Oral history. It’s the foundation for many of our greatest legends and myths, pre-dating our ability to write. It was the main function of storytelling long ago in our history. But to indigenous cultures, it was an inseparable, vital tool It was a tool for expressing the importance of the community, of the environment, and of the spiritual world that surrounds everyone.
Enter Never Alone (Kisima Ingitchuna), a labour of love by Upper One Games and E-Line Media. Their goal was simple: be the storyteller, and relate tales and experiences close to the heart of indigenous Iñupiat culture in a way for many of us, who have no knowledge of the comings and goings of north Alaskan life, to better understand. If anything can be taken away from Never Alone, it is just how truly heartfelt the game is approaching this goal.
Greeting us just as if we were settled around the campfire after a long day of hunting in the tundra, our narrator introduces us to Nuna. The main protagonist, Nuna is a curious, young girl who lives with her family in the village. When the village is felled upon by a never-ending blizzard, Nuna takes it upon herself to leave her home and find what the source of the blizzard is. She meets her friend, Fox, who spends the rest of the game as her companion, dealing with the many trials that face them both.
The story of Never Alone is stunningly delivered. Cutscenes are presented in a highly stylized version of scrimshaw (an indigenous form of artwork), with a narrator speaking in Iñupiaq, giving fantastic immersion to the player. As you traverse the beautiful world of whites, blacks, and muted tones of winter, you’ll also come across little owls. Approaching them unlocks ancillary video content, which the game frequently suggests you watch. Although it’s inherently optional, you’ll want to see them, as these documentary-style films are extremely high-quality and illuminate the symbolic imagery you play through in-game as explained by Iñupiat people relating personal experiences and cultural observations.
The mechanics of Never Alone are pretty straight forward. As a 2D platformer, you navigate both Nuna and Fox around the landscape, solving a variety of different puzzles. You have the ability to use a bola – a native hunting device – which allows the player to deal with troubles from a distance. The game is generally non-violent, and mostly emphasize you attacking icy stalagmites or throwing your bola at spirits to activate them. The real key to puzzles, however, is the interactions with Fox. Similar to Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, you’re required to switch between Nuna and Fox to solve puzzles in tandem, often from different locations. Although the mechanical depth of these two-person puzzles isn’t as intricate as Brothers – you can’t control both Nuna and Fox at the same time, instead controlling one at a time similar to The Cave’s mechanics – they still provide some head scratching puzzles, and offer some fun and visually pleasing resolutions when you finally figure out the solutions.
Never Alone was designed with all platforms in mind, but it’s sincerely recommended that you play with a controller over a keyboard if your platform is PC. Although the game is functional on keyboard and mouse (throwing the bola is exceptionally satisfying with a mouse), the better layout of a controller fits the game’s simple style more naturally. Furthermore, the game offers co-op mode for two players. This is surprisingly more engaging than playing the game alone. Switching back and forth between Nuna and Fox alone can become extremely difficult as the puzzles rise in complexity, and having someone to actively work with you in solving the puzzles can be a great benefit.
And there the problems begin to arise. The puzzles aren’t very fascinating in and of themselves. As mentioned, this game primarily relies on its wonderful narrative. The puzzles, while capable and interesting, can at times be dull, and even worse, actively frustrating. Nuna and Fox generally follow each other around when you’re controlling one or the other. But pathing issues can sometimes make puzzles that rely on timing a little difficult if you’re playing solo, as switching between characters can make the AI of the other character do extremely dumb things, like dropping them off a cliff or not running fast enough to dodge an iceberg. Other puzzles involve gusting of the wind to propel your movement through the air to distant platforms; although the wind is well-telegraphed, it can sometimes be difficult to judge distance you’ll actually traverse in your jump, leading you to some frustrating deaths, while other times it can be hard to tell if you’re experiencing a mechanical gust or a visual gust of snow in the foreground.
Other issues with the puzzles are that their answers aren’t always well-telegraphed. At times, you’ll encounter spirits, which are used as semi-mobile platforms to jump or scale hard to reach locations. These spirits are activated by the proximity to the Fox, and sometimes even maneuverable by the Fox to get them in the right positions for Nuna to traverse. But if you don’t happen to walk to the right position as the Fox, the spirits remain invisible, and it can be easy to walk in circles assuming you did something wrong before you finally stumble upon just the right spot to make the spirit appear.