AN atmospheric exploration of Alaskan history and culture in a pleasing puzzle platformer
Platform: Xbox One (reviewed) / Playstation 4 / PC
GAMING may not seem like the most obvious medium for a project designed to preserve and promote an ancient culture heritage, but Never Alone demonstrates how stories which spring out of oral traditions can be told in new and engaging ways. A collaborative project from developers Upper One Games and Alaska’s Cook Inlet Tribal Council, it welds allegory and broad moral brushstrokes to an atmospheric co-operative indie puzzle platformer, with the aim of relaying the way of life of the Iñupiat people.
It is a singular goal and one which, in the wrong hands, could have felt like a didactic exercise, but marrying education to entertainment is the game’s greatest achievement. It does not seek to preach; instead, it is a gentle, unassuming title with a social conscience. This is in large part down to the inclusive role the community have played in shaping its direction, as well as an evocative art style that elevates a relatively routine platformer into a thing of charm and grace.
The game allows for a thoughtful exploration of the indigenous community’s life
Set in a realm of tundras, blizzards and creaking ice floes, Never Alone is a fleeting yet impactful journey through the past and present of Iñupiat life. With controller in hand - co-operative play also allows for two players - you switch between Nuna, a young girl, and her arctic fox companion, each of whom have different skills and abilities with which to navigate the beautiful if unforgiving landscape. Their ultimate goal is to locate the source of a brutal snowstorm that is devastating Nuna’s village, a quest that allows for some thoughtful exploration of the indigenous community’s beliefs.
Spirit beings, for example, appear through the biting squalls of snow, presenting themselves as makeshift platforms. Cracking and melting chunks of the ever thinning Alaskan ice both assists and hinders the duo as they hop and run to escape the advances of a ravenous polar bear. Nuna, meanwhile, uses a traditional hunting weapon, the bola, to break down barriers and open up new routes. Throughout it all, she and the fox work together, a potent symbol of the importance of interdependence in Iñupiat life.
Videos from everyday Iñupiat people have humour as well as emotion
The action is interspersed by short videos offering various insights from everyday residents old and young. These are well filmed and speckled with humour as well as emotion, and do not outstay their welcome so as to jar with Nuna’s narrative, although there are occasions when the spacing could have been better judged - the first few chapters in particular contain too many ‘cultural moments’ for the amount of gameplay on offer.
The game itself is let down by some flaws. The three hour campaign suffers from desultory AI, with your companion sometimes obstinately refusing to follow in your footsteps. There is also an issue with later, more complex puzzles, where Nuna and the fox frequently tumble from ledges and platforms due to design issues rather than misjudgements on the part of the player. Such faults are not game breaking however, and are compensated by the thoughtful and tender execution elsewhere. Never Alone is a refreshing, icy breeze.
TIPS AND TRICKS:
1) Although the cultural moment videos are designed to played alongside the main game, Never Alone is a more immersive experience if you save them for after the campaign.
2) Signposting is a problem at time in the game, so if at first the most obvious solution does not bear fruit, it is worth trying it again.
3) Checkpoints and spawns are generous, but it is still worth taking care on later, more difficult puzzle sections.