A lot of games make dramatic overtures about exploring diverse cultures. Some manage to do those cultures justice. Many don’t. But no game (to my memory) has put its money where its mouth is like Upper One Games’ Never Alone, a puzzle-platformer so heavily inspired by Native Alaskan culture as to be a legitimate part of it.
Developed in conjunction with elders and representatives from the Iñupiat people of Alaska, Never Alone tells a charming, adventurous folktale about a girl - Nuna - and her fox, as they traverse the wintry tundra to restore balance to Nuna’s village. This story has been handed down through generations, and the community elders’ involvement in the game actually makes it an officially recognised part of that oral tradition - just in a slightly different medium.
The result of the collaboration is a game whose every aspect is informed by Iñupiat culture and loaded with centuries’ worth of meaning.
That meaning feeds into the game in strokes both broad and intricate. The central relationship - the girl and her snowy-white fox - comes from the folktale, but it’s also representative of a broader interdependency between humans and the natural world. You are, says the game, never alone, because Nature is always with you. Animals, the spirits of the dead and even the blizzardy weather are portrayed simultaneously as characters and game mechanics, and while some might prove dangerous, there’s no malice inferred. That’s just the way they are. Even death itself is treated as a beautiful, intrinsic part of the natural cycle.
Practically speaking, this interdependency primarily manifests in the connection between Nuna and her fox. The fox rescues Nuna from a polar bear early on, and the pair continue to get each other into and out of trouble as the story advances. The two protagonists’ unique in-game abilities mandate cooperation, and that generates a palpable friendship between them, without any scripted voice work or cutscenes. There are few histrionic emotional “moments” - instead, the effect is achieved in the sum of the little details. When either character dies in-game, the other lets out a brief cry of anguish that’s heart-wrenching in its purity and simplicity. You end up protecting them not so they won’t die, but so the other character won’t be left all alone.
While it can be played single-player, switching between characters, this is a game that really demands to be played cooperatively. I’m not just saying that because the AI pathfinding is treacherous and infuriating at times; no, Never Alone, as its title suggests, is explicitly about togetherness and teamwork. It’s not a term that’s used often, because I don’t think it’s a thing that really exists, but Never Alone would be a great date game. (It should exist.)
Sadly, though the puzzle-platforming is clever and enjoyable, control issues rear their heads at times to make certain sequences a torture. Feedback from gusts of wind (used to aid jumping) and ledges (used to aid in not falling to your death) is inconsistent, making movement feel unresponsive at times. Some areas’ instant-death zones make it seem extra unfair. The ragdoll physics upon characters’ deaths occasionally detract from the game’s emotional punch. And if playing single-player, it’s all too easy for your AI-driven companion to leap to their deaths. These issues don’t sink the game, but they tarnish what would otherwise be a sparkling example of intelligent, meaningful platforming.
As you move through the world of Never Alone, you unlock “insights,” short mini-documentaries exploring whatever elements of Iñupiat culture you encounter at that point in the game. I initially feared that these documentaries would be glorified classroom films. On their own, they might be. But viewed alongside the game itself, they lend extra context and reveal just how much is influenced by the Iñupiat people, down to the tiniest details. Learning the simple, subtle ways that culture is woven into the game is fascinating, and some of the docs are even powerful stories in their own right.
I’d never heard of the Iñupiat people before this year, and I’m still not an expert, but through playing Never Alone, I’ve gained quite the appreciation for them. Playing and interacting with this story taught me about their culture better than any Wikipedia page could. It’s a fascinating example of games as learning tools and cultural documents. But equally as importantly, it’s a delightful, painterly, moving gameplay experience unlike any other.
Plus, that fox sure is pretty.
We’re giving away five Steam keys to Never Alone, courtesy of Surprise Attack. Here's how you enter: email mistertodd [at] gmail [dot] com, using the subject header “Never Alone Giveaway” and tell me the animal companion you would most want with you in a video game. This contest closes Thursday November 28th, 6pm EST / 3pm PST. Only winning entries will be responded to. Don’t call us, we’ll call you.