The team behind Never Alone have defined a new genre. They call it “World Games”; a genre that embraces the cultural and linguistic diversity of the people of the world and when you consider there are more than 6000 languages, in which there are billions of stories, there certainly is no shortage of material. Indeed, the mission statement behind World Games begins with these same statistics. What it doesn’t mention, however, is the fragility of this linguistic biodiversity.
Of those 6000+ languages, significantly more than half are severely endangered. 81% of the world’s languages, (a staggering 5776), are spoken by less than 0.13% of the Earth’s population. Of these languages, none have more than 100,000 speakers and most have less than 10,000. In Australia alone, of the just over 100 indigenous languages thought to be spoken now, few are thought to have viable populations to live beyond the year 2025, with the majority of Australian indigenous languages severely endangered or moribund. The fact is, the world’s languages are dying, at an alarming rate.
And against this backdrop, enter Never Alone.
Never Alone is a breath of fresh air in an industry that has for so long relied more on technical innovation than social progress. As main stream media increasingly turns its attention to the myriad of problems within the industry, we as gamers stand at a threshold of accepting these faults and changing them or accepting the status quo and answering valid criticism with apathy or sadly, vitriol. It is a contentious time in the gaming world and yet within this maelstrom comes a game that makes me want to stand between the combatants in the video game culture wars and scream, “look at this! This is what games can be! Can’t we all just play this?”
If you haven’t read the creative and social vision for Never Alone, you should even just the title for this webpage “World Games Inclusive Development” should give you some indication of the steps Never Alone is making to challenge the way in which games can be used as tools of social progress as much as means of entertainment.
Told entirely in the Iñupiat language of Alaska, Never Alone recounts the traditional story of Kunuuksaayuka, a story passed down from generation to generation by the same family; the eldest member of which, Miinie Gray, worked directly with the team behind the game alongside numerous members of the Alaskan Iñupiat community. Involving the local community within this the development process is a vital concern of the game’s developers as not only is the game designed to preserve the Iñupiat language but also to promote and encourage its use among a new generation of younger speakers. For linguists concerned with language conservation, myself included, Never Alone is a beautiful approach to taking the same technologies which are often cited as separating individuals from their traditions, as indeed, the problem and reimagining them as tools for the solution.
Taking control of a young Iñupiat you battle your way through a world threatening blizzard with your artic fox companion who may or may not be co-operatively controlled by a friend. It is worth noting that the traditional protagonist of Kunuuksaayuka is a boy. The developers consciously made the change to address what they felt was a lack of strong female leads in the gaming world, which looking at this summer’s triple A releases, is I feel, a welcome change. As with so much of the development of Never Alone, there is also a personal element to this decision, very simply, many of the developers’ children are young girls and they wanted them to have female leads they could look up to.
Oh and did I mention this game was gorgeous?
Side-scrolling platform games have always been a dyamic medium with regards to game art and particularly in recent years, we have seen a surge of both indi and mainstream releases that have taken the art of platformers to incredible heights. Never Alone is no exception, with the wind swept tundra vibrantly executed in a colour palette which is almost entirely whites and greys. The art style of the game is inspired by traditional Alaskan artworks and particularly aesthetic aspects of folklore and spiritualism. Ethereal shapes appear in the sky as you brace against the cold, barely visible against the wintery sky and yet visually arresting none-the-less. As you progress through the game, mini documentary films are unlocked, providing further detail on the people, culture and environment of Alaska.
So why do I think you should play Never Alone?
Firstly, it’s a beautiful game, which obviously is the product of a great deal of passion and thought. The game play is fluid and suits the nuanced means of storytelling that subtly engages the player in the journey of its protagonists and the sound and visual design are everything we can hope to expect from a next gen release. But there is more to it than that. This is a game that asks the player to engage with a culture with which they would otherwise have no contact and beyond that, to empathise with a community whose culture is sadly fading from the world. Empathy, or perhaps more singularly, ‘respect’, is a cornerstone of the development of Never Alone as is the appreciation of the fragility of the world’s indigenous languages. In our life time, 1000s of languages will sadly be gone forever but in respecting and engaging with the myriad of peoples around us, maybe this need not be the case. Playing Never Alone is more than just playing a game, it is a validation of a people, their culture and their language. It’s also a vote for a new direction in gaming culture, one that is inclusive, one that challenges the status quo and one that at its heart is deeply human.