When was the last time a video game told you about a whole other culture? Took you somewhere remote you'd only heard about in passing, and let the people who've lived there speak to you in a generations-old voice? Never Alone does that all-too-rare thing and does it very well.
A small, independently-produced video game created in partnership between an Alaskan Native community and industry veterans, Never Alone takes a beloved piece of folklore and uses it as the basis of a playable fable. Players control a young native girl named Nuna and her arctic lupine friend named Fox as she goes in search of the endless blizzards that are destroying her homeland.
In terms of gameplay, Never Alone is a fairly standard platformer. You'll make Nuna and Fox run and jump across icy gaps and snowy outcroppings, using each one's unique abilities to wend through environmental mazes along the way. Nuna and Fox have complementary skills. Fox jumps higher and, along with a wall-climb ability, can summon the ethereal spirits that help them reach trickier spots. Nuna can push or pull objects and wield a bolo weapon capable of shattering icy obstacles. In solo play, one player switches between the two. Co-op lets a real person control either Nuna or Fox.
None of the play experience will be too daunting for well-versed gamers. But it's the charm and sense of mission that really make Never Alone stand out from mechanically similar games. It's a game that's clearly made with love and feels like the Iñupiaq community responsible for creating it is opening its arms to give outsiders a big, communal hug. Kisima Ingitchuna -- as the title is called in native Iñupiaq language -- should by all rights come off as incredibly corny, as it's full of storytelling tropes that are all too common in role-playing games and other creations that fit in the 'epic quest' template. The plucky youngster and her cute animal friend going off to save their world, for example. But the voiceover narration in Iñupiaq goes a long way to make it feel authentic and unique. Even for those who don't understand Iñupiaq, the humour, urgency and sadness of the proceedings still come through in a way that's more resonant than simply reading subtitles.
I felt like I'd traveled somewhere and that I was learning about the people and history of southwestern Alaska while playing Never Alone. The folkloric take on conventional cold-weather survival wisdom is also evidence of that. Winds that can blow you off platforms must be resisted by hunkering down and scary, clutching ghost versions of the Aurora Borealis are also metaphors for how suddenly the cold can snatch life away without proper precaution.
Most impressively, these impressions came without ever making it feel like I was taking a history class. Short videos called cultural insights unlock as players progress, featuring people from the Cook Inlet community talking about what it was like to grow up in the region's unforgiving cold. Anecdotes about whale hunting, long stretches of near-total darkness and other facts of Alaskan native life let players hear about the realities -- and not myths -- of life in that part of the world. The cultural insights -- combined with the lively, silent animation and the ink-scrawled scrimshaw cutscenes -- serve as evidence that this game isn't just a slice of cultural tourism and has genuine research and participation in its bones.
There's some heartbreak in the story, too. At first, I was thinking about having my three-year-old daughter watch as I played but quickly decided that some of the scenes could scare her. All kids are different, of course, but be mindful that very young children might get frightened by some character designs and events in the game if you're thinking of exposing them to it. It should also be noted that, while you'll have to defeat enemies in the game, you're never killing them via direct violence.
As charming as it is, Never Alone still harbours some flaws. There are spots where it seems like the game could've used an extra layer of fine tuning and polish. Moments where partner AI wasn't really helpful, collision detection doesn't work as it should or controls seem a bit finicky popped up during my time with the game. None of it was game-breaking but I did notice it when it happened.
More problematic is the sharp difficulty spike at the end of Never Alone. It's frustrating, not only because it makes the game more exacting and frantic than it had been previously. Never Alone's last chunk is a series of puzzles where you need to frequently switch between Nuna and Fox to get the girl where she needs to go, often with an ever-looming threat right behind you acting as a timer. Nothing in the game's previous levels serves as training for these quick-response sections, so you wind up dying and re-trying a lot. Some of that frustration should ease if it's possible to get a co-op partner to play these sections.
Never Alone is short, capable of being completed in a few hours. But its brevity makes it feel like a future favourite fairy tale that you'll revisit again and again. Something that you'll have friends over to watch and play together. Those scrimshaw cutscenes are even more beautiful than the 3D animations in their own way, because they bring a relatively isolated tradition into the present. Never Alone's message is about the connection between the community and the individual, how the ties that bind people together allow seemingly impossible tasks. If you've ever wondered how people live in painfully frigid environments like Alaska, playing Kisima Ingitchuna will tell you, in the very voice of the community where it happens.