Take anyone’s list of the top 10 games and you’ll find an assortment of fantasy RPGs, open world crime thrillers, and space operas. Most games create fantasies, letting players loose in fantastical worlds with an ever-increasing level of power. But what happens when a game takes that power?
We are Chicago, a narrative-driven experience being developed for PC, Linux, and Mac by Chicago-based Culture Shock Games, wants to explore this question. The game uses interviews with real life residents of Englewood, a neighborhood in Chicago’s South Side notorious for crime and violence. Culture Shock Games is taking away the power players usually have in order to give power and voice to the people of Englewood.
With We are Chicago, Culture Shock Games is taking a page out of the Telltale playbook. Relationships and how the player chooses to communicate in certain situations drive the game.
However, since it’s set in a real community that is consumed by violence, those interactions are sure to take on a whole other level of significance. As Aaron, a young black man, players will have to navigate the societal, familial, and criminal pressures of his neighborhood.
We are Chicago offers players a portal into a community and a reality that games often gloss over or ignore. The focus here is on real, everyday people struggling to live their lives. Culture Shock Games is crafting an experience that is based around the mundane as opposed to the fantastical.
In fact, Michael Block, one of the developers at Culture Shock Games, told Polygon last year that the game is a “juxtaposition of mundane events and violence.” Unfortunately, for a lot of people in Chicago and in many low income, high crime areas, this is reality. It’s a reality that’s hard to imagine for those who don’t live it every day. But that’s why We are Chicago is so important.
For a medium that relies on the active engagement and immersion of its audience, games very seldom connect players with the lived experiences of other people. Players can play a game like The Last of Us and feel something for Joel and Ellie, but it is still escapism to some extent. It’s still an invented post-apocalyptic world.
Culture Shock Games wants to educate players and make them empathize – not just sympathize – with its cast of real characters. Games can use empathy to great effect because they are interactive and let players use role-play to connect with another world.
Culture Shock Games seems to be using interactivity to bridge the gap between a ghettoized community and an audience that may be unfamiliar with that community.
Voice of the Voiceless
By bridging that gap, We are Chicago could give a voice to the voiceless. Tony Thornton, the writer of We are Chicago, comes from Englewood. Characters and events come straight from the mouths of neighborhood residents. The community itself is clearly a part of developing this game. It’s great that Culture Shock Games is making sure that they are privileging the voices of Englewood. They are giving power back to the people.
We are Chicago is not the first game to let players live the lives of the marginalized. The indie success Gone Home, developed by The Fullbright Company, did something similar back in 2013. It focused on the personal and sexual awakening of one of its characters, Samantha. Only players did not play as that Samantha. Gone Home’s bait-and-switch approach was also a lot more stylized than We are Chicago’s realism.
Despite all that, Gone Home still immersed players in the story of a young lesbian. The game approached that story with the respect and care it deserved. It succeeded in letting players empathize with a community that is still gaining acceptance today. And that’s what We are Chicago seems to be aiming for.
Power to the People
Games can transport players to fantasy realms, battlefields, and other planets. The reality We are Chicago depicts may not seem as exciting as all that. But there will always be a place for the power fantasies that games offer. For now, some games should take a risk and try to get gamers to understand other lived experiences. If players leave their minds open they may find that simply walking down the street in Englewood is full of drama.
Hopefully more games will take advantage of the empathic power of the medium. Hopefully more games will give power back to the people.