Never Alone and the need for American Indian narratives in games

I'm proudly American Indian.

I grew up going to stomp dances, pow-wows, running fires, and even performing a traditional wedding. I carry a turtle shell tobacco pouch with a hawk claw for a clasp that my mother made for me. When I was a kid, I went to a native camp of sorts to learn traditional arts, to learn how to speak my language and be immersed in that culture with others.

Writing this is hard. Not because writing is hard (though it is, and don't let anyone tell you any different), but I find myself agonizing over every word, knowing that it will be scrutinized or tokenized.

Natives are often in the position of having to prove their Native-ness. So many have co-opted the culture to be about spirit animals and headdresses and nothing else. There's a general lack of understanding from those outside of Native culture about what it entails, and what it means to the people that live it. The real truth of that experience though, is that none of us have a complete picture. Native culture is so many things because there are so many different kinds of us.

never alone

That's common for any set of traditions, but what makes Natives different is that there's so many tribes, nations, and peoples and each of those have microcosms of their own. Unfortunately, there is one singular, monolithic presentation of Natives in pop culture. There's a bundle of stereotypes, refined and honed for decades and served up in what scant few movies, TV shows, and games show Natives at all.

That isn't to say that some connective tissue doesn't bind at least most Natives in some way. For many of us, our cultures and languages are dying off. So we're left with personal choices — do we assimilate into modernity? Do we spend some piece of our short lives trying, likely with futility, to preserve everything that made our people who they were?

These are the questions that dominate my piece of the Native experience, but they're never considered by non-Native culture.

Because of that, I've found that what few things actually express that tension are what truly speak to me. That holds true even if my tribe isn't the one being represented. So far, that's led to bands like a Tribe Called Red, which melds techno, house music, and dubstep with more traditional chants and singing. I can't understand most of their words, but I can still identify with it. I remember what it was like to sing at dances and pow-wows, and there's a part of me that misses those times. This is an easier, more accessible way for me to express my love of my past and my love of dance-able tunes.

And that brings us, somewhat laboriously, to Never Alone. I reviewed the game for Eurogamer last year, awarding it a 10/10. This was before that publication dropped scores altogether. At the time, my choice was somewhat controversial. I caught flak on Twitter and other social networks; people thought that it wasn't fair for me to praise a game that had some admitted technical issues so highly.

But that choice came from my experiences as someone that constantly struggles to balance the traditional and the new. I've always loved technology and the distractions that they provide. One of my Elders, before she passed away, often chastised me for texting when I should "be still," for spending too much time on the internet, and not enough time "walking the land."

She was, and I believe her spirit still is, quite the traditionalist.

Finding My Soul In the Arctic

Never Alone came into my life a little more than a year after she'd passed away. I was 22 and living in Minnesota, almost a thousand miles from her land in Oklahoma. Despite the physical and temporal distance, I found myself unable to cope. I felt helpless, directionless, and hopeless. This woman had a parental role in my life. She raised me, taught me and watched me grow into the man I am today.

When I was very young, she wanted to train me to be a fire keeper. It would be my responsibility to keep cooking fires running, to help manage ceremonies, and in one case to perform a wedding. The history of why fire is so important to my people is long and complicated. Suffice it to say that it was important, and I was honored to be trusted with these things from such an early age. That role became a piece of my identity. My mom, while obviously older, wasn't given that same level of responsibility, and to have that post as a child made me feel special.

I was about five years old when I first met her. Her home became my home, and I helped her care for it and tend it. Even as the clichéd rebellious teen, I found solace and serenity with her. She was a constant in my life, and she came to mean worlds to me. She was a guide, a spiritual leader, a living archive of thousands of folk tales and legends that had been passed down for hundreds of years. But she also had cancer.

Her diagnosis broke me. Here was a woman whom I almost believed might actually be immortal. I wanted her to be. I needed her to be. So much of American Indian culture is based on oral traditions. Most tribes never developed a written language.

For nomads, books and tablets, carvings and paintings — the types of media that encourage the development of codified grammar — were never a part of our lives. As an elder that had travelled with and studied several tribes beyond her own, she carried with her the knowledge of countless others. Her lived experience, to me, was far more valuable than any tome. So, when she had her larynx removed and was no longer able to speak, she was devastated.

The night she passed I couldn't stop crying. Hell, it's been two years and I still can't stop crying.

Before, she spoke freely and had opinions on basically everything from clouds to conspiracy theories. After… she only spoke when it really mattered. Any conversation took an extraordinary amount of effort and the manipulation of a gadget lodged in her throat. I only had the opportunity to see her three times after that. Each one left me in tears, but I remained inspired by how she persevered in spite of extraordinary pain, and crushed to see someone I thought so highly of brought low by some damned disease she didn't deserve.

