Some games are rare. Not rare in a sense that they are hard to find or procure, but rare in the sense that they don’t fit the mold of the traditional video game. Never Alone (Also known as Kishima Innitchuna) is a rare game. Thematically, the game is one that is seemingly a phenomenon.
Never Alone is the first game I’ve featured in the category that I’ve actually played completely through, primarily due to it being a game that is easily accessible to all gamers (It was even free with Playstation Plus for a limited time). I know I’m a little late on the subject matter, as the game has been out for over a year, but even a year later it is a remarkable entity in gaming history. Gameplay wise, it’s a decent enough game that features some beautiful visuals, but overall it isn’t something that’s going to revolutionize the genre. In fact, if you’re playing the game alone it can actually be somewhat frustrating at points (Never Alone can be described as the preferred play method as well). This frustration lessens when you have someone next to you playing as the second character in the game, as it cuts down downtime between moving characters and makes the overall experience more enjoyable. Like many cooperative platformers, it requires a good amount of communication and team work to progress, but that’s not the reason why it’s a special game or anything out of the ordinary. Where the game really shines is its ability to be more than simply a passive experience of play: The game serves as an educational tool and means of cultural preservation.
Upper One Games, which identifies as the first indigenous-owned video game developer and publisher in US history, has created a game that stands as a cultural representation of a culture and people that is increasingly disappearing and being dissolved. The game is very much so a cultural survey of the the Iñupiat, an Alaskian Native population, who are a people that are trying to adapt to the changes brought on by the advancement of technology. Why are we seeing traditions and cultural heritages disappear in this modern age? Historians and academics believe it’s a combination of globalization and cultural blending. One can imagine that a culture that has historically only relied on oral and written tradition as a means of passing on knowledge being opened up the the greater world in a dramatic way, via the internet, would certainly effect the way people learn and view the world. While globalization comes with some amazing new opportunity, it can have the side-effect of dispersing certain ways of life and traditions because of the influence of this previously untapped outside world. Thus, certain cultural traditions are disappearing in a time in which even the number of individuals that may identify with these groups are decreasing as well. With this in mind, the staff at Upper One Games had the idea of creating a game that would serve as a way of preserving and passing on traditions and information about the Iñupiat culture to both people inside their community and to the wider world, and with that Never Alone was created.
The game itself features the story of a young Alaskan native named Nuna who finds her village destroyed by a raging blizzard. With the aid of a white fox, Nuna goes on a journey to find the source of the blizzard in an attempt to put an end to it. During her journey, she travels through many myths and tales of the Iñupiat tradition, each with some beautifully rendered graphics that stay true to the culture’s history. The story comes alive as more than simply a game’s plot, as the developers allow the myths and legends of the Inupiat people to become characters and experiences in the game. Even the harsh weather of the Alaskan winter becomes a character as the duo struggle to press on against it. Alone, these facets of the games create a detail world, but its in the game’s additional content that the developers connects and illuminate the world of Never Alone to the grander world outside. They do so in 22 optional mini documentary pieces that unlock as the player progresses through the game.
These “cultural insights” are presented on different facets of the rich culture of the Iñupiat people, delivered directly by members of the Iñupiat community. In doing so, the story of Nuna and her artic fox becomes more than just the story of a video game, it becomes a painted illustration of culture. This blend of game design, documentary, and storytelling allows for Never Alone to take on the form of modern day oral tradition in a unique and detailed way. These insights are an fun and interactive way of blending education and gaming, one that more developers should consider implementing to expand the lore of their in-game worlds (real or not).
Never Alone shows that video games can be more than just a way to waste some time; they can be tools of education, a digital display of one’s cultural history, and a means of preserving traditions of the past. In creating Never Alone, Upper One games created a new form of oral history, one that has the potential to reach much grander audiences than ever before. Like generations before them, the team and community behind Never Alone has created a historical artifact for generations to come to experience. Judging by the success of the game and it’s subsequent DLC, it seems that Never Alone has succeeded in its mission: The world is now much more aware of the Iñupiat people and its community. Video games can be more than what we previously imagined and we’re only beginning to see how they can be utilize to expand our experience.
Never Alone is available on all Major Platforms including PS4, X1, Wii U, and Steam. If it sounds like something you’d might want to try, I’d recommend giving it a go; your gaming time will be well spent.
Do you have a game you think has historical or social importance? Let me know! I’d love to explore some more games.