Games like Never Alone are few and far between. Sure there are other puzzle-platformers out there, but how many are created with the help of native peoples?
Never Alone was created by developer Upper One Games, which is the first indigenous-owned video game developer and publisher in the U.S. The game was created with the help of the Cook Inlet Tribal Council, Iñupiaq and Tlingit storyteller Ishmael Hope, and E-Line Media. Their goal with this game was twofold: to celebrate, extend, and share indigenous culture, and to explore the question of what it means to be human.
As you might expect, this game is more than just entertainment. It’s a learning experience. As you progress through the story, you unlock videos and interviews with native people that tell you more about the story, and the people who helped to tell it.
Never Alone is based on the Iñupiaq story, “Kunuuksaayuka,” which follows a young girl named Nuna and her question to discover the source of an ongoing blizzard that has ravaged her village. As with many native stories, the environment takes on its own personality throughout the game, often challenging (or helping) the player to overcome obstacles.
Nuna is joined by her companion, a silver fox. In the single-player campaign, you switch between the two characters in order to get through certain areas of the game, but there is a co-op option as well.
The first thing you’ll notice about Never Alone is the art. I was immediately fascinated by the game’s combination of art styles. During cutscenes, the story is told through pen-and-ink drawings that mimic Iñupiaq scrimshaw drawings.
During gameplay, the art is more traditional, with gorgeous backgrounds. The colors of Never Alone are somewhat muted, as you might expect. You’re traveling through a blizzard after all, exploring caves, forests, and even spending some time underwater. Often as you walk along, you’ll have to brace yourself against howling winds and blowing snow that makes it difficult to see and impossible to move forward until it lets up.
Never Alone delivers just the right amount of challenge, without getting hung up on the difficulty. This game is all about the story, and, as you might expect from a story that has been passed down for generations, it keeps you interested with just the right pacing. As I unlocked various videos and interviews, I found myself torn between wanting to stop and watch them right away, and wanting to continue on with the story that was being laid out for me to follow.
In the past, I’ve played games that featured the character-switch mechanic where the need to switch back and forth felt awkward, even forced. Never Alone does it really well, making it feel more like natural cooperation between friends (which is what it’s meant to depict). There are simply some things that Nuna can’t do without Fox’s help. And there are some things that Fox can’t do without help from Nuna. At no point does it feel like an obstacle was placed simply to make use of the mechanic – a trap that several other games have fallen into. It’s very organic.
I did find the controls for the bola to be a bit awkward and challenging – but then, I would expect to find using a bola to be a bit awkward and challenging. This is what I mean when I say that playing Never Alone is very organic. It’s definitely a game you experience.
All in all, this is a game that is enjoyable on multiple levels. A compelling story, beautiful art, and the thrill of learning about a native people and their culture combine across eight chapters to make a really enjoyable afternoon. You can play through the base game in around 3-4 hours, though it may take a bit longer if you stop to watch all of the cultural insights (which I highly recommend). Those insights provide some much-needed context, something that other international games have missed. This is truly a hidden gem, and I can’t wait to play more from this developer.