Engraved figures dance along scrimshawed bone, carrying the cultural stories of the Iñupiat people to the medium of games and setting the stage for Never Alone’s tale. Soon after these vivid images, a young girl appears, trudging onwards through the ever growing blizzard joined only by her determination and a newly befriended arctic fox to discover the source of this never ending snowstorm.
Never Alone, or Kisima Ingitchuna in the native Iñupiat tongue, is a unique game. Its takes the form of a new exploration of the video game medium that blends puzzle platformers with the tales and values of a culture to preserve and share these with diverse, worldwide audiences.
This title is the first in a genre of what creators E-Line have called ‘World Games’ or ‘game-based cultural storytelling’. This new paradigm the creators are pioneering works on the principles of combining cultural stories and collaboration with indigenous peoples with commercial game production. This is the first of a hopefully emergent trend, but it’s also the first game to explore native Alaskan peoples and incorporate them into the development and production of a game. A native team worked to review plans and contribute throughout development from conception and art design to the final product, shaping a game that represents their culture in an accurate way.
During PAX Australia I got to sit down with some of the team from both sides of development, Alan Gershenfeld, Co-Founder and President of E-Line and Amy Freeden, Lead Cultural Advisor at E-Line and also the CFO of the Cook Inlet Tribal Council (CITC). They walked me through some of the background to the game’s creation and let me play a few different sections of the game solo and in co-op.
In the game you play as a young girl, Nuna, and her arctic fox companion, setting out on a journey based in traditional Alaskan folklore to save her people from an endless blizzard. The core story follows the native tale “Kunuuksaayuka”, with indiviual chapters of the game drawing inspiration from wider stories to bring the values and themes of Iñupiat culture to life. Themes like that of interdependency, resiliency and generational sharing come through at the core of the experience, with the gameplay echoing that cooperative mindset and narrative driven by the stories passed down from ancestor to ancestor.
As a puzzle platformer, Never Alone takes its cues from titles like Limbo and Braid, creating a gameplay experience that feels very natural and familiar. It also shares similarities with UbiArt Framework games like Child of Light and Valiant Hearts, quite a diverse blend of a lot of the noteworthy titles out there. An interesting feature that is directly reminiscent of Valiant Hearts is the games ‘insight’ system, where small documentaries take the form of collectables, each one relating to and expanding the context of that area in game. These videos feature film and footage of the native Alaskan people who worked on and with the game, giving a new perspective to what you’re playing.
I played several sections from the start up to about midway through the game, enough to get a good feel for the variety but not enough to spoil the unfurling narrative. Playing as Nuna is smooth and familiar, and swapping between her and the arctic fox is quick and easy if you’re playing by yourself. Cooperative play works really well too, aimed at all audiences. Whether you sit down with a partner and play it on date night, play it with kids or even just enjoy it with friends, it felt like an experience that was enhanced by playing together.
Allow me a moment to highlight the care put into animations in Never Alone. Every step, jump or hop has real character to it, and I often found myself pushing the stick at varying speeds to watch the slight variations in the way Nuna moves. Similarly idle animations and the interactions between Nuna and the fox are stunning, it’s really a treat to sit and watch them bond in such an authentic manner. The way the character animations have been put together feels really considered and natural, one of the little things that really made me smile during my time with the game.
Through the blizzard and swirling snow you often see glimpses of landscapes or structures between you and the horizon. For a side-scrolling platformer the environment has quite a fascinating depth to it, with interesting objects and far off natural formations placed amongst the obscuringly beautiful winds and snow.
This brings me to the puzzles, designed to be challenging, but also to be very accessible and fit in with the ideas underpinning the game. The puzzles I played encourage thought and cooperation without ever reaching irritation; in fact many of the near misses or falls provided a good laugh and discussion about solving them with Alan, who had joined me to play co-op as the arctic fox. It really felt like they had worked hard to ensure the puzzles would be fun for adults to play together, but also so that children or a parent and child could enjoy them the same.
Never Alone is a truly fascinating title that I have thought about a lot since I was introduced to it at PAX Australia, it was the game I told everyone to make sure they checked out on the show floor. For me this game is an example of where, as a medium, video games can go – we can use them to preserve, share and embrace new experiences and cultures well outside our normal realms of engagement. The staff at E-Line have worked to build a game that seems to capture the spirit of a people, in collaboration with them all along the way, and I think that is a truly beautiful notion.
Alan noted that since the announcement of Never Alone he’d been approached by other cultures to produce similar works, showcasing their heritage and culture, and I really hope that these projects happen. As a society we’ve been presented with powerful tools to enable the stories and words of everyone to be shared, and Never Alone seems to me like a seizing of that opportunity, sharing something real and relatable with people all over the world.
Never Alone releases November 18th on Steam, and via digital download on Playstation 4 and Xbox One. With an ambitious goal, gorgeous art and a new cultural narrative, E-Line’s ‘world game’ is definitely one to check out come launch day.