The subject of gang violence has been a thing in video games in the past, albeit usually with you playing either as a gangster trying to win a gang war or as police trying to stop the violence. We Are Chicago takes a different side, diving into the lives of a regular family as they just try to live in Chicago. It wants to tell a story we usually see in film or book, attempting to translate it into a narrative game instead. Does We Are Chicago succeed, or should you move?
You play as Aaron, a high school senior trying to get through graduation while taking care of his mom and little sister after his father died. Living on the south side of Chicago comes with its disadvantages, namely a large amount of gang violence. Aaron will have to balance his time with his friends, taking care of his family, working on his poetry, studying for school, and working at a dead-end fast food job. It's not a bad start, but the actual plot line follows the same general beats as basically every movie, book, or other media that has tackled the same subject. You can easily guess the outcome of the game by about a quarter of the way in, and there are no shocking twists to be had.
Worse, the game doesn't really tell its story well. A large chunk of the game is just you stuck walking along a set path with one or two other characters as they mostly converse about nothing. Awkwardly, Aaron doesn't have a voice at all, and his side of the conversations become awkward bouts of silence while subtitles go across the bottom of the screen. It kills all conversational flow when characters just stop and stare at you between their dialogue lines. I assume the idea is to make you "be" Aaron, but since Aaron is already a character with personality traits and interests that are predefined, that conceit doesn't work.
It also doesn't help that the game's voice acting is extremely sub-par at best. Characters are fine when they're just sitting around talking about day-to-day events, but they carry that same conversational tone to the important or life-changing events too. It's hard to take a gang shooting seriously when everyone is talking about it so casually. A strange late-game lecture from Aaron's mom feels more like it would belong in an after-school special about gang violence as it awkwardly tries to shoehorn some morals into a conversation.
During the story, you'll have to make dialogue choices as Aaron. Similar to Telltale's games, these choices will give you notes about how the other characters will remember this or how they notice how you're acting. Unlike Telltale games, these choices have absolutely no effect on the story. Some may extend conversations a little longer, but no matter what you say or do there will be the exact same events happening every time you play We Are Chicago no matter what.
I feel a little bad trashing We Are Chicago's story because I really do believe it has a unique angle that isn't utilized by many games. It's just that every time it felt like it was turning around it would find some new way to take me out of the story. I really gave it the best chance I could, but then something would just make me roll my eyes. A dramatic shooting fails when the gun makes no sound or has no muzzle flash. A work segment feels strange when a character goes to work in their street clothes instead of a work uniform. Conversations have strange flows because all the dialogue choices lead to the same answers even if it doesn't really fit. Every moment the game continued to fumble its story.
There's no real gameplay to save it either. The most you have is when Aaron goes to work, leading to a strange minigame that's not much fun. Basically, you listen to what the customer wants, mark their order, and then make change for a $10. It's always a $10 for reasons unexplained. Apparently, all of Chicago carries nothing but $10s with them. The entire time you're working out how much change you should give the customer cheers you on and encourages you to not make mistakes, and they congratulate you on getting their order right and giving the correct change. It's slow, boring, laughably weird, and just interrupts the story. I sort of understand that's the point, that it's supposed to be reflective of Aaron's boring dead-end job, sort of like what Cart Life was trying to do. Yet when a game's focus is on telling a story, interrupting the story several times with lengthy work sequences doesn't help convey it at all. Otherwise, you set a table once which is little more than moving dishes from point A to point B, but that's about it.
As far as presentation goes, We Are Chicago is a bit of a mess. It's not impressive technically, which I wasn't really expecting considering the game's independent roots, but there are still some awkward moments. There are long scenes of walking that are mostly composed of characters going through this canned animation while Aaron walks slightly behind so you don't have to see their faces. Subtitles would occasionally display on buildings or desks to look dramatic, but often it just made them hard to read. It's distracting when one of the gangsters is clearly just the exact same model as one of Aaron's friends, only with a red shirt instead of a green one. The audio leaves much to be desired too, the game's soundtrack is composed of a few minimalist songs, one of which seems to play on repeat for about 3/4ths of the game.
We Are Chicago tries to end on a somber tone but also features Aaron walking in slow motion while a rap song plays over an awkward credit sequence. It's a real shame to see the game's constant stumbles and failures, with moments like that one completely destroying the story. I do believe that the developer's hearts were in the right place and that they were trying for something unique. I would love to see this kind of story handled better, but there's just no real getting around it. We Are Chicago really just couldn't manage to escape.
We Are Chicago was reviewed on PC via Steam using a copy provided by the developer.
We Are Chicago really wants to tell a story that most games don't want to touch upon, but it completely fails at delivering that story in a satisfying manner.
- Attempts a Unique Storyline
- Story is Weak and Nonsensical at Times
- Bad Voice Acting
- Boring Gameplay
- Poor Presentation