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VIDEO GAME REVIEW: In “Never Alone” Native Alaskans explore the future of oral tradition

(Courtesy of Upper One Games and E-Line Media)
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Never Alone (Kisima Ingitchuna)
Developer: Upper One Games and E-Line Media
Publisher: Upper One Games and E-Line Media
Available on: PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One

For smaller communities, storytelling can mean the difference between vitality and cultural irrelevance. If the stories a community tells itself about its history and its purpose are not enough to bind its members to a common cause, it stands to reason that its membership could ultimately be assimilated into neighboring communities capable of advancing more pervasive counterclaims.

The notion that video games can bolster the traditions of indigenous populations while vaulting over the pitfalls of cultural appropriation seems logical enough, but have you ever given it any thought? I can’t say that I have. Until recently, the most that I had hoped for from the game industry, with respect to the subject of diversity, was that it would expand its outreach efforts to lure more women and minorities into game development and offer players a broader set of avatars and NPC’s (non-playable characters) with which to interact.

Two and a half years ago, the members of the Cook Inlet Tribal Council (CITC) – a non-profit organization in Anchorage that provides educational and social services to Native Alaskan people – dared to envision something more. During a lunch meeting, the President & Chief Executive Officer of the CITC, Gloria O’Neill, broached the idea that a video game might be just the ticket to help supplement the organization’s funding and provide opportunities for people in their community.

"Never Alone" is a puzzle video game by E-Line Media, featuring an Iñupiaq girl named Nuna and her arctic fox. The game is built around stories from Native Alaskan culture told in eight chapters and is available for Microsoft Windows, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One. (Video: E-Line Media)

Out of the ensuing discussion Upper One Games was formed in 2012 beneath the umbrella of the CITC’s for-profit branch, CITC Enterprises, Inc. Fueled by the desire to make a video game that would reflect the values of its constituency, Upper One Games entered into a partnership with the New York-based E-Line Media. Together, they began to explore ideas for a product they could co-develop and co-publish. (In June, Upper One Games became a subsidiary of E-Line Media. Together, the consolidated management teams hope to pioneer a new genre for gaming, World Games, with the goal of “celebrating and extending world cultures through digital games.”)

After surveying a smorgasbord of books, recordings, and transcriptions from the works of oral storytellers, the team landed on “Kunuuksaayuka,”an Iñupiaq tale that was recounted by the late Iñupiaq storyteller Robert Nasruk Cleveland. In its traditional incarnation, the tale recounts the adventures of a boy – the product of a nomadic society – who goes on a quest to save his community from an apocalyptic blizzard. After securing the consent of Cleveland’s daughter, Minnie Aliitchask Gray, the development team in conjunction with representatives from the Iñupiat community reworked the story until they settled on a script that would become the basis for “Never Alone.” (The game’s Iñupiaq sub-title, “Kisima Ingitchuna,” translates to “I am Not Alone.”)

At the start of game, which is narrated in Iñupiaq with English subtitles, we meet Nuna. This resourceful young Iñupiat girl is introduced via a cutscene that’s made to resemble scrimshaw  artwork. (Customarily produced on ivory or baleen, scrimshaw is a form of engraving that has been used to record the history of Native Alaskan people.)  Nuna takes it upon herself to seek out the cause of an unrelenting blizzard that has rendered it impossible for the people of her village to pursue their normal hunting routines.

Besides changing the gender of the protagonist, another major liberty the developers took in adapting “Kunuuksaayuka,” was to give their heroine a fox as a companion. Nuna befriends Fox early in the game after he helps her to evade a polar bear. Whether or not players choose to play “Never Alone” in solo mode or co-op, its mechanics necessitate that the pair work together to overcome basic platforming challenges. Although I found the game to be quite manageable switching between both characters by myself, it probably flows better if one can find a partner to team up with.

As the duo braves harsh weather conditions, bracing themselves against headlong gales that would otherwise sweep them back or taking advantage of mighty rearward gusts that extend the length of their jumps, they encounter helpful spirits along the way.  Conversely, they must also contend with adversaries bent on waylaying their progress, such as a foe referred to as the “terrible man” or capricious spirits that emanate out of the aurora borealis. By successfully overcoming obstacles, players unlock short educational video interviews. These interviews with people involved in the development of  “Never Alone” touch upon various aspects of Iñupiaq culture ranging from the value of caribou skin clothing, to cherished myths of the Iñupiat people, to articulations of an ecologically mindful worldview.

Measured solely as a puzzle-platformer, “Never Alone” has nothing on games such as “Braid” or “Portal,” which offer far more intricate challenges. However, this is a game that transcends its gameplay. The bio of one of the game’s scriptwriters, Ishmael Angaluuk Hope, mentions that in his younger days he was ashamed of his Native Alaskan heritage. This notion of cultural shame was echoed in self-identified American Indian, Daniel Starkey’s Eurogamer review. In his piece, Starkey credits the game as “[standing] in absolute defiance of everything that I’ve grown to be, not only telling me to be better, but showing me how.” Behind his moving appraisal is the idea that the game never gives in to self-pity. It takes the traditions of a people not celebrated in the global spotlight and holds them aloft, confident in their intrinsic value. I’ve never enjoyed another title that seems to carry the dignity and hopes of a community upon its shoulders. And I can scarcely think of a better recent title for parents to play with young children.

Christopher Byrd is a Brooklyn-based writer who has been playing video games since the days of the Atari 2600. His writing has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, The Barnes & Noble Review, Al Jazeera America, the Guardian, and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Byrd.

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