The night she passed I couldn't stop crying. Hell, it's been two years and I still can't stop crying. Here was a woman who lived, and I mean truly lived and, when she finally succumbed, I knew nothing but hopelessness.

I was taught that we don't lose people. I can still pray to them and they'll always be there, gently guiding me. I was told that, but being told something and genuinely internalizing the lesson are two very different things.

I thought I had lost my connection to my people. I had lost a well of knowledge. I had lost a woman that, no matter what challenge I faced, I could seek out and listen to. Knowing that she was a spirit that walked with me wasn't enough. I needed her to hold my hand. I needed to see smoke billowing from her lungs. I needed to feel her voice tell me that everything was going to be okay.

But she wasn't with me. Not in the same way.

Struggling with the death of a loved one is something that we'll all have to face some day. That's just a part of the human condition, our fundamentally shared experience. Sometimes though, it can take a while before we find our way forward.

For me, Never Alone was that way. It was that path.

Honoring Traditions

Never Alone, as its name implies, is optimistic by nature. It follows an Iñupiat girl, Nuna, and her spirit fox companion. Together, they search for the source of a blizzard that’s brought her village to the edge of starvation. That set-up sounds like any other, but it obscures the beauty of what it is, and how it came to be.

At first Never Alone gives the impression that it is the retelling of an Iñupiat myth. In a manner of speaking that is true, but it’s also quite a bit more. Many native cultures revolve around stories and legends, tales told by fires over twilit dinners. These stories are like parables; they contain pieces of life advice, the tools for survival and important observations about the dangers of the natural. They are meant to inspire respect and understanding, and that's easy to lose sight of.

With that perspective, it’s more accurate to say that Never Alone is like a videogame version of the boy who cried wolf. Never Alone is about more than Nuna’s journey. It’s about community, about the role of child and elder and about learning to survive in the harsh arctic climate. In that sense, it embodies values that are vital to the Iñupiat people of today, not a far flung legend whose meaning has been lost in time.

Never Alone

When I was a child, both my mom and my elder would chastise me for carrying electronics into sacred spaces. It "corrupted" them she said. I'd try to sneak a bit of Pokémon in the middle of ceremonies, when I was supposed to be watching the fire. We were mostly alone, in very dark forests, with little more than the moonlight. My Gameboy was comforting, I felt like it protected me from the unknown, like it helped me shut out everything else. But my elder would catch me every time without fail, and give me the same kind of lecture.

She'd tell me that I didn't have proper respect for the history, for the space, for the sacrifice that others have made to make our ceremonies possible. She understood, and she wasn't angry. Just disappointed. She believed that one day I'd carry the traditions, that one day I'd find my path again.

That duality, that mutual respect, that solidarity is everything.

Since she passed, I've felt the pressure to maintain my culture much more strongly. As of right now, there are only a few hundred people left that can speak any of my tribe's language, and there are no monolingual speakers left at all. While I was writing my Never Alone review, I was struggling with my own past. I was grappling with my own loss, and desperately searching for some way forward, some kind of peace that I could hold onto and walk with. Balancing that fatalism, against the optimism that a game like Never Alone demands from its audience, took time for me to internalize and understand.

I get it now, though.

When my elder was walking with me, and telling me about our past, about the traditions and ceremonies, it wasn’t about rejecting modernity, but embracing a culture. She was giving me the tools I’d need to keep the story of our people going.

I had the opportunity to speak with a few of the folks on the team for a bit in person a couple months ago. They said they were grateful for my review. Not for the high score I gave their game, but for the way in which my words touched and inspired the team. Knowing that they could have such a strong impact on someone else's life gave them their own hope to keep making these sorts of games.

That's funny to me, in part because when we started chatting I was convinced that they were the ones who had changed my life. But it's cyclical. It's self-reinforcing. Several months after I first guided Nuna through an arctic obstacle course, I've got my handle on it all. Much like Nuna and the spirit fox, we will all face obstacles that seem insurmountable. We all know what loss means, even if we haven't yet faced it ourselves. We all have some basic level of empathy that allows us to connect with the people around us. That duality, that mutual respect, that solidarity is everything.

Shamans and Savages

What I took from Never Alone is my own experience. It meant more to me than just about any game I've ever played. Nothing had ever spoken to me like that, or tapped the struggles of modern Native life.

"My people have have been completely stripped of their worth by different forces over the generations of our recent history," artist and game developer Renee Nejo told me. "When the slaughter, segregation, rape, enslavement and imprisonment of my family and ancestors only resulted in the decimation of our population, and not our extinction, there were the attempts of ‘assimilation.' As recently as the 1970s, ‘In order to spread a unified national vision’ children were ‘taught’ not to be native."

