We Are Chicago is a narrative game that tells an untold story

For a lot of people sitting outside of the inner city of Chicago, it’s difficult to understand what’s going on in the community. With the murder rate up 84 percent in 2016, and the Chicago Police under a federal investigation for its policing practices, Chicago has been making headlines for all the wrong reasons.

While outsiders may have their own opinions and judgments about what’s going on in the city, developer Culture Shock is hoping to give people a better understanding of what it’s like to be living in those communities and the daily problems the community faces with their game We Are Chicago. It’s a story not told very often in the media coverage surrounding the problems in Chicago.

“It’s very much like the Telltale Games, kind of narrative driven, a choose your own adventure type of game,” said Michael Block, lead programmer on We Are Chicago. “The writer is Tony Thornton, who is somebody from one of the neighborhoods we talk about in the game in the Southside of Chicago. Although he doesn’t have experience writing for games, he does have the experience of living in this Chicago neighborhood.”

Along with Thornton, the producers also interviewed people living in the neighborhood to get a sense of what daily life was like for teenagers and young adults and the parents who are raising them.

When I played the game at PAX East 2016, I was in control of a character named Aaron. He lives in a tiny apartment with his mom and his younger sister. Aaron invited a friend he works with, James, over for dinner and during the meal we get to know about Aaron, his family, and the neighborhood he lives in. We learned that his father passed away. That his mother works a lot of hours. That his sister aspires to be a singer or an astronaut. We learn that while it’s not out of the ordinary to hear gunshots in the neighborhood, it’s something that Aaron and his family are sick and tired of.

We also learned that Aaron’s mother is concerned about him hanging out with James. Not that James is a bad kid, but that James’ sister was killed recently because of his older brother’s involvement with gangs in the neighborhood. Aaron is torn between being a good friend to James and the safety of his own family.

Later on in the demo, Aaron is walking with another friend to school. Aaron is a high school senior just a few months away from graduation. He has yet to decide to pursue college after high school or just keep working at a restaurant called Ethan’s. Either way, he still needs to finish up the last few months. Yet, while he’s walking to school with his friend, he becomes a bit suspicious of him. Before he can find out what’s really going on, Aaron and his friend are surrounded by a local gang and start getting jumped. Luckily, the police arrive and everyone scatters, but Aaron, stressed out and disappointed never found out why that happened or what is going on. The demo ends with Aaron going back home and laying on his bed.

Even with what little we know about Aaron and his family, you start to care immediately, hoping that nothing bad happens to Aaron or his friends and that he makes it to graduation.

Block said that the purpose of the game is to help people have a different perspective of what’s going on in Chicago, but also still have a story that people are interested in.

“We’re trying to make this a very compelling experience, so who people who aren’t interested in that, can still enjoy the experience and have a good time,” Block said. “At the end of the day, what we’re hoping people get out of it is this understanding of what’s happening in these neighborhoods and a more empathetic view towards the people that are living there.”

The team has been working on the game for more than three years and hopes to release it sometime this fall for PC and then later for consoles. We Are Chicago will be one full game lasting about three hours and a virtual reality version of the game is also in the works. At PAX East, the game demo was playable with the HTC Vive.

“We’ve been playing around with VR,” Block said. “We did an Oculus version at PAX Prime and now we have a VIVE set so we’re playing around with that and got it up and running very quickly. I think it’s awesome, it’s very compelling to me and we’re definitely going to try to have that out post-ship.”

Although a price point has yet to be revealed, Culture Shock will be giving back to community organizations in Chicago who are doing on-the-ground work in the neighborhoods.

“We’re actually partnered with some nonprofit groups in Chicago so part of the proceeds from the game go to support them,” Block said. “In the game, we talk about the nonprofits in an optional sort of way so if you want to experience that, you can see and read real handouts and brochures for the organizations. They talk about what they’re doing and if you want to contribute to help them out, you can do that. We just hope that it’s a positive impact for the people helping to do stuff right now.”