The representation of American Indigenous communities in the media is one that has been categorically problematic, with manipulated stereotypes and flawed one-dimensional characters often taking centre stage in film and TV. Just as troubling is the relative invisibility of these groups within the gaming world. Cue Never Alone (Kisima Ingitchuna), a game created by Upper One Games and the Cook Inlet Tribal Council (CITC) which aims to challenge this notion entirely, creating a game that not only has a story fully focused on Alaska Native culture, but is told in a way that accurately reflects their beliefs.
The CITC, a nonprofit organisation which aims to provide both social and educational services to Native Alaskans, embraced technology in order to create something that would not only preserve their cultural heritage, but would help younger members of the community identify with the traditions of the culture. They collaborated with nearly 40 members of Alaskan Native communities – elders, storytellers, and others – to help transform the the traditional Iñupiaq story Kunuuksaayuka into Never Alone, without losing the most important metaphors of community connectedness and interdependence found in the original tale.
One of the major differences between Kunuuksaayuka and Never Alone is the protagonist, which has been changed from a boy to a girl. This was a bold move, and an intentional one, with the team recognising the lack of representation of women in gaming and actively seeking to change it, to create a “resourceful, smart, brave character who could be a great role model for girls.” There’s a whole page on the Never Alone website about why they made this decision, and it’s well worth a read.
This decision to create a character that empowers and motivates reflects the game’s entire ethos, with CITC determined to inspire and engage Alaska Native youth through the medium of gaming. In fact, one of the most remarkable things about the game’s development is the way it was so clearly guided by a community to spread their culture’s message of empowerment and community spirit, something that is noticeably reflected in the simplistic, elegant gameplay.
The plot of the game is simple in essence – the user plays Nuna, a young girl who goes out alone in search of the source of an eternal blizzard, with the help of an arctic fox who becomes your companion throughout the game. It can be played solo or with a partner, but either way you have to learn the skills of both Nuna and the fox in order to progress.
It’s not a game that can be played competitively or selfishly, as each character has their own defined skills that are used at specific moments – this too was a subtle intentional move, as it constantly reiterates the theme of community co-operation within the game. The connection you begin to feel with the fox is a direct result of this, and often leads to real moments of panic when the fox is in trouble (I defy all of you not to feel guilt when you hear that fox whimper because of an error you made).
Some of the more obvious lessons of the game are found in the form of ‘insights’, which can be unlocked at several points throughout the game. These insights are short videos that explain Alaska Native culture and folklore through interviews and personal anecdotes from real members of the community, with these stories often linking directly back to the game. The stories are short and never feel out of place with what’s going on in the game, serving to share an age-old culture with both the Alaska Native youth and a global audience in an innovative and meaningful way.
Through developing Never Alone, Alaska Natives have created something that goes beyond what many would expect from gaming, creating a thoroughly interesting and accurate depiction of what their culture means to them, and why their values are so important. Not only is this beneficial for the community itself, it also allows a global audience to appreciate a culture they may never have discovered on their own, in a way they never would have thought of.
Never Alone is just the first in Upper One’s new line of “World Games,” based on existing cultures, collaborating with real people from communities around the world – so here’s hoping it’s not the last we see of this exciting new genre.
In the meantime, give Never Alone a play – it’s on PC, Xbox One and PS4.
All images © Upper One Games