Five Questions About We Are Chicago

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Ian here—

Wow, okay, so, deep breaths. Let me repeat the mantra: “I critique, because I care.”

We Are Chicago (Culture Shock Games, 2017) arrives at very particular time for me. I just finished up with a panel on Chicago game cultures for SCMS 2017, and I have also been working through some ideas on the limits of the concept of “empathy” in games.

Given these two facts, there’s no real way I could get away with not playing it, and not taking a couple of moments to try an translate my thoughts on it into some coherent writing. This task, though, is one that needs to be approached with care. In order to be fair, an acknowledgment of the commendable intentions of Culture Shock games must be balanced with a corresponding acknowledgment of the very real shortcomings of their final product. It does nobody any good to mince words, and to pretend that intention can overcome execution.

So, buckle up. I have five questions to ask about We Are Chicago.

1) Why was the game made with this particular visual style?

I first encountered We Are Chicago when it was shown at an indie game showcase that capped off INTERPLAY, a graduate student conference that I had a hand in organizing back in 2014. At the time, the game looked to me as if it was still in its early stages (which, given the timeline of its eventual release, seems to have been correct). The player spent a significant portion of the demoed section walking along the sidewalk of city streets—city streets that, in their current build, were oddly devoid of other people. Surely, I though, this was simply because character modeling and animation are resource-intensive processes. It made sense to start with the basics, to playtest the basic dialogue interactions, before taking the time to populate the game space.

Fast-forward to the game’s release. It still consists of long stretches of walking down streets on the South Side. Giving credit where credit is due, the team has done a nice job of replicating some of the architecture that one sees in this particular part of the city. But the streets are still so, so very empty.

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One could characterize this as a lack of polish. One could, if one was so inclined, attribute a lot of We Are Chicago‘s flaws to a “lack of polish.” Its character animations are stiff because of a lack of polish. Its framerate occasionally chugs to a crawl because of a lack of polish. One single musical cue repeats over and over and over again, ad nauseam, due to a lack of polish. Its streets are empty because of a lack of polish. Under this understanding, We Are Chicago has its heart in its right place—it just lacks polish.

I’m skeptical of the “lacks polish” frame, however. I usually have a fairly high tolerance for games that lack polish. Deadly Premonition (Access Games, 2010), among my favorite games of the past decade, lacks polish. (In fact, in certain senses it is less polished than We Are Chicago on the “polish” front. Its desaturated color palette is inexcusably ugly, it suffers from pops in its audio, and the way it handles driving is laughably bad.) What irks me about We Are Chicago is not just that it lacks polish, but that so many of its problems could have been easily avoidable if the team was willing to change up the game’s visual style.

Why does We Are Chicago need to be a 3D game, at all? Why put so many resources toward 3D modeling and motion capture, when the end results are so unconvincing? Given the size of the team and budget of the project, why not go a different direction? Cart Life (Richard Hofmeier, 2011) and Riot (Leonard Menchiari and Marco Agricola, 2017) demonstrate that 2D pixel art can be successfully combined with a socially conscious, politically progressive game. Heck, with things like To the Moon (Freebird Games, 2011) and OneShot (Team Oneshot, 2016), we even see RPGMaker being harnessed in service of emotionally rich stories.

I’m not saying that We Are Chicago should have been either of those styles, but I do think that the game’s developers could have more deeply interrogated what, specifically, they were getting out of using a 3D graphical engine for this game. Because from where I stand, I see a lot of tradeoffs for going that route, and struggle to see the real benefits.

2) Why do we set the table one utensil at a time?

Busywork can be a useful way of delivering exposition in games. Sure, Rockstar could just teleport you to the place where the action is in the Grand Theft Auto games. But they don’t. They make you drive to the site of the mission, for two reasons: 1) the pleasures of driving are an integral part of the pleasures of the game, and 2) it’s a way to deliver exposition and characterization, by giving their characters dialogue during long car rides.

Driving’s just busywork, but Rockstar turns the drives you go on in their games into exposition devices. Likewise, inventory management is busywork, but From Software turn it into an opportunity to deliver story through intriguing item descriptions in their Souls series. Given the player something to do for awhile while you also give them some more detail about the world is a well-worn tradition in game storytelling.

All of this is a prelude to saying that the “setting the table” scene in We Are Chicago is just utterly baffling. The only way to set it is for the player pick up one item from the kitchen—one plate, one glass, one single spoon—walk it over to table, place it, and repeat. Repeat through four plates, four glasses, four knives, four spoons, four forks, and a bowl.

Needless to say, this is awkward. I could have forgiven the game for this awkward moment, however, if the time the player was doing this busywork was at least allotted to some dialogue. Not so. The characters in the player-character’s vicinity speak for awhile, but then their dialogue runs out, and the scene proceeds in an uncomfortable silence that just serves to highlight your character’s utter incompetence at setting the table.

Now, I am up for the possibility of being bored in games. I think there’s something to be said for games exploring the quotidian. I’ve written an entire series of blog posts of representations of labor in games. In theory, I respect the developers’ decision to make the player work through Aaron’s fast food shifts, as a way of highlighting the normalcy of his life, and the ways in which gang violence can flow into that sense of normalcy.

