The video game Never Alone (Kisima Ingitchuna in Iñupiaq), created with the cooperation of the Iñupiat of Alaska, was released for XBox, PlayStation4, PC and PC Steam on November 18, and gamers have spoken: This thing is good.
It's good as a game, and it's good as a cultural experience. One Native American reviewer even says it's shown him a different way to deal with the "racial anger" he's always felt. But we're jumping ahead.
Never Alone is a "puzzle platformer" (meaning there's a lot of figuring things out and a lot of jumping around), in which players must guide Nuna (a young Inupiat girl) and Fox (a fox) through an Arctic landscape on a quest to end a blizzard that has brought her village to the brink of starvation. It was developed by Upper One Games (a for-profit subsidiary of Cook Inlet Tribal Council) with collaboration from nearly 40 Tribal eleders and community members. The game has been generating buzz all year; its video trailers were picked up by some leading gaming blogs, and it was picked by Polygon.com as an Editor's Choice at E3 (the Electronic Entertainment Expo) and named to Time.com's list of "12 Fascinating Indie and Lower-Profile Games to Watch This Fall."
But that's pre-release hype, a lot of "this looks really cool." The history of gaming is rife with tales of games that everyone agreed were (to use Time's word) "fascinating" in concept—but that few people actually enjoyed playing. Now that actual gamers have gotten their hands on it, we have answers:
PC Gamer gives Never Alone 85 out of 100: "What you're doing is reclaiming, rescuing the fragments of a way of life that's melting away into the ocean, in order to shore up the sense of fellowship that's boldly insisted upon by the game’s title. The result is beautiful, hopeful and sad."
Wired: "I learned all [about Iñupiat principles] from playing Never Alone, and I had a great time doing it," says the reviewer, and praises the game for having "a kind of narrative dignity and gameplay introspection all too rare in this medium."
Kotaku: "It's the charm and sense of mission that really make Never Alone stand out from mechanically similar games. It's a game that's clearly made with love and feels like the Iñupiaq community responsible for creating it is opening its arms to give outsiders a big, communal hug."
The Koalition gives Never Alone a rating of 95 out of 100, or "amazing:" The review is packed with effusive praise, and concludes that "Never Alone is one of the most solid and heartfelt games I’ve had the pleasure of playing all year. It builds tension in the all correct spots, offers a heart-wrenching but enchanting story, and forces you to often think quickly and critically about your next move through an endless series of engaging puzzles. It’s a game, a history lesson, and an enlightening experience all wrapped in a beautifully crafted entity."
But it's the EuroGamer review by Daniel Starkey, who identifies himself as Native American, that might be the most insightful for ICTMN readers. He gives Never Alone a 10 out of 10, and in his review he shares the personal feelings the game has evoked. Never Alone seems to have actually changed his worldview, which was the "today is a good day to die" fatalism of one whose traditions are waning. "Sometimes I'll find myself frustrated with the way history has played out," Starkey writes. "It's easy for me to harbour anger about the past, and for me to seek some catharsis to ease that racial anger. Never Alone offers a different path though. Recipes can be shared. Lessons can be taught. Words can be spoken. For the first time, I'm beginning to think today's an awful day to die. We still have so much work to do, but now I know I'm kisima ingitchuna."
Never Alone is available for $14.99 on all platforms; visit the game's official site for links to the online stores where it's available.
Here's an interesting video about the role Alaska Native culture played in the development of the game: