Early last year, I became aware through Tumblr about a Kickstarter for a new video game by an independent developer. There’s no shortage of indie titles in the gaming world, I know, but it was the premise that caught my eye.
It’s about a non-white, female protagonist on a quest tied to Alaska Native mythology. That’s a sentence you’d never expect to hear when you consider the subject matter of most mainstream games, but it works because this is a game that was created with the support and approval of the Cook Inlet Tribal Council, an indigenous support group in Alaska.
Never Alone, also known by its Alaskan Inuit title Kisima Inŋitchuŋa, is a puzzle platformer with a story centered on a young girl named Nuna who sets out to discover the mystery behind an everlasting blizzard. With the help of an Arctic fox and several spirits she encounters along the way, Nuna braves the dangers of polar bears, cracking ice floes, and sinister mythical creatures like the Little People and Manslayer.
So what does this game have to offer?
- Beautiful, detailed animation. Everything about this game is simply beautiful. From the rich snowy background to the fluid movement of Nuna and the fox to the rich detail on characters like Owl Man, you’ll find your eyes drifting over every little thing, especially when they evoke the traditional art style of the Iñupiat.
- Deep roots in Alaska Native mythology and culture. While you do unlock achievements in this game, part of the fun is that you also unlock short videos on Iñupiat culture as you play. These videos consist of interviews with elders and members of the Iñupiat community in Alaska, who give their insight on a variety of cultural matters dealt with in the game, such as caribou clothing, hunting practices, and oral storytelling traditions. The game itself includes an ongoing narration based on an oral tale called “Kunuuksaayuka” as told by Iñupiaq storyteller Robert Nasruk Cleveland.
- Issues with timing and jumping. When going into a puzzle platformer, you have to expect a lot of jumping from one level to another, and on that level, Never Alone doesn’t disappoint. However, I did get frustrated when it came to using the right keys at the right time in order to jump my character from one ledge to another (and not, as was often the case, send her overshooting and dropping into the cold dark waters below).
- A lack of auto or manual save features. While I mostly played this game for the experience of seeing an indigenous folk tale told through the medium of video games, I did bring a gamer’s eye to the table. On that note, some of the challenges were aggravating in that I couldn’t rely on auto-save or make my own checkpoint. If you screw up at certain points in the game, your character will respawn at the very start of the level or right before having to outrun a deadly opponent. I get that this game isn’t supposed to be about beating challenges like you would in Halo or Titanfall, but at the same time, being able to go back to a point in the game where I’d saved would make for less headaches while playing.
- Co-op gameplay mechanics. It’s possible to control both Nuna and the fox as a single-player mode, but I think you’ll only get the best possible experience if you’re playing this with a friend. Some puzzles and platforming challenges require quick but separate reactions from both Nuna and the fox, which is hard on someone who has to switch between them on the same controller.
I’ve always believed that video games can mean different experiences for everyone. It’s not always about skill trees and achievements. Sometimes it’s about delving deep into new worlds and characters—or in the case of Never Alone, exploring Iñupiaq culture and folklore through the epic journey of a cute girl and her Arctic fox pal. If you’re patient enough to hear out the story, you’ll come away with something neat from a lesser-known voice in our world.
Bibliography: Never Alone. Developed by Upper One Games and E-Line Media. Published by E-Line Media. Unity (engine). Platforms: Microsoft Windows, PlayStation 4, Xbox One. Original release date: November 18, 2014.