But this section? My mouth was agape during it. Any intended setting up of quotidian normalcy, as a way of establishing the game’s realist bona-fides, was thoroughly quashed by the profound weirdness of acting out this task in this particular way.

3) Why is our character an outsider to this world?

I’ve pointed out a couple times that game developers such as Anna Anthropy and Mattie Brice have pushed back against the concept of “empathy games,” for the reasons that it 1) presents an easy shortcut to unearned feelings of allyship, and 2) overlooks the fact that many times they’re not attempting to address a group of less politically marginalized outsiders at all, but instead attempting to create conversations within their own communities.

The makers of We Are Chicago, however, don’t exhibit such misgivings. A couple of weeks ago, I attended one of South Side Weekly’s Public Newsroom events, where the game’s lead programmer, Michael Block, discussed the game’s creation and the lessons his team learned about interactive storytelling while making it together. The word “empathy” was thrown around a lot during this talk, and Block didn’t shy away from the “empathy game” frame.

This raises a question for me: Why, in We Are Chicago, an “empathy game” aiming to share the experience of living with gang violence in Chicago’s South Side, and the specific set of pressures that such an environment exerts on the youth who grow up in this milieu, is our player-character, Aaron, relatively inoculated from the pressures of gangs?

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As the game progresses, it becomes clear that Aaron’s friends are intertwined with gangs in ways they can’t extricate themselves from. Sometimes it’s a matter of family history and the assumptions that flow from that, other times it’s a matter of pressure from friends, but the game delivers a clear sense that these young men don’t have the luxury of disentangling themselves from a culture of violence. Due to a confluence of social factors, escaping this environment is difficult for them.

This is, however, not the case with Aaron. The character we play is comparatively above the fray. He doesn’t have the immediate family connections to gang life that his friends do. (His cousin Deon is the one exception to this, and it’s notably a cousin, and not a brother.) His family is a stablizing influence on him. His mother is the single head of his household, but his father was lost to illness, rather than violence or prison time. He also has adult role models such as his aunt and uncle, who extol the benefits of a high school diploma and a college education. His interest in the arts is nurtured by his family. His sister is precocious.

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Why was this approach chosen? Why is this game about what we might call “second order empathy”—that is, it puts us in the shoes of a guy who is concerned about his friends’ life choices, rather than directly in the shoes of someone forced to make those choices?

My guess is that Tony Thornton, the game’s writer, didn’t feel comfortable writing such a character. Aside from being an Englewood resident, Tony doesn’t have much in common with Justin or Rob, Aaron’s two friends who end up deep in the cycle of gang violence by the game’s conclusion. For one, he’s now sixty-two years old. This means that he’s amassed decades observing the South Side, yes, but it also means that he’s not necessarily in touch with the youth culture the game is attempting to depict. Thornton is a father, a student, and (obviously) a writer, and overall it’s pretty clear to me that the game’s preachy tone emerges from his particular worldview. The tendency for characters to suddenly launch into speeches about the importance of education (Aaron’s upcoming high school graduation is mentioned what feels like hundreds of times) is a part of this. Aaron’s outsider status is another piece of this puzzle. The way in which he largely glides above the fray, worried about his friends while at the same time not being quite of the same world they are, seems like a product of Thornton’s worldview and wariness of drifting too far from his own lived experience in writing this story.

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This isn’t a problem per se, but in the end I’m unsure if Culture Shock Games’ aims were met. It was a necessary and laudable step for the non-South Side residents of the team to reach out to Thornton, to gather some additional perspective rather than attempting to write the game themselves. In the end, though, I get the feeling that the team was placing more responsibility on Thornton than he could reasonably be expected to bear.

If Culture Shock Games really wanted to design a game that created “empathy” for today’s South Side youth, they would have benefitted by hiring additional writers and consultants (and notice I said hire—this should have taken the form of paid work, and not informal interviews) who could more specifically speak about navigating gang violence as a young person today. It is, after all, unreasonable for Thornton to be asked to speak for all South Side residents, in particular residents of a generation that he himself is not a part of. Additional input from other writers might have provided a counterweight to Thornton’s tendencies towards fatherly preachiness (tendencies that were, I suspect, amplified by Culture Shock Game’s overall “message game” mindset), and might have ultimately made Aaron into a more interesting character, someone whose navigation of artistic aspirations and street-level realities might have been more compromised, and more compelling.

4) Why is there no resource management?

I’m going to keep hitting on this issue of “compromise” here.

During the Public Newsroom talk I mentioned earlier, Block acknowledged forthrightly that he wanted to avoid games’ usual vocabulary of “choice and consequence.” He pointed to Spent (McKinny, 2011) as one example of the pitfalls of this approach. In case you haven’t encountered it before, Spent is a browser-based advocacy game that aims to educate its players about poverty by forcing them to manage the budget of someone living below the poverty line. It’s a clever idea for a serious game, but apparently there was one large problem with it: subsequent research showed that players of the game were actually more likely to characterize poverty as a “choice” after playing the game than before. One suggested reason for this was that, in presenting players with some sort of agency, they make poverty seem solvable, if only poor people made better decisions and exercised more personal responsibility.

