting out dollar bills one by one. It's repetitive, out of place and it was as a major waste of time. I appreciated these moments for their teenage mundanity, but that didn’t make them less boring to play.

"Teenage mundanity" is applicable to much of We Are Chicago. Aaron texts his mom that he'll be home late or spends precious minutes watching his little sister eat breakfast, and these innocuous moments felt just as important to the game as his arguments with friends about their post-graduation plans, even if they weren't as enjoyable for me to sit through.

Amid the talk of homework and paychecks, the presence and influence of gang violence is also a constant. We Are Chicago explores the "whys" of turning toward crime in a novel fashion, though any actual presentation of violence is rare and shocking.

I’m more used to video game depictions of young black men wielding guns, rather than trying to get them off the street. Violence permeates everything around Aaron, even if he never takes part. Just as importantly, We Are Chicago doesn't condemn those who do. Through conversations with them, I was able to suss out the reasons behind certain characters turning toward crime. Aaron had the privilege to be the only one above it all — even if the game never makes it seem like Aaron is at risk of joining a gang himself.

At times, that's frustrating. Aaron's unflagging opposition to the gangs that ensnare his friends makes him seem like a message more than a fully defined character. Everything he says and does reminded me of his tough situation that he had the moral fortitude to overcome. Had the game gone on any longer, my capacity to tolerate the game's inspirational subject matter would have waned.

Still, I found it exciting to play a teenager of color, especially one who prefers poetry slams to parties. The entire cast of We Are Chicago is black, not just the gang members. It's an emphatic reminder of the importance of representation. These kids are just as stuck to the TV and their cell phones as anyone else their age, and they spend plenty of time roaming the high school hallways worrying about final exams.

Compared to other recent games with black heroes (like Mafia 3), We Are Chicago is a much less sensationalized tale of the African-American experience. At the same time, it falls into some easy trappings. The whole storyline has to do with gangs, after all. I never for a minute forgot that death was a constant, real threat; walking through Aaron's neighborhood felt unsafe, and his school had a metal detector at the entrance.

The designers wrote the game based on interviews with members of Chicago's poorer South Side neighborhoods, and it’s admirable that actual residents helped form the basis of the storyline. Their influence is most felt in the more grounded moments. Aaron's other concerns come across as ripped from the headlines by comparison, despite their basis in reality. Those moments that capture the dullness of being 18 and wanting to get out of high school are far more novel from a storytelling perspective.

Wrap Up:

We Are Chicago dares to focus on the mundane and the dramatic

For better and worse, We Are Chicago dares to spend as much time on life’s tinier moments as its most dramatic ones. That balance isn't always maintained successfully: Blunt dialogue often undercuts the power of otherwise understated scenes. But the combination of the two still gave me a broader, better perspective of what life is really like on the South Side. It's not just gangs and gunshots; just as often, it's laughter-filled family dinners and working long, late nights. Maybe that sounds boring, and sometimes We Are Chicago is just that. But even if We Are Chicago isn’t always fun, it does feel uniquely valuable.

We Are Chicago was reviewed using a Mac OS code provided by Culture Shock Games. You can find additional information about Polygon's ethics policy here.

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