Nuna takes on the storm in Never Alone. All images courtesy of E-Line Media
Braced against the icy biting wind, a girl and her arctic fox encounter supernatural wonders as they struggle to find the source of an unending blizzard. Never Alone—now available for PS4, Xbox One, and Steam—brings the traditional wisdom of the Alaska Native Iñupiat people to the modern world and a global audience. The integration of traditional Iñupiat imagery and narrative lend the platformer a touchingly human sense of timelessness.
Never Alone, also known as Kisima Inŋitchuŋa, is packed full of nuggets of Iñupiat lore. From the traditional dwellings you pass to the evolving story, each detail painstakingly affirms a living heritage that you can learn about just by playing through it. The game itself is a mashup of many different Iñupiat stories. At its core is "Kunuuksaayuka," a legend about an endless blizzard that becomes a key gameplay element. The blizzard is a powerful metaphor for the endless onslaught of input we face each day of our connected lives. An excursion into Never Alone’s depiction of boundless Alaskan landscapes—and a culture that reflects that landscape—is welcome shelter from the media maelstrom.
At this year’s Games For Change Festival, which took place two weeks ago, Never Alone took home the awards for “Most Significant Impact” and “Game of the Year.” The game’s positive reception around the world indicates a thirst for more culture-positive games. During a talk at the festival, Amy Fredeen, the CFO of E-Line Media, Executive Vice President and CFO of Cook Inlet Tribal Council, as well as the Lead Cultural Ambassador on Never Alone, emphasized the importance of storytelling of all forms: “For us, storytelling took on this way of really passing wisdom from one generation to the next, and taking it to video games seemed a little nerve-racking at first.”
Fredeen wanted to assure that they could use Kunuuksaayuka without damaging the story’s integrity. For months, she tried in vain to contact the eldest living daughter of the man who was first recorded telling Kunuuksaayuka. The search ended when Fredeen found Minnie Gray just two blocks from her office. Minnie had no reservations about using the story as the basis for a video game. Fredeen explains, “She looked at her grandkids and looked at us, and basically said, ‘Of course you should tell the story of Kunuuksaayuka through video games. This is what my grandkids are doing. They’re playing video games.’”
Minnie also told Fredeen that they were welcome to take artistic freedoms with the story: in the oral tradition, every storyteller tells the same story a different way. “They may use a different cadence," Fredeen explains, "they may emphasize different pieces or different messages in the story depending on who the audience is and what they want that particular person to hear.” Just as the Iñupiat people adapted to the harshness of Alaska’s climate, they now serve as a model for how cultures around the world can adapt their stories to reach modern audiences. Says Fredeen, “I really realized that we transferred the role of the storyteller from Minnie Gray and her father, from the game design team, to the player. So when you play, you’re telling the story, you’re engaged in it, and you’re directing where it goes.”
Oral tradition and video games, however, make strange bedfellows, and it wasn’t clear that a synthesis of the two could do justice to the tradition while still being engaging and relevant. Fredeen, with E-Line Media and Upper One Games, was uncompromising in realizing an inclusive development process, perhaps an even greater accomplishment than the creation of the game itself. The team involved storytellers, elders, youth, and community members in every step of their process, ensuring that the game would represent the entire community.
Unique in its inclusive development process, Never Alone represents the first game produced by E-Line Media in a new genre they call, “World Games.” Playable folklore may just be the first iteration of an entire genre of games that stem from a deeply rooted respect for people and their stories, and it's that very respect which may have been instrumental to Never Alone’s success. Writer Meg Jayanth held a similar respect for the cultures she depicted in her globe-trotting game 80 Days—released just a few months prior to Never Alone—and also found resounding success. A game developed in line with a different culture’s values might feel special in a completely different way from Never Alone, and that should be welcomed. Ultimately, E-Line Media and the Cook Inlet Tribal Council hope that other cultures take the game development model they’ve created and run with it. Says Fredeen, “Starting the genre for world games is really an invitation for others to share their stories.”
Click here to learn more about Never Alone.