The first thing to observe about Never Alone is that it will be foreign to most of its players. Upper One Games designed Never Alone to bring the Iñupiat culture into the homes of a worldwide audience through a modern medium. The protagonist of Never Alone is a young, indigenous Alaskan girl named Nuna. I had not heard of the Iñupiat people before playing this game. I had never heard the Iñupiat language spoken aloud. I had no idea what their traditional art looked like, or what kind of stories they told, or what kind of food they ate, but I know others share this ignorance. The game takes place entirely in the Alaskan wilderness, in villages and ice floes and mountaintops.
The second thing to observe about Never Alone is that it will be very familiar to most of its players. The game can be more-or-less described as a sidescrolling platformer. Nuna travels with a fox companion. They work together to cross gaps, avoid enemies, move boxes, and retrieve items. Nuna is slower but stronger, able to break obstacles with her bola. The fox is smaller and sprightlier, able to reach areas Nuna can’t. Never Alone is engaging, despite some wobbly platforming, and occasionally inventive, but by no means does it set new standards in the run-and-jump genre. It is, in short, one long snow level in a game you’ve played before.
Here Never Alone finds itself in an unenviable position: it channels an unprecedented perspective through a thoroughly conventional design. It can’t meet everybody’s expectations. Some critics gave Never Alone a poor review, saying that the nobility of its goal can’t compensate for unimpressive platforming. Others lauded the game for its unique premise, enjoying the platforming well enough or overlooking weaknesses in design. Some wanted a less challenging experience, preferring instead a walkabout tour through the Alaskan wilds. Others found the game too easy. In some ways, Never Alone invites these sorts of equivocating reviews. When you’re the only game in the world starring an Iñupiat girl, you carry the torch for more games to come.
What some people might call conventional, I found welcoming. The designers found common ground between myself and the Iñupiat culture.The regular beats of a platform game felt like the subtitles to a foreign language. I almost want to call Never Alone “educational,” as the game is punctuated by brief video interviews of Iñupiat people. But “educational” to me conjures images of Reader Rabbit-esque edutainment titles, and this game is not didactic or patronizing in any way. In some ways, I want to call this the video game version of a documentary, but games almost never attempt that sort of real-world exploration that I am not even sure what a “video game documentary” looks like.
It’s rare that I take much away from the games I play besides a receipt of time occupied, and rarer still that a game feels like a gift being shared rather than a product being purchased. There’s so much to want here: a longer game, a different style of game, games about other cultures, more games about this culture. That wanting is uncommon for so-called gamers, who so often get exactly what they ask for—more shooters, another sequel, years of DLC, releases and re-releases and special editions.
Upper One games did not create these circumstances. It is not their fault that no one else had created a game about the Iñupiat before, or that a game about any indigenous people is a remarkable event. Great or not, Never Alone has given us that much richer a medium. If history remembers it as a mediocre platformer, it will still have expanded the boundaries of video games in ways that most games are too scared to even attempt. There is so much to like about the game that criticism seems small and besides the point. Any person who enjoys video games should consider it exciting that any other game about the Iñupiat people will now have to be prefaced with the next.
The snow level is one of the great video game tropes. A ubiquitous sight in any genre, the snow level almost always signals a twist on something familiar. It might be marked by slippery floors or icy, unstable platforms. Water that was once safe is now deathly cold. Clear skies might be replaced by blustery storms. The snow level complicates gameplay that, to that point, has become comfortable. The snow level takes what you thought you understood and shows you how it could be different. A game about the Iñupiat people does not need to usher in a revolution in design. It just needs an audience willing to play.
Grayson is a writer and editor living in Chicago. Follow him on Twitter at @vghmag.