Stories are how we make sense of our world. They’re what we use to explain the lives we lead and the places we find ourselves living in. And sometimes, a story can lead into another story. This is the case with Never Alone (or Kisima Inŋitchuŋa), a game that uses a young girl and arctic fox’s journey through an Alaskan blizzard to tell the story of both Iñupiaq traditional culture and the way its mythology contextualizes this peoples’ lives.
Never Alone follows Nuna and Fox, her constant companion, as they attempt to put a stop to what’s responsible for the never ending winter storm threatening the survival of her village. As Nuna and Fox set out across a frozen Alaska they encounter living spirits: the Little People who scurry around the margins of the environments, hurling dangerous rocks, or the swirling green “children” who have become the northern lights in death. The snowy tundra, deserted villages, and icy waters that make up Never Alone‘s levels are filled with hidden creatures who seem to be constantly waiting for any opportunity to emerge into the real world. That the game depicts an Alaska that is home to numerous spirits associated with its natural weather patterns, environment, and animals helps make Never Alone enjoyable from a visual perspective. But, more importantly, it’s also used to implement Native Alaskan storytelling within the game in an organic manner.
Upper One Games has based its work on the traditional Iñupiaq story of Kunuuksaayuka (the protagonist, Nuna, is one of the studio’s original inventions), which allows for the inclusion of a large number of figures central to Iñupiaq culture. The previously mentioned Little People; the giant Blizzard Man; the constantly threatening Manslayer–these are all characters in both the game and Iñupiaq mythology. They’re elements of Never Alone‘s plot, borrowed from Kunuuksaayuka, which is itself a kind of summary of central tenants of the Iñupiaq cultural story. What makes this interesting to a foreign player is in how the medium is used to deepen the narrative’s delivery. Rather than read or listen to descriptions of the stories that contribute to the Iñupiaq’s cultural worldview, Never Alone takes advantage of the empathetic powers of interactivity to encourage a more intimate relationship between its story and the audience (who I’m going to go on speaking to as a non-Iñupiaq player).
The central gameplay mechanic–switching between Nuna and Fox, using each character’s unique skills to solve puzzles and navigate obstacles–clearly illustrates this. The sense of interdependence between human and animal central to Iñupiaq culture isn’t only mentioned in one of the game’s mini-documentary videos (which are all great in their own right), it’s also felt by the player as s/he spends the length of the adventure using the natural abilities of both Nuna and Fox. Without one or the other of these characters, it wouldn’t be possible to keep moving through the game. The animistic belief in an Alaskan landscape filled with living winds, snow, and trees is made tangible for the player through jumping challenges where wispy spirits create platforms. The feel of the setting is established in a similar way. When the wind blows and the player hits a button to make Nuna and Fox huddle down against it, levels feels cold in a way that the audiovisual presentation (flurries of snow and the whistle of fast-moving air) can’t communicate entirely on its own.
All of these mechanics work together to make the stories of Never Alone feel alive. Because the audience must continuously interact with the typically invisible forces that form the basis of traditional Iñupiaq beliefs, the numinous can become concrete. Regardless of whether or not the player places any stock in Native Alaskan spirituality, the process of controlling Nuna and Fox on their journey–of bringing her/himself into the sort of close proximity that interaction requires–at least allows a rich understanding of how a belief system outside of her/his own cultural background functions for its adherents. This is storytelling on a level that isn’t usually found in videogames (despite the narrative potential the medium offers) and the best recommendation for Never Alone.
Interaction makes games an ideal avenue for encouraging empathy in people from disparate national, social, religious, cultural, and class backgrounds. Players are almost always asked to take ownership of their avatars, to protect and guide them as they navigate whatever challenges make up a given videogame’s mechanics. The sense of responsibility this naturally creates, when properly understood and taken advantage of by a developer, engenders a profound intimacy between the audience and a game’s characters and setting. Basically, a really great game shows the medium’s potential for telling stories with an immediate, emotional resonance. Never Alone understands this strength, capitalizing on it as an ideal method to relay the experiences and worldview of Alaska’s Iñupiaq population. After finishing the game, there’s a real feeling of having been educated not just in the textbook sense, but in an experiential one. The larger result of Upper One Games’ accomplishment is a heartening reminder of where videogames can go in the future–of how they can allow creators to both tell new, deeply felt stories and bridge gaps between distinct groups of people.
Reid McCarter is a writer and editor living and working in Toronto. He has written for sites and magazines including Kill Screen, Pixels or Death, Paste, and The Escapist. He is also maintains videogame site Digital Love Child. He tweets tweets @reidmccarter.