by Quinn Levandoski
reviewed on PC
Good Intentions Aren’t Enough
Have you ever really, really wanted to like something, yet despite your burning inclination to feel otherwise you just can’t get yourself to come around? Such was my experience with We Are Chicago, a game designed around showcasing the difficulties of trying to succeed while growing up in Chicago's notoriously dangerous black hole of a South side. I’ve previously reviewed and enjoyed a number of games such Sunset and Virginia that, as is the case here, eschew most of their “gameplay” in favor of a mostly on-rails narrative experience, but it’s a dangerous line to walk that requires a fair amount of storytelling prowess that, unfortunately, We Are Chicago consistently lacks.
There are indeed other titles out there that prove there’s a market among gamers for experiences that bring attention to and shed light on real-life problems being had by various groups of people around the world (This War of Mine comes to mind, as does the aforementioned Sunset), though few have gone to the same lengths as We Are Chicago. Based on the real life experiences of Chicagoans that were interviewed by the developer for the project, the goal was to present life - both the highs and the lows - through as unfiltered a lens as possible. On one hand, this is noble. As someone who lives near Chicago and has seen the areas and people that cover its eroding underbelly, I appreciate that the game is attempting to present life as it is for some people in lieu of an overly sentimental or exaggerated fictionalization. The videogame medium hasn’t done victims of gang culture and violence many favors with its often glorified depictions of both, so I think a look at the flip side of the coin is certainly warranted. On the other hand, however, it begs the question of whether or not We Are Chicago actively works against itself by virtue of its choice in medium.
Master of None
In my time with the game I found that We Are Chicago seems to dodge definition by genre - not quite a game, not quite a visual novel and not quite a documentary - which stops it from ever really being able to settle in and take advantage of the strengths each medium is known for. It certainly isn’t a game in the traditional sense that you’re going to play for “fun.” There isn’t really any challenge or skill-based objective. The game plays out as a sort of interactive documentary with the hope that by playing through various situations based on the real lives of Chicago natives you’ll be able to better understand the inherent struggles of life marred by gangs, responsibility and a system stacked against you. However, the draw of documentaries reside in their ability to transport the viewer to a new world, time or environment. By seeing people involved in various issues and events, and spending time in their shoes, you develop empathy that helps you better understand the subject matter at hand. This is undermined by the cold, lifeless game world of We Are Chicago - that bears little resemblance to the actual city - and its poorly animated, graphically unimpressive characters. I’m sure there’s passion and emotional toil deeply rooted in the source material the game draws on, but it’s lost in translation. I feel bad saying it, but after not much time at all I simply felt bored.
The dialogue system in We Are Chicago is heavily influenced by Telltale’s various titles, including some branching conversational options, choices to make and the idea that your choices will be remembered. While I agree that a Telltale style game is a decent fit for what Culture Shock Games was trying to do, I just never found the conversations particularly engaging. I suppose they were trying to capture the “beauty of the mundane,” but it didn’t work. The choices I made in conversation didn’t seem to much matter either, as protagonist Aaron seems destined to succeed whether I want him to or not. Things didn’t much improve outside of conversations either, as I quickly grew bored of taking Aaron through some of his daily routine with a camera that refused to cooperate, despite the lack of anything that should give a camera much trouble.
I do think it’s worth commending We Are Chicago for its noble intent, even if that intent largely results in an endeavor that is unable to harness the enormity of its subject matter into something meaningful and digestible for its audience. I think there’s definitely room out there for games that explore real human issues, and We Are Chicago seems to have had the best intentions behind it. The story buried behind the bland presentation and emotionless dialogue is one worth telling, but it’s one worth telling in a way that can better represent the truth behind it.
The story is worth telling
Bland presentation, emotionless dialogue