Tony Thornton grew up in the tough streets of Chicago. He knows how you have to make the right choices to survive in neighborhoods that are plagued by gang violence. And he wants to convey that story to a new generation of video game players with We Are Chicago.
After four years in development, We Are Chicago debuts today on Steam on Windows, Mac OS, and Linux. It was developed by Culture Shock Games, a team of diverse backgrounds in Chicago, headed by Michael Block, who financed the project with money he made from an earlier game. Thornton, 62, served as the writer, and he gave the game its credibility and authenticity.
The story is about a high school student named Aaron who grows up in a tough neighborhood on the south side of Chicago. His world is unraveling, his best friend has stopped showing up to school, and Aaron has to make the right choices. Thornton breathed life into the narrative adventure game, creating moments like when a family tenses up but continues eating dinner at the sound of gunshots outside their home.
Proceeds from the game will benefit two Chicago non-profits, All Stars Project of Chicago and Reclaim Our Kids. I talked with Thornton about the process of writing the story and creating the game. It took me back several decades to when I used to walk the South Side of Chicago as a journalism student.
Here’s an edited transcript of our talk.
GamesBeat: It’s an unusual project. I’ve been writing about video games for 25 years, and I’ve never come across a game like this.
Tony Thornton: So I’ve been told. I have no experience with games whatsoever. I don’t play games. My generation had things like Pokemon and the like, but I wasn’t too keen on that. So it was quite a fascinating turn of events that got me involved with the project.
GamesBeat: How did you meet and get acquainted with Michael Block?
Thornton: At the age of 58, I went on a program that President Obama had signed into law called the Veterans Retraining Assistance Program. I received a certain amount of dollars a month to go to school. That program ended and I would have had to go back to work, which would have impeded my progress in school, in order to keep putting food on the table.
I was talking to one of my professors, asking if there were any jobs available at the school, so I wouldn’t have to commute back and forth to a job every day. She said, “Well, there’s a gentleman looking for a writer for a video game.” I told her I didn’t know anything about video games, but she said, “You can write well. If you can write for one medium, you can write for any medium.” Through the director of our program, the media and communications program, I was put in touch with Michael. We kind of clicked together, and the rest is history.
GamesBeat: He mentioned that you were more interested in writing for movies at first.
Thornton: Exactly, yeah. My hope is to become a screenwriter, to do screenplays. But this has opened up a whole new field for me, so who knows?
GamesBeat: What career were you switching from when you became a writer?
Thornton: I had a number of jobs, but my two biggest careers—I was a mailman for 12 years, and I sold cars for about 12 years, which I hated. I didn’t want to go back to selling cars. The place where I was a salesman went out of business, and at that point—I drew unemployment for a while, and when that ran out, I thought, “God, what am I going to do?” A buddy of mine says, “Hey, Obama signed this bill into law. We can get paid to go to school.” I’d always toyed with the idea of finishing my education, so I went for it.
GamesBeat: You mentioned you were in the armed services.
Thornton: Yes, I was in the Army. On paper I’m considered a Vietnam-era veteran, but the Vietnam conflict was a few years before me.
GamesBeat: Do you have another job now, besides going to school?
Thornton: Right now I’m working at an internet television station. I’m using the associate’s degree I got in my field. I’m the technical director, and we stream live via YouTube. I’m the engineer in the control room making everything happen. This is in Roseland, not far from where I’m at, maybe 15 or 20 blocks away.
GamesBeat: So you grew up on the South Side, which made you familiar with everything around there?
Thornton: I grew up in Englewood, as did our protagonist. The things I’m writing about, I lived all those things that the character goes through.
GamesBeat: How early on was it clear to you that this was a different kind of game? Something that wasn’t a crime story, a shoot-em-up.
Thornton: I was aware of that from the beginning. I wouldn’t have had it any other way. I didn’t want to do something that magnified the negatives about our neighborhood. I wanted to do something that understood the positive things and magnified them. As Michael was interviewing me, I was interviewing him at the same time. Here’s a young white guy from suburbia, right? Our neighborhood has been pimped out any number of times, and I wasn’t going to be a part of a project that took advantage of the negative things in our neighborhood and ignored the fact that there are way more hard-working, positive aspirants in our neighborhood than there are gang-bangers.
GamesBeat: Was the story based on something you’d been writing already?
Thornton: Michael and his team had done extensive research on the neighborhood and the characters before I began writing for the project. They already had a framework for how the story would go. They simply needed me to flesh out that story, so to speak.
GamesBeat: What was your view of him at first?
Thornton: Coming up in the neighborhood, as I did—what comes to mind is a song by Marvin Gaye for the movie Trouble Man. He said, “I come up hard.” Coming up in our neighborhood, you had to be able to quickly assess a situation, assess the people you would meet, whether they were a threat or not, friend or foe. In any number of instances growing up, we had to be prepared to fight or run. You quickly develop a nose for sizing people up.
After speaking with Michael for a short period of time, I said, “He’s genuine. He means well.” And from that point on it was just a matter of the merits of the project. But I was pretty sure early on that he was a straight shooter.
GamesBeat: Was that, what, four years ago now?
Thornton: Right, four years ago.
GamesBeat: How long did your participation in the project last? What did you want to capture to make the story feel more authentic?
Thornton: I probably finished my leg of the race in four to five months. I was aiming for realism first and foremost. When I grew up, in that same neighborhood, our parents wanted the best for us. They wanted more opportunity for us than they had for themselves. They pushed education. Education would be our ticket out, our ticket to a better life, a more fulfilling life. We were taught that an education gave you options. You could do something you loved to do, something that wasn’t a grind.
Having that type of training at home, and then having parents who had a moral compass—myself and my friends growing up, none of us were gang-bangers. There were certainly gang-bangers around, but we weren’t allowed to do those things. Likewise, I felt that the protagonist, he came from a good family. They had a moral compass. There were things that he wasn’t capable of. Being in a gang would be untenable for him.
GamesBeat: The idea that this game was going to be about the choices you make, was that the plan all along?
Thornton: Right. Again, this is what Michael and his team had already worked out when I got there. When I began to write, my editor would say, “Okay, you need to put more choices in there.” So the player would have all these different options, instead of it just being a one-way street. My editor, Cynthia, reminded me of that on occasion. It made me a much better writer, and not just for video games. Going ahead, thinking about a character being at a crossroads and having different options they could entertain.
GamesBeat: What do you feel is the statement or the message that the game is trying to convey?
Thornton: Originally, the market Michael intended was for other people like himself, from neighborhoods that were light-years away – geographically and logistically – from Englewood. They couldn’t even conceive of the problems that face the people in that neighborhood. To a person in their car driving through, looking at the neighborhood and looking at the people, they’d have certain impressions without really knowing anything about the life there. Michael’s idea was that if they knew more about that lifestyle, they’d appreciate the people there more, the fact that they live in situations that force them to make decisions that people in suburbia don’t have to make. The gangs, the violence, the drugs, the pervasive atmosphere of oppression that white folks in the suburbs don’t have to live with.
Thinking from the perspective of a white suburbanite, I’d say, “Wow, if I lived on the South Side of Chicago under these circumstances, how would I have turned out? What would my life be like if I was confronted with violence and crime? I’m trying to raise my family and live a positive light, but I’m confronted on all sides by negativity, or the specter of negativity. I have to make these choices and make the best of my life. Would I rise to the top or settle to the bottom, making concessions that I wouldn’t want to make, but felt forced to make?”