We Are Chicago review

There’s nothing superhuman about Aaron’s life. He holds a dead-end job, hangs out with friends, and studies when he’s not taking care of his little sister, Taylor. If he has an extraordinary quality, it’s that he does it all while living in Chicago’s south side.

We Are Chicago follows in a lineage of  “empathy games,” including That Dragon, Cancer, Dys4ia, and 1979 Revolution. Only, We Are Chicago isn’t autobiographical for the most part — it’s about as far removed from lead programmer Michael Block’s life as you could get (though the lead writer, Tony Thornton, did grow up in Chicago’s Englewood). Chicago is one of the more segregated cities in the country, and you’d be hard pressed to find a single person of privilege willing to stroll down an Englewood neighborhood after 8 p.m. It’s a dichotomy We Are Chicago attempts to strike down through virtual worlds, but that’s easier said than done.

We Are Chicago is billed as a narrative adventure game that challenges players to uncover the mysteries going on in Aaron’s neighborhood. Unfortunately, there’s not much of a mystery or an ability to uncover the trappings of Aaron’s life. The game begins with a loop of news commentary on raising the minimum wage, gun laws and the wrongful conviction of two men, among other true-to-life news stories, interspersed with the Aaron’s mom reminding him to fill out applications and take out the garbage. What you see is what you get, for better or worse.

After taking a photo of two of his best friends, Robert and Justin, Aaron runs into a gangster who offers him the cryptic and cringe-worthy ultimatum to “diss the man or else.” The man in question is Aaron’s cousin. The rest of the game splits its time between Aaron’s school, home life, workplace, and the park, with lots of walking and talking in between. It’s not fun and it isn’t meant to be; you’ll spend much of the game doing menial tasks, like setting the table for dinner, working the register at the local fast-food joint, and test-taking. It’s in these menial tasks, however, where We Are Chicago‘s commentary is at its best and where its shortcomings are most striking.

Borrowing from games like Depression Quest, We Are Chicago uses its mechanics to portray the challenges facing Aaron. Graduation is in a week, and Aaron’s teacher prepares her students for finals with several practice tests. Upon sitting down at his desk, you’re given only milliseconds to focus on the actual test before the answers morph into the myriad issues plaguing Aaron’s present life. A math test becomes:

“I have to do well in the finals, so that I can earn a scholarship to college, because mom can’t afford the tuition.”

“If [the gangs] run up on me while I have Taylor, how do I keep her safe?”

No matter which answer you choose, Aaron is wrong. Aaron’s teacher pleads with him to do better. It’s a sentient way of presenting a potentially beautiful mind under pressure from poverty and crime. Nearly everything else in the game, however, feels like a missed opportunity.

While the aesthetics of Aaron’s job in quick service capably foreshadow events to come (one of the first things you’ll notice while working the register is that it’s behind bulletproof glass, and meals are slid to customers via a drop box), the job is routine and without pretense. You simply check off the box next to the customer’s order, collect their money and give the proper change back. Rinse, wash, repeat. The process is tedious, and perhaps it’s meant to be. In that sense, it conveys the sentiment of the job well. Take too long taking someone’s order and they’ll let you know. It’s not the wrong way to go about progressing the story, but there was an opportunity for We Are Chicago to make a statement about economic disparity. Instead, the game relies heavily on dialogue, which is a double-edged sword.

After Aaron compliments his mom on her cooking, he suggests she start her own restaurant. Aaron’s mom brushes the compliment off as unrealistic. This prompts Aaron’s uncle to launch into a tirade about the difficulties of getting a business loan while poor and the effects of inflation on relegating even the simplest of necessities behind a glass wall. This is true, but it left me longing for the game to show me the economic hardships of living on Aaron’s wage while supporting his family and dreams.

It left me longing for the game to show me the economic hardships of living on Aaron’s wage.

Using dialogue as the main method of conveying hardships in Chicago can get pretty awkward. It’s as if everyone in this game espouses their grievances with modern urban life, even when doing something as innocuous as hanging out in the park with Aaron’s little sister. “I wish someone was there for me when I was younger!” says Aaron’s friend, completely unprompted. It comes across as oversimplified, as does the dialogue from classmates: “I hope I live long enough for my momma to see me walk across that stage.” And it can even be at odds with the weightiness of the subject matter: “head to the left sink when you’re ready to make pasta.” If we’re going routine, I’d much more appreciate having to do the shopping and cooking on Aaron’s budget instead of simply heading to the “left sink” and setting the table.

It’s what We Are Chicago overlooks, though, that present the largest holes. ­The lack of resources for people of color in Chicago should be illustrated, but we see nothing of the sort. Where are the school closures, the middle schools turned into uninitiated high schools, the abandoned buildings facilitating criminal activity, the disproportionate police measures aimed at Chicago’s poorest citizens? Instead, the driver of the plot in We Are Chicago are the gangs. Aaron’s best friends become mixed up in the same factions they deride, almost overnight. It’s a convenient “twist” designed to service the story, but it lacks the emotional weight necessary to carry the game.

The sa­ving grace for We Are Chicago is bite-sized — that is, it’s Aaron’s little sister, Taylor. Taylor’s presence is the true emotional anchor of We Are Chicago. I found myself looking forward to walking her to school, answering her biting questions about our late father and just bantering back and forth about spoken word poetry. Taylor looks up to her big brother, and Aaron acts as the father figure she never knew. There are more than a few heart-wrenching moments, and the game seizes the opportunity to illustrate the nuances of life as a child in the violent streets of Chicago. Particularly, how do you talk to a kid about the gun shots you hear at dinner? At times, there’s just no good way to go about telling your kid sister the truth. After Aaron’s mom learns that his friend, James, is the same boy whose little sister was killed by stray bullets, she makes Aaron promise to keep Taylor away from him. The very next morning, Aaron, Taylor and James walk to school together. Aaron later tells Taylor about his promise, and the pair decide that it’s best not to tell mom.

We Are Chicago plays it safe, and by doing so it walks a fine line between empathy and exploitation.

As a whole, however, We Are Chicago isn’t telling a new story. Aaron’s going to be the first in his family to go to college! Even that story, however, falls flat. While the game allows Aaron to inexplicably pass his final exam (even though he’s still unable to focus), we never get to see the graduation that Aaron so desperately wants. Rather [spoiler alert], the game ends with Aaron attending a vigil for his slain friend, capping off the least interesting storyline in the game.

Instead of hinging on the dynamic of Aaron and Taylor’s relationship, We Are Chicago wavers, ceding too much ground to its half-baked gang plot. It plays it safe, and by doing so it walks a fine line between empathy and exploitation. And as much as it doesn’t delve into the former territory, it also isn’t the machine for empathy it was intended. In one sense, it’s absurd to think sensitivity to the plight of inner city youths can be achieved over the course of a four-hour game … it’s as absurd as believing you can achieve the same level of success as Steve Jobs by reading his biography, or that you can achieve all of your dreams if you just work hard enough. A game that attempts to depict the harshness of Chicago’s south side needs not to look away — it must face its issues head-on, or risk playing like an after-school special. We Are Chicago is at its best when portraying the emotional honesty between Taylor and Aaron. Where it falls short is in its inability to fix an unwavering gaze on the systemic machinations that oppress the streets of Chicago’s west and south sides, where looking away isn’t an option.

Verdict: No

We Are Chicago is available on Steam and the Humble Store. You can learn more on the game’s official site.