Never Alone (Kisima Inŋitchuŋa)
Perhaps the most significant paradigm shift brought about by the indie gaming revolution of recent years has been the representation of a much broader range of experiences in video games. Few developers though, have stepped quite so far beyond the pale as Upper One Games, whose puzzle platformer Never Alone is an interactive and educational retelling of the folklore and cultural history of the Native American Iñupiat people of Alaska.
Developed in conjunction with Native Alaskan storytellers and tribal elders, Never Alone (known as Kisima Inŋitchuŋa in the Iñupiat language) tells the story of a young indigenous girl, Nuna, and her companion Arctic fox as she struggles to save her village from destruction by a seemingly never-ending blizzard. Each of the game’s eight chapters are closely associated with traditional learnings about the challenges of survival in the harsh Arctic environment; the importance of fire, safely traversing pack ice or avoiding deadly predators.
In gameplay terms, Never Alone is a simple platformer with puzzle elements in the vein of Limbo or Trine. The player controls both Nuna and Fox, switching between the two at the touch of a button to take advantage of their unique abilities, which must be used to safely traverse each chapter. Nuna can use her bola to destroy breakable objects and open new paths, while Fox can scramble up walls and leap off them to reach high ledges and lower ropes or knock down debris to allow Nuna to climb to otherwise inaccessible areas. Most of the puzzles are relatively simple, though still quite satisfying to solve.
Never Alone’s art style draws heavily on the native culture it represents, as well as the Arctic environment. Inter-chapter cutscenes use Iñupiat drawings to set the thematic context for the upcoming section of gameplay, while in-game characters are heavily stylised to match, from the tribal elders and shamans who make up the game’s small cohort of NPCs to the spirit animals that help Nuna and Fox on their journey. The tundra, lakes, forests and ice flows that form the backdrop for their adventures are tranquil and atmospheric, with only the howling blizzards and local wildlife disturbing the frozen serenity.
For all its cultural and artistic merit however, Never Alone sometimes frustrates as a game. Companion AI is patchy at best and occasionally causes the character you aren’t currently controlling to do something inexplicably stupid - like stand directly under a falling boulder or jump to their death into the freezing ocean. If you happen to have a friend to hand, the other character can be controlled directly using a second controller but this probably won’t be a workable solution for many people and you’ll be forced to rely on trial and error to get past the handful of trickier sections. It’s also worth noting that Never Alone is a rather short game, clocking in at a little over two hours. Whilst this player prefers their games to be on the short side, this may be a deal breaker for many.
From a critical perspective, the trouble with games like Never Alone is that it’s tempting to overlook their shortcomings in favour of the significance of what they represent. There’s no doubt that Never Alone is a monumentally important title - never before has a game tried to capture and communicate the culture and spirit of an entire people – but, it’s also a great game in of itself. Though brief and beset with occasional frustrations, at its best, Never Alone a simply spellbinding experience and a true reminder of the power of games to transport us to another place.