Why I'm in love with this sweet game about a little girl in Alaska

Opinion

The Inupiat, like many indigenous tribal peoples, hold the belief that all things are inhabited by a spiritual essence that goes deeper than their outward expression.

I think that Never Alone, a game based on the Inupiat's stories and culture, is an example of this animism. On the face of it, the game is a simple sideways scrolling puzzle game, in which a sweet little girl and her sidekick arctic fox negotiate tottering ice floes, polar bears and fierce storms.

There are many games like this one. But there is a spirit that inhabits Never Alone, that speaks of depths way beyond its basic mechanics.

It feels like a game that is not only different, but is also seeking to make a difference.

never alone

Created by Upper One Games in association with the Cook Inlet Tribal Council, it is inspired by the people who have lived in Alaska for many thousands of years, surviving through a closeness to their unforgiving environment. It is difficult for many of us, cosseted by technology and a complex society, to appreciate their worldview. This game allows us to glimpse life in a new way.

Alaska Natives, like countless indigenous peoples before them, have struggled with the incursion of Western invaders onto their lands. They have been marginalized and mocked in a thousand ways. Videogames, with their lazy portraits of stern 'Indian' warriors, wizened crones, lascivious vixens and staggering sots, have been as guilty as anyone of perpetuating self-serving and cruel stereotypes.

The CITC sees this video game as a way to defend their culture, by telling the rest of us that the Inupiat exist and that they have value. The story underpinning Never Alone is one of survival, not just of the girl Nuna (the word means 'Land') but also of where she is from.


I am writing this article from the garden of my house in Santa Cruz, California. Just a few generations ago, the Ohlone people lived here. The last person to speak their language fluently died 70 years ago. Attempts to recapture what was lost will never be satisfactorily completed. Apart from the odd street-name and memorial, there is almost no sign in Santa Cruz, a town that prides itself on inclusiveness, that the Ohlone were ever here.

Never Alone is an opportunity to allow that native America is very much of the present, very much alive. It is an opportunity for the rest of us to enjoy a thing that could easily have been lost.

This is not about white guilt or repackaging native peoples into quaint stories for children. It's about embracing something valuable that, foolishly, has been rejected for a very long time.

The game begins with a narrator speaking in Inupiat, a language of striking beauty and resonance. Its art style is taken from Alaska Native scrimshaw carvings. There is a deep attention to detail in the way the snow, ice and frigid water is portrayed. Strange creatures appear, from their ancient myths. The levels are based on stories handed down from one generation to the next, stories about survival , interdependence, resiliency and inter-generational exchange, the idea that wisdom can be exchanged between young and old, between humans of every stripe.

Never Alone, due to be released in October for Windows PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One digital, can be played alone but it is a cooperative game, at heart, in which Nuna's abilities are matched with the fox's. It is a pretty and fun game, liable to make you laugh.

But there is also a mission here. The Seattle-based developers of the game spent much time with the Inupiat. They filmed them telling stories and jokes. These vignettes are presented as rewards.

I watch one of these scenes. Immediately, I see footage of my favorite movie, Stagecoach. There is the wonderful scene where John Wayne, the Ringo Kid, meets the stagecoach, twirls his gun in the air. It made him a superstar.

The footage cuts to an old Inupiat man. He recalls watching the John Ford classic film, with his aunt, on a television set in the early 1960s. He laughs now as he remembers her anger at the film's biased portrayal of native Americans, its clear racism. As the Ringo Kid cut down those Apaches, she got so mad, she started throwing things at the TV.

These are the sorts of recollections and insights that we need, in order to gain a balanced perspective on our country's story. Never Alone is more than just a video game. It is a part of that process and of that story.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, Polygon as an organization.

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