Nejo describes herself as a "half-breed Native American," and she’s part of the first generation born and raised off the land they came from.

"Shame has been passed down over generations in my family to a point that self-determination feels impossible. It feels impossible but it isn’t. That middle part of my life where I was afraid to say who I was, I was ashamed; ashamed of my blood, ashamed of being native, ashamed of being white. I was afraid in my white neighborhood and church, I would have to explain myself. I was afraid in my reservation I would be outed as ‘not a real native.' I felt completely disconnected from other humans, no matter where I was. Because that’s what shame does."

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Far too often, the conversation about American Indians is framed by those with no knowledge of us, or our various cultures. Instead of talking about how painful it is to see a nation built on our bones tell us that inaccurate characters of us aren't offensive to us, pop culture reduces us to mystics and savages.

We speak-um big heap broken English, or we shed that single tear when we see litter. Narratives that don't fit into those boxes are largely ignored, and those that aren't are subject to being misunderstood and misinterpreted.

"Playing Never Alone was like being that unashamed kid I was all those years ago, celebrating the parts of me I thought made me special," Nejo said. "The love and care that went into the characters and narrative paid off. I got to learn and play with that same love and curiosity I missed in my adolescence and young adulthood. I don't think that the creators of Never Alone ever set out to change the world or single handedly make it more okay for me to be Native American, but in a small way changed my world by being the loving nudge towards a walk with courage."

The game even helped her seek out other native developers, and to begin to talk to them about their art. "There were more just like me, and I actually wasn’t alone," she said.

This is a powerful thing in a world where pop culture is never concerned with what being Native means to Natives, with the struggle of watching a government you feel is unjust rule a land that you believe was wrongfully taken from you by treacherous, genocidal monsters. It isn't concerned with the poverty of life on a reservation, or what it means to be the most commonly sexually assaulted group. They aren't concerned with our reality, only with our fiction.

Manuel Marcano, a Taino chief and game developer, often had to hide his identity in South America, while in the US he was seen as Puerto Rican.

"I was expected to speak Spanish, I was expected to be into machismo, I was expected to love Jesus, I was expected to have trouble with English," he told me. "I happily obliged. Well, not happily. It crushed my soul to have to lie about my identity on such a basic level, but it was much happier than getting beaten up, or killed. Both cases are rather common especially in South America for anyone claiming to be from a tribal culture."

Never Alone was never intended to be purely an act of preservation.

It’s one thing when your culture is wiped out, but it’s another when identifying with that culture can make you a direct target for violence.

"We all know about colonizing powers, but the one for us is a doozy," he said. "It erased everything and, to this day, we as indigenous people are hunted. Those expectations that exist do so because it is believed that the Indigenous peoples were either assimilated, or destroyed completely. Even for tribes in the north, accepting that tribal people still exist in the south can be a real uphill battle."

But Marcano found hope in the game.

"This is an unapologetically ‘native’ experience," he said. "Everything about it screams culture, it screams tribes. Seeing that, seeing people excited for it, seeing them get PS+, seeing them talking about it coming to Wii U, knowing it was going to be this mainstream thing that anyone could buy and play almost legitimized me as a person. That thing I was wasn't a secret. I wasn't out of the closet as a Taino, I was just a Taino. Seeing things, not just as an art game or some indie thing but on every major platform, makes me feel like I can be me."

That, is what Never Alone really means. Looking back, I'm still stunned that a game like Never Alone exists. In the age of rehashes, rereleases, and countless sequels, it's amazing to me that an original game based on the tales on an Alaskan Native tribe ever saw a release. It was a game made in a partnership with members of the Iñupiat tribe, but unlike many other tribes the Iñupiat aren't endangered.

Never Alone was never intended to be purely an act of preservation, but to give hope to a people in the face of centuries of oppression and colonialism.

To quote Grant Roberts, the game's director: "They didn't say thank you for saving us. They don't see it that way. [They say] thank you for doing it right. Thank you for giving us something we can proudly call our own. This is not a last gasp, this is a grand showcase."

Because of that, and because Native voices are so few and far between in the video game space, I wanted to ask some others what this game meant to them. The voice of Nejo and Marcano are important. Even though I'm Native, I can't pretend to speak for all of us. I can't be all of us, and I shouldn't have to be the token.

For the most part, the conversation about Never Alone has been dominated by non-Natives that have misinterpreted the game as a sort of digital museum piece, instead of what it is — a clarion call for Natives to stand up and be proud of who they are. Babykayak