When I first heard about Culture Shock’s We Are Chicago, it sounded like an interesting premise that dealt with subject matter that does not get a lot of attention. The game tells the story of Aaron, a black teenager who faces many hurdles during his last week of high school in South Side Chicago. He’s working as many shifts as possible to help his single mother with the bills, serving as a surrogate father to his younger sister Taylor, and trying to help her enjoy what remains of her childhood before the realities of Chicago catch up to them. He’s also trying to get good grades to get into college (which hopefully he’ll be able to afford), which will lead to a good job that will (maybe) get the family out of South Side Chicago.
The gangs – and the effect they have on family and friends – are the biggest antagonistic forces in the game, but it’s also the first stumbling block. WAC is a story-driven game that borrows Telltale’s signature style, telling you, “He will remember that” whenever you make an important dialogue choice. Unfortunately, the technical and narrative execution falls short, as is the case with the gangs, which are always depicted as less than human. Aaron and the other main characters often talk about how the gang members cannot even spell, or how they’re already half-dead due to their lack of education.
It comes across as something you might find in mediocre police procedural or an after school special. According to the developers, everything is based on the real experiences of people living in Chicago – longtime Englewood resident Tony Thornton was hired to write dialogue and add authentic detail – and while I obviously don’t want to dismiss someone else’s experiences, to an outsider, it feels like a cliché. Your elders go on and on about how times have changed and kids are worse today than they were before, but it never offers a more nuanced explanation of why this slice of America is worse than others. The game paints youth with a broad brush of short term materialism and low morals. The gangs are never anything more than boogeymen, save for one conversation with a friend that served as the game’s only effort to explain why someone would choose that lifestyle.
WAC has other technical hurdles that hinder the overall presentation. Aaron only speaks through text, which is jarring because the rest of the cast is fully voiced. Characters walk through doors, dialogue abruptly starts or stops, and the visuals leave a lot to be desired. Even the little things – such as the fact that your cell phone always displays the same hour regardless of the time of day – pull you out of the experience. The dialogue is fine, but it’s poorly edited when you factor in the timer (again, think Telltale) that forces you to respond quickly. You are often given seconds to read four long sentences that could have been parsed into fewer, more digestible words.
The game reaches its greatest heights when the characters are allowed to wax poetic about the situation in which they live. The monologues are well composed and pair well with the background music. The relationship between Aaron and his sister is also charming despite being a bit cloying (anyone with a younger sibling will be able to relate).
WAC ultimately feels as though it was written by a very well intentioned dad. The game tries to tell a story that is rarely heard and for that it should be commended. The technical execution simply fails to deliver on the early promise. That’s a shame, because the game feels like it could have been so much more.
We Are Chicago is out for PC on Steam for $14.99