Discover a video game with Deep Inupiat Folklore
I reviewed Attentat 1942 and Svoboda 1943: Liberation, and both of these games were story games in the sense that the game was the story delivery mechanism.
Never Alone: Arctic Collection is a bit like them in that the goal of the game is to convey the beauty of the Inupiat culture that inspires the game.
Where Never Alone differs from Czech history games is that Never Alone is actually meant to be a game, rather than an interactive anthropological treatise. Never Alone both succeeds and suffers, but the game is so beautiful and the world so fascinating that I hope you forgive the game for its shortcomings.
Never Alone sees Nuna, a young girl, befriend a most unusual arctic fox and the two travel through the frozen wilderness in order to investigate a strange blizzard that threatens Nuna’s village. Along the way, you collect more or less hidden collectibles that trigger videos involving individual Inupiat telling you a bit about their culture and stories mixed with beautiful shots of the Alaskan wilderness. You have the option to skip these videos, but you really shouldn’t. Stories fit perfectly with the moments they happen in the game and give the events unfolding around you a meaning and symbolism that you would otherwise miss.
The game opens with the text “Kisima Ingitchuna”, which translates to “I am not alone”, and the game really emphasizes the interconnectedness of the world of Nuna and, by extension, that of the Iniupiat. The game’s plot is based on Inupiat folklore and traditional stories, especially “Kunuuksaayuka”. This story centers on a young boy who goes to discover the source of a blizzard and meets Blizzard Man who uses an adze to cut the snow which is carried towards the village by the wind. The boy steals the adze and then returns home where he hides with his mother in their hut, refusing to return the adze to Blizzard Man. Blizzard Man, having followed Kunuuksaayuka to the hut, cries out for his adze, but the boy stands strong. Eventually, Blizzard Man leaves and the weather around the village returns to normal.
In the game, Kunuuksaayuka has become Nuna, but the themes remain. She’s an unlikely heroine who always stands up against adversity, using her wits, the help of the magical fox, and the teachings of her culture. She faces the relentlessness of her harsh environment, but I don’t think her story is one of overcoming adversity. It’s more about restoring balance, which is an important distinction. Never Alone is about being part of the world, and while Nuna is on this great journey, she is not a chosen one. At one point, one of the speakers observes that the Inupiat don’t see themselves as the most important creatures in the world, and that philosophy informs the whole game. It really is a welcome change from the more traditional narratives we see in video games.
The game’s art style also draws on traditional Inupiat visual design with great attention to detail. Nuna’s clothes sport some cute design touches, for example, but most importantly, the game looks simply stunning. The developers have done a wonderful job of blending the traditional with a clean style that translates well into the gaming experience. The soundtrack is equally clean, given that it’s carefully minimalistic. The game’s backgrounds change from frozen tundra to frozen caves, and always in the background you can see the northern lights. In 2017, Dima Verovka of E-Line talks about wanting to create a vibe, and honestly I think they succeeded because I definitely found myself sucked into the world they were creating. I haven’t really felt engaged in a game since Hoa.
However, the game is careful to remind players that Nuna’s world is hardly safe. In Never Alone, yes, Nuna can die, and sometimes it’s pretty terrible. Death doesn’t necessarily mean much, but it reinforces that Nuna’s environment is unforgiving. Before we even get to the game’s supernatural characters, Nuna must battle hungry polar bears and ice cubes.
In terms of actual gameplay, this is where Never Alone falters a bit. Never Alone is a fairly standard puzzle platformer, although you have the option to switch between Nuna and her fox companion. In other games this switch seems more fanciful, but in Never Alone it becomes a metaphor for the interconnectedness of the Inupiat world. Generally, it works wonderfully, and then all of a sudden, the mechanics takes a bit of a pear shape.
I don’t want to be too specific about that because it’s important to the narrative. Typically, you walk Nuna and Fox around the world, jumping from mind to mind, and solving relatively simple puzzles, then the difficulty level quadruples. For me, the change represented a left turn in what had been a truly enjoyable and fascinating experience, and you all, I didn’t care. I expect the difficulty level of a platformer to change, but normally these games have a learning curve. I didn’t feel like Never Alone was.
Add to that the problem that the Switch port of Never Alone brings with it some really frustrating bugs. There were times when a delay between a button press and the in-game effect made a fairly clear puzzle almost impossible to solve. The game has deeply frustrating camera lag issues and a host of other issues. The initial release of Never Alone was plagued with crazy bugs, and I hate to see that experience translated to the Switch much later after the first release.
I also have to admit that Fox is a bit sloppy. Fox controls the spirits that form the platforms, but most of your game time with Fox is spent bringing down the platforms. This simplistic approach to joint dynamics makes the game a bit more tedious than it should be.
Despite the gameplay issues, Never Alone offers so much more to compliment it, from the sheer beauty of the game to its fantastic thematic structure and emphasis on generational wisdom. There’s a good part of the story that I feel like I didn’t fully understand, but to be honest, I’m not Inupiat.
In terms of skill requirements, Never Alone is a standard platformer, but you might need some extra experience to deal with bugs in the Switch port. Overall, Never Alone is a solid game and one you can share with younger kids, especially since the game has such solid educational elements.
Parasitic thoughts behind the keyboard
- Okay, the polar bear sequence is the one that sticks with me because the animation is so good.
- Nuna’s weapon is the bola, and y’all, I’m so glad I don’t have to use one in real life. I would probably be suspicious.
- The game also lets you unlock behind-the-scenes discussions about the game’s development, and it’s well worth it.
- The game was developed in conjunction with the Cook Inlet Tribal Council, and it shows. Never Alone often feels like an interactive folk tale.