We Are Chicago has a lot of potential and not much else

Not a We Are Marshal sequel

I respect We Are Chicago. It’s a game that applies the Telltale choice-based model to low-income families living on the South Side of Chicago. The script was penned by a high school guidance counselor who spent his life in neighborhoods just like the ones depicted in the game. It affords a level of humanity and honesty to a demographic video games often forget. A portion of the game’s revenue ends in the hands of crucial non-profits.

There’s a lot to like about We Are Chicago as a concept, which is the strongest point in its favor; after getting some hands-on time at PAX West, I much prefer the idea of We Are Chicago to its awkward, dry reality.

Unfortunately for a Telltale-like, We Are Chicago‘s writing is its greatest flaw. The script doesn’t feel inaccurate to real human speech (which, let’s be honest, is occasionally a problem in video games), but it’s stale dialogue delivered poorly. There’s a nice kid in a bad neighborhood who’s going to college, there’s a single mom doing her best, the dad is dead, and there’s an innocent little sister. Uh-oh! Now the good kid has a new friend who *gulp* might be involved with a gang! It’s all stuff we’ve seen before. It doesn’t matter how accurate or true-to-life it may be — and I was told the game pulls from real experiences, so pretty damn true — this exact narrative has been seen so often that I find myself struggling to get invested.

A familiar story can get away with a lot as long as it’s told well. Not the case with We Are Chicago, at least in the early goings. These characters are little more than broad archetypes. Every line of dialogue feels like it exists to get from point A to point B, and the voice acting does the game no favors. For example, during a dinner scene, the characters hear gunshots off in the distance. The voice acting is on the right track — the characters are upset, but they’ve been through this before. It’s just that everyone at the table sounds disinterested, delivering their lines in almost the exact same cadence as an earlier conversation about day jobs. Normally I would push for the main character to get a voice, but I would maybe reconsider based on the current performances.

On the other hand, those exact stories are so rarely told in video games, so I can understand people of color wanting to experience We Are Chicago regardless of anything I write in this preview. I will never begrudge people for wanting to check out something they find compelling, but as somebody who’s coming in hot off a fresh viewing of acclaimed crime drama The Wire, I just can’t bring myself to forgive the game’s mechanical and narrative issues. Here’s the other problem: you can forgive some egregiously familiar narratives in service of some fun gameplay (I’ve done this for Watch Dogs). Unfortunately, We Are Chicago doesn’t have that to fall back on.

I played on an Oculus Rift, and I cannot recommend you do so when the game finally releases. The team at Culture Shock Games told me they were speaking to Microsoft about bringing the game to Xbox One, and I’d encourage any interested parties to go that route. I’ve been using a retail Oculus in my apartment, and aside from VR Hair, it’s been a pleasant experience. The We Are Chicago VR demo gave me a headache, and the first-person movement is clunky and unintuitive. I would’ve killed for more nuance in the teleportation, or at least the ability to just use an analog stick. (The team behind We Are Chicago got in touch after this article was posted to clarify that the VR controls shown at PAX were “experimental” and the port shown was in an “early, unpolished stage”)

I really do appreciate where We Are Chicago is coming from, but I don’t know that I can rally behind it. It’s not a painful experience (unless you’re playing in VR, in which case it is literally painful), it’s just lifeless. If the game wants to show us the lives of average people living on the South Side, show us how they live, don’t just put some plastic people in a diorama and call it a day. You’re making a video game, show us something that feels real. It’s great that We Are Chicago exists, and that’s the nicest thing I can say about it.

About The Author
Mike Cosimano
More Stories by Mike Cosimano