Never Alone is a platformer based on traditional Iñupiat stories. Girl-child Nuna and her arctic-fox companion make a dangerous journey through the far North to find the source of unseasonal blizzards that threaten her village. There’s some mild co-op puzzling and a lot of pursuit sequences; it feels somewhat like a less-creepy LIMBO (and, now that I look it up, the devs have cited that as an influence).
The cool thing about it is that it was developed in a collaboration between a corporate subsidiary of the Cook Inlet Tribal Council and an education-oriented game development company – its germination was not Random Game Developer going ‘hunh, we’re making a game with Eskimos in it, right? I guess we’d better get buy-in from some actual Eskimo’, but an Iñupiat desire to convey their traditional stories in accessible modern media.
Some context: a major feature of Alaska Native cultures is the age gap. Successive waves of assimilationist policy have stripped away culture, generation to generation – most recently, from about WW2 to the 70s, a widespread program of boarding-schools which separated Alaska Native children from their families, communities and culture. The survival of Native cultures relies on their transmission to young people, but much of that knowledge is lost, and a great deal of the remnant is stored in dry ethnographic tomes and the oral traditions of elders, which are not media deeply exciting to children. Weighed against that, there’s the vast weight of Western media – which represents Native people seldom and badly, true, but is also just overwhelming in its volume, availability, popularity. It is a struggle to retain identity as Culture A when the vast majority of your options for cultural consumption come from Culture B.
And thus Kisima Inŋitchuŋa, which is narrated in Iñupiat, exists in a wholly Iñupiat world, and deals with issues relevant to that community (it is a story, at heart, about climate change, which is already a huge problem in the far North).
Through play, you unlock Cultural Insights, short documentary clips in which Iñupiat ambassadors talk about aspects of their culture that inform the game. (Completing the game doesn’t necessarily unlock all of them – or, to my reckoning, give you a very good idea about how you might approach doing so, but then I am the very worst person at discovering hidden stuff in platformers.) This approach, importantly, reveals rather the real Iñupiat (rather than presenting the story as a fossil of an obscured people), and maintains an emphasis on the traditional importance of oral history. They’re short and to-the-point; the game is very much made with the classroom in mind. (We finished it, with crap platformer skills and watching all the clips we found, in about four hours.)
Gameplay-wise, Never Alone is so very much not my kind of thing that I am probably not best-qualified to judge it. Mostly I’d say that it shows off a solid if unremarkable competence: the two player characters complement one another, the levels offer non-trivial challenge but are intuitive enough that we never got seriously stuck, the levels offer decent thematic variation that’s tied into the story and gives a strong sense of setting. If there’s anything off, it’s that the controls aren’t always as responsive as I’d like, which can be a pain under timed conditions.
Never Alone is not an indie project expressing a particular person’s vision, but is adapted to several sets of expectations: the so-called family-friendly expectations of Western children’s media, the narrative expectations of Western stories, the standard language of platformers, other concerns about representation in gaming. It is not, within those frames, an exceptional or genre-challenging work, and I don’t think it’s setting out to be.
The game is rhetorically really invested in telling a story about community. (Certainly its marketing is pushing pretty hard on gaming as a social, family-friendly activity.) The insight clips express strong values of interdependence between individuals, community and environment. The title seems like a thesis statement. I am mad interested in this: videogames have a tendency towards lone-wolf protagonists, independent, self-sufficient, aristo assholes. Some of this is, no doubt, an artefact of late-capitalist American culture; some is inherent (art simplifies life: people are complicated and hard to simulate). Games which take community seriously are rare and interesting; moreover, this is an area of gaming where the bar is pretty low, and should be a ripe field for big exciting advances.
The trick, here, is that Never Alone‘s core story is a journey to restore the social order by defeating monsters that threaten it, a pattern that centrally involves the hero leaving behind the community they’re working to defend. So how does it deal with the subject?
Nuna, the protagonist, is constantly accompanied by a second character, a cute Arctic fox whose distinct abilities open paths that Nuna could not manage alone. It’s designed for two-player play, and is probably a little easier that way, if only because the AI will occasionally lead characters into silly deaths. (I played it together with Jacq, but our desktop doesn’t have a controller so we just hot-seated. Which was fine, since it gave us breaks from getting killed all the time.)
The pair are regularly assisted by spirit-helpers, which act as simple mechanical elements that can be moved around (to, e.g., form a moving platform). Much of the puzzling is about Fox drawing spirits within range of Nuna so that she can use them to continue onwards. In one sense, the spirits – the most striking and uncanny art element of the game – are offering constant aid and support. At the same time, however, they are rendered as simple mechanical elements, most without any volition of their own, lacking individuality or narrative motive. Representing community is a thing that is difficult and important in games: Never Alone doesn’t have strong answers for how to do this.
To put it another way: one of the things I want out of a story are the parts that are not adapted to me, the things I have to work to make sense of. The conflict between pious Buddhists and animal-demon Taoist frauds in Journey to the West. The recurring death, butchering, and transformational use of organs in San stories. Why everyone in Grimm is at risk of starvation, conscription or both. The threat, in Tlingit stories, of being taken away by animals to their liminal realms, underwater or inside mountains, and changed into one of them. Those stories are glimpses into systems material and cultural, structures of valuing and understanding the world.
Games are ways of narratively exploring systems, so at first glance they’d seem an incredible way of representing the distinctive internal logic of stories. But it is really hard (which usually means, expensive) to come up with new models that say distinct things, which make interaction and content complementary while still working as games: which is why most game designers spend most of their time playing it safe. And Never Alone is already doing one challenging, laudable thing.
An awful lot of game narratives are heavily reliant on myths, old and new, that are inescapably Western (and predominantly Anglo, for that matter). I am super-excited by games with a heavy foundation in specific cultures, but I have played… how many games about colonising a (usually-uninhabited) New World? That is a cultural myth for which we have expressions in strong, well-established game-design. If you want to tell that story, you’re starting out at one hell of an advantage.
The graphics, too, show signs of having been softened and conventionalised from the creepier, more conspicuously Native-art-inspired concept art. Nuna and Fox would not look out-of-place in a Disney production; the art is pretty, but less distinctively pretty than I had hoped for. (Again, there is much that is inobtrusively solid here: the use of colour and light is strong, the animation feels natural.) This makes it less appealing to me, but may serve it well in its goals – this was conceived of as an investment for a tribal corporation, not just an act of expression. This is a balance that I’ve seen indigenous art traditions contend with in many places – adapting native art styles so that rich tourists can better recognise their subject-matter, flattening baskets so that they display better on walls. Art evolves, artists make their choices, plus ça change, right? – but the difference here is that for an artform to stand in support of a living culture you need not just works but genres, not just distinctive content but distinctive form. No one work should be expected to provide all that.
Ultimately, Never Alone is not my kind of game; it nonetheless represents an approach (‘sharing, celebrating and extending world cultures through digital games‘) that I would really like to see a great deal more of. (To that end, I commend to your attention Beneath Floes, a beautifully illustrated, unnerving Twine folklore piece currently in a Kickstarter to be translated into Inuktitut, another Inuit language. I am interested in whatever else people can recommend in this area.)