Inupiaq Culture Comes to the Fore in ‘Never Alone’
BY ROY BONEY (CHEROKEE)
Never Alone, or Kisima Inŋitchuŋa in the Iñupiaq language, is more than a typical video game. It is a cultural experience packaged into a beautiful and thoughtful piece of digital art.
The game was a project initiated by the Cook Inlet Tribal Council, a non-profit that works with Alaska Native and American Indian people residing in the Cook Inlet Region of south-central Alaska. The organization wanted to invest in an innovative product that would help fund their programs and appeal to the youth population it serves, and found a partner in Seattle-based game studio E-Line Media to form Upper One Games, the first indigenous owned video game company in the United States.
Never Alone—based on the Iñupiaq story of Kunuuksaayuka, the Blizzard Man, and a girl named Nuna—was released Nov. 18 and is available as a $14.99 download for Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and Windows through the Steam digital distribution service. A version for Mac OSX is forthcoming in early 2015.
The story in Never Alone, told in Inupiaq with the option for subtitles in 10 other languages, opens with an animated scene inspired by traditional scrimshaw art that immediately sets the tone and pulls you into Nuna’s world. She is joined by an arctic fox and the two embark on a quest to find the source of the storm that destroyed her village.
It may appear to be a simple story at first, but the skillful telling of the tale crafted by the developers is richly layered and complex. The icy environment informs the game’s stages. They range from fighting the harsh winds of the frozen tundra, hopping across perilous ice floes, navigating the cavernous insides of an arctic whale, and forging through a ghostly and mysterious forest. The unique nature of Iñupiaq culture and language come to the fore and immerse players in a uniquely modern Native experience.
The game play is an action-puzzle platformer. The graphics are gorgeously rendered in 3D and look almost like lush watercolors. The camera angle relegates the gameplay to a side-to-side view similar to classic platform games such as Super Mario Brothers. The graphics and sound effects effectively place the player in the cold, atmospheric environment. To progress through the game, players must use the unique skills of Nuna and the fox to overcome obstacles and solve puzzles.
While the game is not too difficult to play, it offers enough of a challenge for both adults and children. The option to play cooperatively with two players, with one player taking the role of Nuna and the other that of the fox, adds extra dimension to the gameplay.
This is particularly fun later in the game when the difficulty increases and the players gain new abilities. Unfortunately, co-op game play is only local and doesn’t support online play, but according to the developer’s website, that feature is in the works.
The game also incorporates the trophy system common to modern games. Trophies are earned by completing certain objectives and saved to your gamer profile for bragging rights. The controls may be a bit frustrating in places where precise jumping or aiming is required, but it is a minor flaw in an otherwise superb game.
Representations of Indigenous people in the media have been notoriously problematic. From cartoons to television shows to feature films, the portrayal of the Indian in popular media has been one stereotype after another.
In the world of video games, it could be argued these representations have been even more abysmal. Ranging from the horrendous sexual violence of Custer’s Revenge on the Atari 2600 to the various iterations of Turok Dinosaur Hunter with its stuck-in-the-past stereotypes, these portrayals have been just as flat as the pixels on screen.
Ubisoft’s 2012 game Assassin’s Creed III raised the bar a degree by featuring a native protagonist in a multimillion dollar marquee video game franchise. Ubisoft consulted with members of the Mohawk community to include some cultural elements such as the Mohawk language and songs used in game play and the honoring of hunted animals. It was a step forward, but there was still much left to be desired.
Never Alone surpasses all prior efforts of video games in its portrayal of indigenous characters. According to the Cook Inlet Tribal Council, the game was developed over two and half years.
Participants included Alaska Native elders, traditional storytellers, artists, teachers, hunters, historians, and youth from communities across the state of Alaska.
The participants worked with the game’s developers on every part of the game, including art, character development, and level design.
On a Reddit AMA (Ask Me Anything) session with Never Alone’s developers, Grant Roberts, lead game designer for E-Line Media, said the team felt close collaboration with the tribe was paramount to crafting a successful experience.
They licensed a version of the story of Kunuuksaayuka by tribal elder Robert Nasruk Cleveland with permission from his daughter Minnie Aliitchak Gray. The game was built around his particular narrative.
Additionally, the team produced twenty-four “Cultural Insight” videos about the Inupiat. The videos are available as un-lockable bonuses made available as you play. They let the Inupiat tell their stories in their own words. They cover diverse topics such as scrimshaw art, hunting, storytelling, and much more.
They are extremely compelling, and the videos alone are worth the price of the game. The videos also provide replay value to the game as some players may not unlock all them during their first play through.
Never Alone is an impressive entry in the world of indigenous video games. It could be the shot heard around the Native World inspiring more natives to make our own video games. Developed using the easily accessible Unity game engine, Never Alone serves as an example of what is possible.
Nuna and her fox companion are waiting for you to take part in their adventure and, more importantly, to create your own.
Roy Boney (Cherokee name ᎧᏂᎦ ᎪᎳᎭ) is a full-blooded citizen of the ᏣᎳᎩ ᎠᏰᏟ Cherokee Nation, living in Tahlequah, Oklahoma. He is an award-winning filmmaker, artist, and writer. Learn more about his work at www.royboney.com.