Never Alone is a narrative platformer developed by Upper One Games, an indigenous games company belonging to the Cook Inlet Tribal Council in Alaska. Iñupiat elders were at the heart of the writing, collaborating with the developers to portray a traditional story with the verbal and visual forms of its source material. The result is a visually distinct piece which uses the modern interactive medium to tell a story that has in no way been removed from its culture.
The first thing that struck me about Never Alone is that it’s narrated by an Iñupiat Elder, James Nageak, in their own language. The subtitles don’t feel in any way out of place in a medium that often uses nonsense speach to cross cultural borders, but the rhythm of the Iñupiat tongue places it firmly within a rich, and very real, culture.
The visual design is unique to my experience. It’s a beautiful example of how art direction can benefit from traditional influences and feels much like a natural step in the history of the scrimshaw. The two protagonists are the most realistic depictions, with progressively more abstract designs the closer to fantasy we get. The spirits are flat drawings, with no animation at all. They’re also the focus of the platforming puzzles, part character, part landscape.
Never Alone seems to be step one in a plan to develop ‘World Games’ in collaboration with a variety of cultures. Amidst calls for greater diversity in games seemingly countered by bouts of cultural appropriation, this is a shining example of how to move forward.
The protagonist, Nuna, is a little girl, and her gender was chosen consciously to reflect the dearth of female role models in games. While this delights me no end, it left me wondering if it was an oversight that she’s the only girl in the story. I counted four more gendered characters and all were male as is the narrator. Regardless, Nuna possesses all the agency in the story, with the boys filling the supporting or antagonist roles, so it’s easy enough to forgive.
While the story was engaging, the game really falls down when it comes to mechanics. The unlockable documentary clips were very interesting, but cut through immersion far too much, as if the developers weren’t content to let the game speak for itself. While co-op was a big selling point for me, there’s no option to play online, the puzzles were a bit too repetitive and the controls were clunky and inconsistent.
If I were to request any change in the game, I’d prioritise the controls, because with two players, it became frustrating enough to get us yelling at the screen when we should have been focused on the beautiful world or caught up in a tense chase scene.
While playing Never Alone was frustrating, I still remember it fondly for its incredible art direction and whimsical depiction of a fascinating culture. I sincerely hope that the developers fulfill their goal of founding a new genre of World Games. With the success of their first title, may they choose to invest in tighter platforming, while holding onto the considerable strengths of their collaborative development style.
- Shiv (Siobhan)
Siobhan is an artist who was raised on every type of game and make believe. She grew up rescuing fuzzy animals and the occasional princess, slaying monsters and competing with her older brother. Now she’s a fan of befriending monsters, playing co-op and getting lost in a good story. When she’s not gaming, Siobhan works as a 3D artist in Brown Bag Films, enjoys anime, writing and crafts, and is currently toying with Twine.