Developer: Upper One Games
Publisher: E-Line Media
Release Date: November 18th 2014 (US)
Platform: Xbox One (Reviewed), Playstation 4, Microsoft Window
Very few games stick with me long after putting the controller down. Even fewer make the leap from being a game to an “experience”. In an age where there’s a lot of open storytelling, it’s very rare do we find a game with a clear intent and direction that is executed. Essentially, these are the types of games that, underneath all the polished layers has a beating heart that generates an immersive experience. Journey is a game that shines as a rare example for me; never have I felt so immersed and captivated by a game like that. That 2 hours of gameplay were some of the best I’ve had, and I’ve been so afraid to pick the game back up because of how unique an experience it was.
Never Alone (Kisima Ingutchina), a game developed in collaboration by Upper One Games, the Cook Inlet Tribal Council, and the Iñupiaq tribe is a beautiful tale woven together by traditions, folklore, spiritual and societal beliefs. Rarely do we see a game outside the realm of western or eastern storytelling we’ve grown accustomed to. What makes Never Alone so significant is that the developers worked with the tribe on every asepct of the game from the early conceptualization until the release of the game. The end result is a game full of ambition, purpose and drive that sticks with you until the end.
Unfortunately, the game has major faults in one area that make it a tough recommendation; gameplay.While the gameplay is simple in execution, it’s the mechanics that can make it infuriating. Not only that, but there are moments where the mechanics feel unnatural and unintuitive, and it can be costly.
In the end, Never Alone (Kisima Ingutchina) is a game I cautiously recommend, and here’s why:
The Story is Simple, Beautiful, and Richly Steeped in Culture
A heavy blizzard is blowing through the village, and shows no signs of stopping. Because of this major storm, the village is beginning to starve, which could mean the end of the tribe. Nuna, along with her companion the Arctic Fox, go on a journey along the harsh, cold, brutal Alaskan landscape. They’ll face almost insurmountable obstacles along the way; a hungry polar bear, the northern lights and the wind to state a few. By working together, they’ll be able to survive whatever Nature has in store.
One thing I admire about Never Alone is the development approach to the game. Fearing their heritage, traditions and customs would be lost in the ever growing digital sea, the Iñupiaq tribe put everything they could into a game encompassing their culture, and it shows. From the art style, to the character design, everything has a purpose of highlighting the Iñupiaq tribe. Pair this with Never Alone exploring the relationship between man and nature, our connection with spirits and the value of codependency for survival and more.
The game also comes with a series of video shorts further discussing the Iñupiaq culture that add up a total run time of 30 minutes. Each video highlights one aspect of the tribe, and approaches the discussion like a casual conversation that makes the videos enjoyable to watch. There’s no sense of what you’d expect from an “educational” video, which makes the videos worth the time to watch.
An example of one of the cool Cultural Insights you can find via collectibles
If that’s not enough, the game also has a series of videos highlighting a certain aspect of the Iñupiaq life. Each video is short, poignant and informal and never come off as educational videos. Instead, they feel like conversations with very personable people happy to share their lives.
Never Alone also takes a creative risk that pays off; lack of dialogue. Whereas this could be a major problem in terms of storytelling, it instead gives us a more intimate closeness Nuna and Fox. There’s an innate understanding and communication between the two that transcends language — much like the connection between the Iñupiaq and nature. As the game reaches a major, pivotal moment, you can’t help but feel resonate with the emotions expressed. All of this goes to show just how intimate Never Alone can be as an experience.
Lack of dialogue also allows room for a narrator who weaves the tell seamlessly in the native Iñupiaq language. Sure, you may not understand what he’s saying (there’s subtitles for that), but you can still register the emotion behind each line. Both the narration and lack of dialogue heighten the atmosphere and feel to the game, blending together to create a beautiful immersive folk tale experience.
Overall, there’s one big reason to love this game; you can feel the passion and drive put into making this game. You can tell the Iñupiaq put their heart and soul into this game, and it’s refreshing to be able to feel that while playing the game.
It would reach the echelon of Journey and Flower if it wasn’t for the oftentimes frustrating gameplay.
