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South Side story: We Are Chicago

"I wanted to do something that was positive for our society"

When was the last time you played as a black character in a game who wasn't either a) the sidekick to a strapping white dude or b) a stereotypical gang member? We Are Chicago, from Indie studio Culture Shock, offers something different: a realistic representation of the life of a person of colour in Chicago's South Side neighbourhoods.

"It was interesting to think about how you make a game about something that's actually happened, a true story, and still give the player agency," explains studio founder Michael Block.

"So we were talking about those ideas. We're from Chicago and at the time we had started doing some volunteer stuff and talking to some people on the South Side, a very racially-segregated section of the city, very poor and has a lot of issues with gangs and violence. We realised it's a really interesting story and nobody is talking about this stuff."

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This was the moment that led to the game I played a few weeks ago at GDC, which Block calls a documentary game, a game which gives players an insight into the world of high school student Aaron. During the very first scene, Aaron's family sits down to dinner, only to hear the sound of gunshots. It's shocking not because I've never heard a gunshot in a game before, but because the family carries on with dinner, discussing their situation but accepting the violence as part of the background to their lives.

"We brought on a writer from one of the neighbourhoods to write the actual dialogue"

Scenes like this aren't just based on Culture Shock's preconceived ideas about the South Side, but on the sort of research that would make any journalist proud.

"At the beginning we did interviews. We actually got really lucky: there was a non-profit group that we were volunteering with that basically blanketed the city with volunteers and they had a survey that could have been written for our game. Things like, what are you seeing in your neighbourhood that could be problematic? What are the things that you're seeing are really good? Are you seeing any solutions that are working well? What do you wish was there?"

"From that we were doing interviews with people at bus stops on the South Side and we just asked a bunch of people all these questions and then gave that all back to the non-profit. Then we met a whole bunch of people who we were volunteering and people that they knew and put us in touch with and we did more in-depth interviews."

As well as researching their subject matter, We Are Chicago took their commitment to representing the stories into the studio via recruitment.

"We brought on a writer from one of the neighbourhoods to write the actual dialogue. So we had the outline in place, we had the ideas that we wanted to talk about and we went to him and said 'let's figure out how to make this into a narrative arc'. Then we brought on environment artists as well from the neighbourhoods that we were looking at to work on the content of the game and they've also looked over the script and made sure everything makes sense to them as well."

Block and his team also plan to continue working with the non-profits of Chicago, taking a build of the game to a couple of schools in Chicago to do play-testing with young kids and to make sure that the game is true to their experiences. He also reveals that he plans to do a revenue share with some of the non-profits, as a way of giving back.

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That's Block's motivation here, and it's a noble one. We Are Chicago is a difficult game to make and difficult game to sell, but its importance to its creators goes beyond simple profit and loss.

"I'm working on this project because for all of my career - I've worked on Organ Trail and I've worked at mid-sized studios before and released other games - I didn't really feel like they were having the impact I wanted to have. I wanted to do something that was positive for our society and our community and so this feels very important to me personally because it feels like I'm able to achieve that," says Block.

"We've had some really great responses from people. Seeing some people express more racist sentiments and ideas and then after playing the game actually not express those things is really validating and really satisfying, to think that we might actually be able to have that impact. It's a very strong connection for me because I'm hoping that we can prove that this is possible with games and that we're doing it."

We Are Chicago will be released this year on PC, Mac and Linux.

Latest comments (7)

Andrew Watson Tools Programmer 11 months ago
Ok, but what is the gameplay like? Is it fun to play?
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Craig Page El Presidente, Awesome Enterprises11 months ago
The last time I played as a black character in a game was in Walking Dead season 1.
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Bonnie Patterson Narrative Designer, Writer 11 months ago
"Ok, but what is the gameplay like? Is it fun to play?"
@Andrew Watson - Maybe ask on a game review site?
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Show all comments (7)
Bonnie Patterson Narrative Designer, Writer 11 months ago
This project sounds like quite a fascinating one - it's rare for Narrative Designers to have access to that number of people for research, and using a local author is likely to make the dialogue - and the emotions and attitudes expressed thereby - very plausible and likely to be a revelation for those of us lucky enough never to have lived in or even near an area like the South Side.

And revelations are always a good thing, at least compared to the endless regurgitations of the same story and the same world we have at the moment. I already know what slender-but-muscular-callous-and-fearless-wisecracking-white-guy-with-stubble has to say; time to mix it up with a view through someone else's eyes.
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Chris Payne Managing Director & Founder, Quantum Soup Studios11 months ago
I love the idea of a documentary game - the implication being that accuracy takes precedence over fun. Assassin's Creed suffers a bit from "history just isn't cool enough, so we threw in a glider and a powered grappling hook". It's not a *good* thing that we have the universal justification phrase "because video games", which sacrifices logic, history, physics and pretty much everything else on the altar of fun.

Games don't always have to be fun...just interesting. And this is really interesting.
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Andrew Watson Tools Programmer 11 months ago
Games don't always have to be fun...just interesting. And this is really interesting.
At what point do they stop being games and start being some other sort of media, like an interactive film? Even though fun is a very subjective term, I'd argue that having "is it fun to play" as one of your goals is a requirement for it to be a game.
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Chris Payne Managing Director & Founder, Quantum Soup Studios11 months ago
Well, that is quite a rabbit hole...but for example, I would argue that Papers Please is not fun to play. Tense, stressful, perhaps harrowing. But it's undoubtedly a game, with win/lose conditions, feedback loops, player agency. And I'm glad I played it, but I wouldn't go back and play it again for the lulz.
Of course you could reskin Papers Please as some sort of Candy Crush Quality Assurance game without changing any of the mechanics and it could be enormous fun, because the context is then frivolous. There are lots of emotional responses you might get from a game other than "fun".
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