Sometimes we are blessed as critics and as players that we have a vehicle with video games with which we can experience art, art that no others have access to. There are parts of video games that you can argue transcend the emergent gameplay they inspire, or the visual treats and beautiful moments where music, visuals and story combine to make some narrative magic. Red Dead Redemption has this in the Mexico crossing. Bioshock has it in the encounter with Andrew Ryan. The Last of Us has it in the ultimate lie. Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons has it in its unique and symbiotic control method. Never Alone (Kisima Innitchuna) has it in its tradition and inspired recounting of storytelling.
Never Alone is a platform game that tells the tale of a young girl, Nuna, who ventures out of her village to find the cause of a blizzard. As she travels, she comes upon the destruction and unpredictability of the elements along with enemies to avoid. To help with this, she befriends an arctic fox that can control the spirits around her.
It is based on the story Kunuuksaayuka, a tale from the indigenous Alaskan tribes retold in a puzzle platformer environment. Environment is something that should be mentioned here because the snowy plains look excellent and show off the Unity engine, with which the game was developed, very nicely. The colour palette might be different shades of icy white but that doesn’t lose any depth in the games backgrounds and levels.
Your arctic fox, a trusty companion who can control and summon spirits that act as convenient platforms, is your secondary player that you can swap between to help solve puzzles. From a gaming standpoint, it can be a little bit clunky at times and isn’t the super smooth experience that the rushing winds and icescapes attempted to convey. There are times that you have to be ready to pick up where you died as the game loads incredibly quickly back in to the action.
Your bola (a weapon of magical stones attached by string to a feather) help to solve some of the dead ends you come upon. The game isn’t that long but it is entertaining while you are playing, highlights being the Northern Lights that steal you away if you get in their path and you frantically being chased by a Polar Bear. The inner Attenborough in you wants to stop and admire the great creature and the gamer in you knows you can’t as you’re about to get eaten. From a gaming point of view, even though the game is over quite quickly, it is enjoyable, and it does give you an emotional story (although nowhere near the level of man blubbering that Brothers attained) that is fun for all ages. It’s easy to play and isn’t really that challenging save a few puzzles that require a bit more thought. In fact, I almost want it to be more challenging at times, but that’s just the gamer in me.
However, this is where the lines are going to blur because this isn’t just a game. This is a work of art. This game is a beautifully realised experiment in to how traditional storytelling, and how generations that pass down the folk tales, can survive in the 21st Century. The story is read in their native language and the cutscenes are animated in a style reminiscent of the Scrimshaw drawings and carvings. The characters, the girl who is the piece’s everyman and the evil manslayer villain, are all from the folklore of a community and a culture.
Not like a culture that a western society may be used to now we are so mixed and interconnected, but one that has stayed true, has survived hardships and exists like a family. Whilst there is a gaming element, Never Alone strives to be an educational look into something that you might not know about unless you’d seen it on TV, read about it or experienced yourself, and it also strives to find new ways to tell the folk tales that inspired it.
Folk tales are nothing new in games but they mostly work in an intertextual way. Games like God of War take myth and legend and remake it to tell their own story. Never Alone tells the story that is traditional and has always been told but has found a much more interesting and accessible way to do it than most other folk tales have. The game allows for you to experience the beliefs of Alaskans in a unique way.
It helps to show you how the Arctic Fox is a little rascal but will always keep you out of trouble if you befriend them. It tells you how the world is alive and how the spirits manifest themselves as animals or more human forms with the animal’s features. It shows you how they believe the Aurora Borealis are the spirits of the dead children dancing in the sky, and it shows you many things that a people have believed in and trusted and survived with for nearly 1,000 years.
When you are playing the game and you hear the voice of Robert Cleveland recounting the idioms of the folklore, and you get the connectivity of empathy with Nuna and the fox, you are kind of transported in to the world that these tribes live in. You learn and enjoy their beliefs and you find yourself becoming emotionally attached to the characters. The game completely succeeds in a way that most educational games haven’t since the early 90s when you used to get CD Roms with a computer bundle from your local store.
But whilst educational, your enjoyment of this game becomes more apparent because of how seamlessly it all integrates. The animated cutscenes, the beautiful art of the spirits that the fox manipulates to help you. The stark and harsh nature of the thick ice and destroyed wooden platforms and buildings. You are surrounded by nothing except the ice, the wind, the blizzard and the elements. But all the while, you are sharing your adventure with your companion fox. This transcends to the real world as you want to share this story with others. It makes you as a character, in a sense, Never Alone. The title is no accident as when you learn of the culture behind the game and the tribes, they too are never alone. It is a perfect title for a traditional story being told in a fantastically artistic and interactive way.
The game itself could be better and a bit more polished in its controls and handling. Although its art design is great, the music and sound are excellent and it is a charming and intriguing tale being told. The experience is that of an educational one of a culture and community in which the indigenous Alaskan tribes have existed for many centuries and are sharing with us in a unique and expressive way. Backed up with some excellent unlockable videos to really explore this life and tradition, Never Alone is a fantastic slice of 21st century educational gaming that I would definitely like to see more of in the future. After all, there are many stories to be told.
[tab title=”Good Points”]
– Easy to pick up and play
– Beautiful art and sound design
– An incredible story told in a traditional way
[tab title=”Bad Points”]
– Controls are a bit clunky in places
– Not very long
– Isn’t too challenging to play
[tab title=”Why a 9?”]
Very rarely do games come along that succeed in educating. But even more rarely do they come along and educate, entertain and create art at the same time. Never Alone may not be a long game, or the most challenging. But it is certainly one of the most immersive in its narration and storytelling, the most true in its design and inspirations and impressive in its environments. A beautifully realised tale imaginatively told in an incredibly expressive medium. If that isn’t art, I don’t know what is.
This review is based on the PS4 version of the game