In a voice rich with age, an Elder of an Inuit tribe begins a story in his own language. This story is not an old Inuit legend, but it is shaped as one—steeped in meaning and life. The main characters are a young girl of some power and her arctic fox, and they are faced with many issues as they struggle to evade Angry Men, the Little People, polar bears, and the like—all with the aid of the spirits that fill the world. They are always there, always trying to help you face the challenges that living in the Arctic brings. These spirits clearly show that you are, indeed, never alone.
I had heard some amazing things about Never Alone before I started playing it. Just the bit where it was an attempt to teach some of the wisdom and heritage of the Inupiat people struck me as incredible and rather brilliant. As a tool to fight against the threat of linguistic and cultural death, I wasn’t sure how the game would be able to do that since educational games are rarely exciting or fun to play. There are always exceptions, but I was a touch skeptical. I needn’t have been.
Never Alone is stunning, with visuals that all but took my breath away. One of the most interesting choices they made was to include a mix of Scrimshaw-style art with fairly standard gameplay graphics. The visuals let you know you aren’t playing your usual game, as everything seems touched by the traditional art of the region. When you meet the various NPCs the characters interact with, they are very distinct, such as the Owl Man who asks you to retrieve his drum. The images of the spirits that help you through the challenges are beautiful and really draw you in.
It is a little strange to play a game with subtitles, but as the narrator is telling the story of the game, it is not as vital to gameplay as it could be in other games of this type. There is the option of changing over to English, but I feel it weakens the atmosphere of the gameplay. The narration is paced and measured, only filling in the details of the story as opposed to commentary or in reference to the gameplay. The filling out of the story gives the game context, which it wouldn’t have otherwise.
In addition to the narration, there is native music in the background. It plays up the voice of the Elder, making things feel more authentic and easier to connect to. The drumming creates a rhythm that feels like it moves the story, but not the gameplay. The sound effects and environmental sounds make the game more naturalistic, including polar bear sounds, and ground the game in the real world. However, despite all these interesting details, the game itself is a simple side-scroller with standard game play features: jumping, things chasing you, etc. Despite that, it doesn’t really feel like any other side-scroller I have ever played, and there is a very good reason why.
What is different is that Never Alone is very educational in multiple ways. This makes a huge difference in how the game feels. Many other games just give you the game as is or has the characters narrate the events, so having a person telling the story you are playing is quite different. It makes the game feel far more like you are participating in a myth or a legend rather than simply playing a game. That sensation makes all the events more powerful and draws you into the culture.
One of the interesting features of the game is that as play advances, you open access to various interviews and discussions about things like the use of bolos in hunting, Scrimshaw art and the meanings behind it, and the legends of the Little People that interact with the Inuit. There is even a story told by someone who got stranded on an ice flow in the ocean. Story by story, the player discovers more and more about the tribes that are the source of the game.
Interestingly enough, Never Alone does discuss aspects of culture that are more common in anthropological analysis than video games. There are discussions of kinship, tribal structure, food preparation, hunting styles, music, ritual—all of the tiny pieces that make up a people. While it may not be as good or as complete as sitting and talking with tribal elders, the game makes the knowledge accessible and pertinent to the game play itself. There are times where the interviews and videos teach you something about the Inuit that allows you to make it past the most recent challenge.
That worldview—that the spirits of the world ensure that you are never alone, and that they help you face the challenges before you—is very appealing. It makes you feel as if someone always has your back, that there is more to life than the daily grind. Never Alone teaches you that if you only look around, you will discover that the world is larger than you expect, and there is always assistance.
Please play the game. It will take you to a whole new world that is in danger of disappearing, and remains vital in as much as the lessons from the game are applicable to all of us, not just the Inuit for whom this is a lifeline.