“We all live in stories… and they need to be told. They need to be heard.” – Ishmael Angaluuk Hope
I was concerned when I started playing Never Alone. Worried that in the time between first playing a PAX demo of the game and the final version I had taken my expectation to such grand heights that I would leave myself open only to disappointment.
Thankfully, I needn’t have worried.
Never Alone feels like someone has crafted a singular work of art and, beaming, has sold it to me at a market stall.
This is not to say the game feels unpolished but rather that with each new level, each unlocked insight, each spec of blizzard swept snow, the incontrovertible passion behind the handiwork of the game’s developers, is palpable. “Provenance” has increasingly entered the Zeitgeist. The gradual shift of consumer consciousness to include the likes of craft beer, artisan bread and all manner of hand-made goods is indicative of people’s changing attitude to production. For some this is old news; just as some have been enjoying craft beer for decades, so too have gamers enjoyed the products of indie game developers. For others, including myself, the availability and awareness of indie games alongside AAA titles is an exciting new possibility. I was not surprised to see that the credits for Never Alone were mainly those of the Alaskan Elders and Iñupiat community members who contributed to the game. The design team itself being a relative handful of people in comparison. You can feel individuals behind every element of this game.
Righto Carlo but how does this all relate to me playing as a girl and a fox?
Look, there is so much great stuff in this game; The story, a re-imagining of the Iñupiaq story Kuunuksaayuka recorded by Robert Nasruk Cleveland is gently told as you work your way through abandoned villages, ice flows and across the frozen tundra, engaging you in the storytelling traditions of the Iñupiat. The game time sits around 5 hours to achieve 100% completion, which felt right, the story feeling neither rushed nor overly long. The visual design is superb, echoing traditional arts styles of the Alaskan people, perfectly evoking both the apparent sparsity of the frozen tundra as well as the concealed beauty this wilderness hides beneath this initial perception. For a game where the palate is almost all variations of grey and white, there is an incredible (and surprising, though perhaps not to Alaskans) depth and vibrancy of colour. Brendan J Hogan has composed a beautiful score for the game, which like the visual style, is intensely provocative through the minimalist use of subtle piano lines and an ambiance, again, evocative of the Alaskan wilderness.
The gameplay, while simple, avoids complacency for the player, providing challenge consistently throughout the adventure with a gradual learning curb towards the more difficult final parts of the game. There are some issues in the single player mode, playing as either the stories main protagonist “Nuna” or “Fox” will mean that the other may often undo your hard puzzle solving work by jumping back down from a difficult to reach ledge, however this was a minimal problem. The autosave and checkpoint system is excellent, long sets of puzzles which may otherwise be tedious seldom become repetitive as solving one puzzle generally means not having to backtrack should you fail the next. The insights, videos unlocked as you play detailing various aspects of indigenous Alaskan culture, are gorgeous. I only feel that it was a shame that these too were not in native languages, where possible.
Kisima Ingitchuna is the first of its genre “World Games” and hopefully, it is not the last; a beautiful piece of artwork that asks us to reassess the value we place, globally, on our indigenous peoples, their stories, their knowledge and their languages.