Ray Graham has been working on the game from the start, in early 2016. He's 20 years old, loves Skyrim and hopes to attend college in the fall.
"If you're from Brownsville, you'd recognize it," he said. "And the people of Brownsville that we got in, you'd recognize [them]."
In Fireflies: A Brownsville Story, you'll play as two young characters -- one male, one female -- who have been separated by historical neighborhood conflicts and are both aspiring documentarians. You explore the majority-black neighborhood interviewing residents and taking photos, a mechanism Graham said was influenced by Rockstar Games' Bully.
While there are minigames and dreamscape sequences too, the final game may be similar to a "walking simulator" like Gone Home or Firewatch. But in a neighborhood divided into micro-territories according to which public housing development one comes from, being able to walk anywhere and speak to anyone is a significant experience.
"This video game is about space," said Nicholas Pilarski, a documentary filmmaker who oversaw production of Fireflies and teaches at Carthage College in Wisconsin. "It made total sense for us to work in virtual reality because we could build systems that allow young people to experience and walk to different parts of their community that the territorial divides might have not allowed to happen otherwise."
Pilarski describes himself as a community documentary maker, exploring how to make media not as a sole creator, but in joint authorship with the subjects. With Fireflies, the aim is to mollify historical conflicts and, in development, the makers brought together participants from several of the area's ubiquitous public housing developments. (Brownsville has the highest concentration of these buildings in New York City.) The idea is that if you can chat with digital people from a rival complex in the game you'll be more likely to do so in real life.
Players will encounter over 100 real-life residents in the game from chefs to store owners to Graham's mom's friends. They might wax lyrical on their first kiss, the best pizza in the neighborhood, the police or surviving the AIDS epidemic, creating a kind of oral history.
The NPC's stories were recorded by young Brownsville residents able to draw out more authentic dialogue than what an anthropologist or journalist might grab if they parachuted onto the block for a few days of field research. The project is by Brownsville, for Brownsville.
"I fell in love with the script because it feels real," said Graham, who comes from the Seth Low Houses just down the street from the community center. "It feels like it would be in reality -- people would say these things."