I never expected the world's first Alaskan Native video game to come out with DLC. But Never Alone's new add-on means more than just than just extra gameplay.
In terms of how it got made and the narrative told inside the game itself, Never Alone stood apart from most video games that came out last year. The indie platformer is the result of partnership between The Cook Inlet Tribal Council and veteran developers who formed a new development studio, not the usual money-plus-talent equation behind most video games. The multiplatform release was also unique in its overarching goal, which was to serve as a cultural export that communicated the lifestyle, values and folklore of a specific set of people.
When it came out in 2014, Never Alone's mere existence seemed like a significant feat. I figured that Nuna and Fox's adventure would be a one-off curio, a charming but rough example of how video game creation could be meaningful in a different way. Then came a recent DLC announcement, which said that a new add-on called Foxtales would put players in a new story and new season. Sometimes, it seems like downloadable content is primarily a way for money-hungry publishers to squeeze more cash out of players. But — as the DLC for games like The Witcher 3 and Dying Light have shown — add-ons and expansions are also a way for game creators to fine tune various elements, implement new ideas and flesh out the world-building that went into an initial release.
In Foxtales, it feels like the latter motivations are at play. Unfortunately, it doesn't feel like any fine-tuning happened as the controls still feels as fiddly as they did months ago. But the add-on does offer a new story and a new type of environmental puzzle to adventure through, along with more cultural insight videos as rewards. Those videos are the main reason I was excited about Foxtales, because their predecessors in the main Never Alone game gave me a sense of collective lived experience that I'd never felt before from a video game.
The story here adapts a folktale about two brothers giving grief to a mouse, only to have a giant version of that creature cause trouble on the warming springtime landscape. Foxtales shows how the southwestern Alaska environment becomes entrancing and dangerous in a different way — with rushing currents from melting snow. It's a short jaunt through the season; I finished in about an hour of playtime. But I walked away feeling fulfilled because the underwater environments and puzzles didn't feel recycled from what had been in the main release.
If you didn't like Never Alone before, Foxtales won't change your mind. For me, Never Alone falls on the right side of middling as a piece of mechanical game design. But it's wonderful at being a document of legacy. It said "we exist" to the world in Iñupiaq and told players what it's like to live in one of the harshest, most remote places on Earth. Foxtales says, "here is another side of our story." It expands the sense of what Never Alone's creators are trying to do with a new fable that has a communal life lesson at its core. It extends the legacy. That's very important.