The Importance of Traveling in Pairs
As an eternal blizzard rages and threatens to starve her community, Nuna, a spirited young girl, ventures out of her home intent on finding out why the weather has become so harsh. Within minutes, she finds herself being chased by a polar bear, only to be saved by the agility of a lithe arctic fox. The two become inseparable as the determined Iñupiaq heroine continues on her quest, helping one another survive the treacherous snowscape and defeat malicious creatures. So goes the premise of “Never Alone: Kisuma Ingitchuna”. However, to reduce the video game to this odyssey would be missing the point. When the Cook Inlet Tribal Council (CITC), an Alaskan Native and American Indian non-profit in Anchorage, decided to create a digital game, they did so in hopes of reconnecting the local youths with their heritage, one that champions (amongst other values) interdependence between one another, between beings of different species and between humans and the spirits.
Ergo, the game itself hinges on achieving two interdependent goals: 1) the player acting as Nuna has to find the source of the blizzard that’s threatening to starve her community, and 2) to simultaneously unlock a set of “cultural insights”, concise and compelling videos that explain some of the traditions and beliefs that inform both the game and Iñupiat lives.(these totaling 30 minutes are also independently available online). When a puzzle is completed not only does the player progresses to the next level, but an owl also appears, indicating that a new clip is available. With a single tap on the tab key, he can move seamlessly from the play environment to the shorts.
In these videos, that provide additional information as useful in life as in advancing in the game, multiple community members, from different generations, narrate relevant personal anecdotes or share some of their knowledge. These varied perspectives add layers to the main plot, itself an interpretation of the tale of Kunuuksaayuka as once told by Robert Nasruk Cleveland. At times, the experience is reminiscent of a story circle, when the storyteller is sometimes interrupted by an individual in the audience who seeks to clarify, deepen, or add to one of the plot points. Retrieve the owl-man’s drum and he gifts you a ‘bola’. Don’t know what a ‘bola’ is. Fret not, on camera Ronald Aniqsuaq and James Mumigan, two of the elders, reveal that it is a tool, made of braided sinew tied down to heavy bones that is particularly useful when duck hunting. It will come in handy during the game to break ice, conjure spirits or strike enemies.
To further drive the importance of interdependence, the play requires the constant interaction between the two protagonists. Nuna, blessed with having opposable thumbs, can move objects, climb ropes, and manipulate weapons, while her companion, the arctic fox, can jump higher, crawl through small spaces, and communicate with helpful spirits. In one of the ‘cultural insights’ video, Ronald Aniqsuaq recalls his grandfather had, in fact, a pet white fox. The virtual friendship might not be such a fantasy, after all.
“If you’re good friend with a fox, when there’s danger about, they try to keep you from getting into trouble” — Ronald Aniqsuaq
Progress is impossible without calling on the gifts of both. If the player is by himself, he must switch between controlling one or the other depending on the task at hand. If there are two players present, each can embody one of the characters and collaborate to make their way forward. The depth of the relationship between both heroes is also evident in the reaction each has when they loose their companion: when Nuna slips away, the fox curls up and whimpers; when the opposite happens, Nuna falls to her knees and cries. One cannot live without the other. So much so that if one dies, the play is reset.
Even the process through which “Never Alone” was created is a testament to the value of interdependence. Not having the skills necessary to produce a high-end video game, the CITC reached out to E-Line Media, a company known for combining entertainment and education within their game design. Each step of the development process required the participation of both parties. The cultural knowledge of one inspired the narrative ark, the setting, the main plot points or ‘adventure’ lands, the characters and their relationship. Community members decided what aspects of their heritage ought to be made public and which should not. Iñupiat beliefs also informed the structure, establishing what the goals should be as well as what the means and constraints made the most sense to them, such as working in collaboration with an arctic fox, getting a hand from the spirits. Fittingly, the main story is told in Iñupiaq. According to the Alaska Native Language Center at the University of Fairbanks, this Indigenous tongue is currently spoken by three thousands people, all of which are over the age of forty. Perhaps hearing it will encourage/entice, the youths to embrace it.
More than the accolades, including Best Debut at the 2015 BAFTA Game Awards and 2015 Game of the Year according to Games for Change, it’s the impact that the experience has on Indigenous and non-Indigenous players that matters the most. Daniel Starkey, a reviewer for eurogamer who identifies as an American Indian says it best and, as such, deserves the last word:
“I’ve internalised complacency, this casual belief that there’s no point in trying to keep traditions alive, because in a few generations they’ll be lost no matter what I do. […] Never Alone (Kisima Ingitchuna in Iñupiaq) is different. Its very existence challenges me. Instead of eliciting self-pity, it stands in absolute defiance of everything that I’ve grown to be, not only telling me to be better, but showing me how.” — Daniel Starkey
For more information on the framework for analysis, have a look at the reading guide.
Inspiration and influences
Byrd, C. (December 29, 2014). Video Game Review: In ‘Never Alone’ Native Alaskans Explore the Future of Oral Tradition. Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/comic-riffs/wp/2014/12/29/never-alone-review-native-alaskans-explore-the-future-of-oral-tradition/
Center for Games and Impact. (2014). ‘Never Alone’: Parents’ Guide. Retrieved from: http://gamesandimpact.org/wp-content/impactguides/PA_NeverAloneGuide_web.pdf
Peckham, M. (November 21, 2014). ‘Never Alone’ is a Harrowing Journey into the Folklore of Alaska Native. Wired US. Retrieved from http://www.wired.com/2014/11/never-alone-review/
Starkey, D. (November 20, 2014). Never Alone Review: It’s Cold Outside. Eurogamer.net Retrieved from http://www.eurogamer.net/articles/2014-11-20-never-alone