Culture Shock Games’ solution to the “Spent problem” was simple: they stripped out all consequences for player choice. Nothing the player does changes the game’s path to its inexorable conclusion.

I’m not sure that this was the right call.

To be clear, I think it’s fine that the game only has one ending. I’m not someone who subscribes to the idea that games’ sole criterion of value is how many endings they have. But I don’t buy the idea that giving the player choices with consequences (even small consequences) inevitably leads to the conclusion that every problem can be solved by pulling yourself up by your bootstraps. I think there are some games—Cart Life and Papers, Please (3909, 2013) come immediately to mind—that get this balance right, allowing us to manage resources such as time and money while still keeping us in the mindset of a character who is nervously living on a financially and socially precarious edge.

So many of the necessary components of a time management system are already present in We Are Chicago, just sitting around in a poorly-utilized state. I have to admit I kind of dug how dopey Aaron’s job at the ribs place counter was. It gave me a pleasant, Shenmue-y tingle. (The ribs place itself, meanwhile, prompted a hankering for this South Side staple). But just imagine how much better the integration of Aaron’s job into the game would have been if you had been given some choices about shifts to pick up. What if there was a system in place where you had to choose between making a few more bucks working your boring job, studying for your finals, or helping your sister Taylor study for hers?

There wouldn’t have to be major consequences built into such a system. Just having players have to balance these options would go a lot further toward putting them in the mindset of someone like Aaron, and the specific compromises he faces that might affect things like academic achievement.

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Are you sure it was “Will” that didn’t give you the choice about picking up this shift?

Such a system would also go some way toward enriching the game’s simulation of Aaron’s distraction during the tests he takes in class. These sections failed for me, for two reasons. The first was the simple fact that we’ve recently seen tiny, micro-budgeted projects such as Animal Phase’s Into (2016) that simulate distraction much better than We Are Chicago does, with bold design choices that only serve to highlight the muddy visuals and preposterously large chunks of text of We Are Chicago‘s approach. The second, though, was that Aaron’s distraction in these moments didn’t seem to be an obvious consequence of any particular thing he was doing.

Here again, the problems of Aaron essentially being an outsider in his own story rears its head. This isn’t a story about Aaron’s struggles. It’s a story of how he worries about his friends’ struggles (and, for a time, his cousin’s struggles), while himself remaining above the fray. Even these brief glimpses into his poor academic performance—the one place where the game confronts us with Aaron’s own problems, rather than just having him being a witness to the problems of others—are framed not as the result of the compromises his circumstances force him to make (for instance, choosing financially necessary work shifts over studying time), but instead as the price he pays for constantly being concerned about everyone else. Even these moments in which we’re nominally placed in direct contact with Aaron’s subjectivity, his life is oddly devoid of its own internal stakes. He exists to react to the plight of others.

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Indeed.

We Are Chicago is a small-scaled game, and certainly it would be unrealistic to expect Persona-level simulation of a high school student’s time management. A choice here and there, though, would have helped everything click into place better.

5) Why do we cross the street?

Here, I’m just going to throw the following clip up. It’s the second of several “cross the street” moments in the game, immediately following the first time Aaron picks up his sister Taylor from school.

Why do we cross the street? Why do we cross the street? Putting aside entirely the issue as to whether one should noticeably cross the street to avoid a gang member (really, it might not be the best idea), there is a much larger issue here: What evidence does Taylor have that this man is a gang member? Other than the fact that he is a young black man, on Chicago’s South Side? If there are clues that prompt Taylor’s behavior—the color of the man’s clothing, for instance—the game utterly fails to alert them to us as players. The game doesn’t even let us get a good look at him—the game’s aggressive depth-of-field filter on renders him out-of-focus until the moment we pass him. If there are specific, nuanced signals that Taylor and Aaron are picking up on, they are utterly lost on the player.

This is truly a head-smacking problem. The goal of We Are Chicago is to get players to empathize with the plight of young black men on Chicago’s South Side, and truthfully it would be difficult to purposefully construct a scene more at odds with that goal than this one (which, again, re-occurs several times throughout the game). The best description I can come up with for this moment is “racism simulator.” We see a young black man on the street, and without reason—other than the fact that he is a young black man—we cross the street. Think about this for a second. Why would you want this in your game?

Phew. Okay. I’m not going to offer up some sort of final verdict on We Are Chicago. I think it’s clear throughout the questions that I’ve posed that I think the game has some serious problems. I’m glad that it has increased the public profile of nonprofits such as the All Stars Project and Reclaim Our Kids. I’m happy that a significant chunk of the money I spent on the game is going to those projects. But I can’t, in good conscience, neglect the game’s shortcomings because its heart was in the right place. Simply put, it’s not fair to have such low standards. The worlds deserves more and better games like this, and I happen to think that offering critique is a better way toward such goals, rather than offering a dejected shrug.

(My thanks goes out to two friends in particular who helped me sharpen some of my ideas on this game, but who will remain anonymous here, in case they don’t want their own views on it to be part of the public record.)

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