If Upper One Games’ Never Alone sticks out to you as one of the best examples of storytelling in recent memory, don’t be surprised. It sort of has an unfair advantage. You see, the tale it tells has only been passed down throughout several generations’ time. But, while its roots are in the past, the way it’s being told is unique and wholly original.
Never Alone is a puzzle platformer that’s about an old folktale of the Inupiat people -- one of seven major indigenous groups in Alaska. The project actually came about because the Inupiat’s tribal council wanted a way to pass their heritage down to the youths, who had become more enamored by the likes of Facebook, Twitter, and of course videogames than they were with their own history. They reached out to E-Line Media to see if the educational game company would be interested in helping develop a game that would share a bit about them. The result was the creation of Upper One Games.
The two companies are working together to make sure that they nail every aspect of the culture, and the developers started creating a game that tells the story of a little girl named Nuna and her pet fox. Their village had been long tormented by a blizzard. One day, they set off to try to find the source of the storm and effectively save their people. However, upon returning, they find that the storm had ravaged their small village, leading them to go on a quest to stop the blizzard.
Through eight arctic chapters, Never Alone tasks the player with solving clever puzzles to advance. The Nuna and Fox tandem is strong because each character has their own unique abilities to contribute. For instance, Fox can climb up walls, allowing him to get to areas that Nuna can’t reach. However, Nuna acquires a bola that can be thrown at certain objects. Players will have to switch between the two, or play cooperatively with the game’s drop-in/drop-out multiplayer system.
Described by the developers as “more Limbo, less Meat Boy,” Never Alone has that imprecise platforming quality about it that can prove frustrating at times. In all fairness, advancement in the game will most often be dictated by finding the correct route rather than reliance upon skill, so unnecessary fail states shouldn’t be too frequent.
Also, being the main antagonist in Never Alone, the blizzard will gust and try to knock the duo off ledges. It can be countered by bracing, but in my ten minutes with the game, it was hard to get a feel for when it would happen. Hopefully a familiarity with the rhythm will emerge and lead to a synchronization between the player and the environment.
Even when failure does occur, it’s not like it’s an overtly bad thing. Never Alone is absolutely striking visually -- a real pleasure to look at. Additionally, the little animations of Nuna and the fox are adorable. It’s tough not to have a smile on your face when you’re playing this game. I watched a handful of small children and grown adults try it out, and they all expressed the same emotion -- sheer delight. I don’t think that effect is going to be lost on anyone, regardless of demographic.
As an effort to educate, Never Alone has extra content that should prove entertaining. By reaching certain points throughout the game, video clips are unlocked that explain a little chunk of Inupiat culture. One that I watched was a one-minute video about what these Alaska Natives believe the Northern Lights are. In the same vein as Valiant Hearts, these bits are available for those who want to delve deeper, but are never forced on the player.
Never Alone may have been born from the Inupiat’s desire to share with their own youth, but the effects are going to be much more far-reaching than that. People all around the world are going to learn about the Inupiats through a medium that they love, but doesn’t necessarily have a history for doing this kind of good. Upper One Games wants to change that. The studio has plans to keep developing titles about underrepresented cultures in a series of what it calls “world games.” Here’s to hoping it follows through because its first effort is shaping up phenomenally.