The Arctic Tundra is only as dangerous as it’s gameplay:
On the surface, Never Alone is standard gameplay; a simple side-scrolling platformer with the occasional puzzle requiring either you or two plays to use both characters to solve them. Some of them can be easy, like having Fox find a secret route to get to a ledge and drop a rope down for Nuna to climb. Others can be difficult, like goading the polar bear into slamming into a wall to break it open. Otherwise, there’s nothing else really to it, nor is there any gameplay that sets it apart from others with similar mechanics.
Contextually, everything makes sense in terms of gameplay…for the most part. The gameplay highlights codependency, the acceptance and understanding of nature, the role of humanity in the scheme of things, and our connection with the spirit world. The details behind the gameplay captures the essence of the Iñupiaq cutlure.
Never Alone’s biggest strength comes in the form of its puzzles requiring you to use both Fox and Nuna. Some of them can be simple, like having Fox climb up a wall, push down a rope, and help Nuna up the wall. Or, some of them can be a little more challenging, like taking on a bear to make it knock out a wall blocking your way. They break up the monotony of the gameplay and provide little doses of extra fun.
Unfortunately, the game suffers from too many issues that both frustrate and pull out the player from the journey. Particularly, there’s a giant difficult spike in the last third of the game that is unforgiving if terms of timing. There were many moments I just had to set down the controller and walk away in order to keep my frustrations at bay. When I finished the game, the journey had no longer been about Nuna, the Fox, or saving the village; it became about beating the damn game. The objective was lost in the fray.
Also, the AI can be feel unintelligent and frustrating. I can’t tell you how many times I was close to beating a platform sequence…only to end up having to start over because the AI jumped too soon, or didn’t move fast enough. There was always something that could go wrong that would go wrong.
I also couldn’t stand the fact that the videos for “Cultural Insight” came in the form of collectibles littered throughout the game. I get it; a lot of modern major games have some sort of collectible system in order to give the game more “meat”. In Never Alone, the owls with the collectibles aren’t hard to find (some are directly in your path), it just feels unnecessary. It lacks purpose, other than to fit within the parameters of what a modern day game does. It’s like a little reminder that we’re playing a game and takes away from the immersion.
In fact, that’s the very heart of my issue of Never Alone; it can never get away long enough to be a completely immersive experience. For a game highlighting a culture hardly discussed in any sort of medium that’s meant to be an immersive experience, there’s too much that reminds the player that you’re playing a game that has a journey in the background.
A Tale of Two Interests
Honestly, I want to recommend Never Alone as a game to play for the fact that it achieves very significant milestones in video game development. I love the fact that the Iñupiaq were able to work with the dev team from the beginning to the end of the game in order to make sure it retained everything they felt captured their culture. Watching the videos showed just how happy the tribe was to work on this game and to spread knowledge about their world. It’s also the first time we’ve seen games step out of the normal storytelling techniques we’ve grown accustomed to.
Never Alone is a game that actually made me care about the journey and the characters. I felt myself rooting for Nuna and Fox even when the obstacles seemed impossible to beat.
Everything in this game has a purpose and that’s very prevalent in all the details of the game; from the level design, to the cutscenes that are stylized to look like they’re on scrimshaw, to the point of the tale, everything has an intention and accomplishes it with mastery. When a game has a clear vision and is able to capture that, it’s amazing.
At the same time, this gameplay for Never Alone holds it back from reaching it’s true potential. The collectible system, the frustrating AI all of these serve as bitter reminder that this is a game. Lastly the ridiculous difficulty spike of the last third of the game changes the objective of finishing the journey to finishing the game. It’s as if it embraces the identity of being a game, and stays within the parameters.
It’s a shame, really, because this game evoked a lot that reminded me of the same feelings I had while playing Journey. That’s why this is a hard game to recommend; there’s just so much good to it that it barely outweighs the bad. This is a beautiful, short game that’s worth exploring for both the game and the videos. From my understanding, this is just one game in a series to explore the native Alaskan tribes. If that’s the case, I hope the next installment can improve upon its predecessor.