For all of mankind’s cultural achievements, if there is one thing we lost while moving from an oral tradition to a written one, it was how stories used to come to life.
Oral traditions, persisting nowadays only in a handful of indigenous cultures, treat their historical stories as tales to be heard and watched instead of simply read. Every generation has designated storytellers, who commit to memory the stories passed down since antiquity, acting as veritable human libraries who possess all the life knowledge and cultural identity of their people. Much like how Shakespeare’s plays were meant to be acted and spoken, oral stories infuse as much importance in the performance as the content. The storyteller’s tone, the speed of their speech, the facial expressions and hand gestures, and even the onomatopoeias each storyteller choose to use to add flavour – all that come together to bring individual recounts of the story into life. In this way, oral stories serve both as tales one hears from others, as well as internalised, holistic experiences one might well have lived through.
A wide range of modern technologies have been used in the preservation of oral history, including sound recordings and video tapes. However, as much as watching the recording of a Shakespearean play conveys none of the fever and immersion of live theatre, the recordings of traditional tales remains inadequate when compared to the real experience. The story isn’t gaining a new life with every person it was told to, and the listeners don’t walk away with an individualised interpretation. Even with the preservation of the performance of the tale, the story remains an abstract story, rather than a life experience.
In Never Alone (also known in its Iñupiatun name, Kisima Ingitchuna), a game that drizzles with the genuine sights and sounds of the Arctic, the collaboration of game developers and the indigenous people created a project that aims to use the immersion afforded by gaming and play to bring the story alive. Co-developed by Upper One Games, E-Line Media, and the Iñupiat people of the Cook Inlet Tribal Council in Alaska, Never Alone is a two-dimensional puzzle-platformer released in November 2014 on the PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC platforms. Ports for the Mac OS X, Wii U, PlayStation 3, and Linux have been released throughout 2015, and an iOS port was released as of June 2016. Controlling a little Iñupiaq girl Nuna and her arctic fox companion, the player navigates through a traditional tale of journeying far from home, of overcoming supernatural winters and expected dangers, of dissipating and curing the violence of antagonists with helpfulness and perseverance. Playing Never Alone certainly felt more like a personal journey than listening to a story from a foreign culture. It was a journey for us to understand the worldview of the Iñupiat people. It was a journey into the Iñupiaq soul.
The game makes no pretences about its intentions as a ‘serious game’, with ‘Cultural Insights’ being a separate Menu choice that one can explore independent of gameplay. But these ‘lore’ are not given all at once and are instead integrated as game collectibles. Tawny fluffy owls stand by certain parts of the path and fly away with a perky hoot when you walk past them, and the game is paused to prompt the player to watch the newly-obtained Cultural Insight. Being able to quickly switch between the Cultural Insights and back to the game allows the Insights to become the reward for progression, the drive and the fuel for the curious outsider. And with each dose of interesting, relevant Iñupiat lore, curiosity was not only sated, but encouraged to grow.
Cultural Insights were made relevant by imparting knowledge according to the current progress within the game. For example, when Nuna obtains a bola (a traditional weapon) for the first time, the player receives a Cultural Insight about the bola. These tidbits of practical knowledge were not told as sweeping tales, but brief videos with real individuals explaining the meaning of such cultural traditions in their own words. These videos show a different way of life, a different way of looking at the world – and we learn as a child would, by observation, by living and sharing the experience. The voices of the elders are also present throughout in the game as voice-over narration between segments of action, the soothing sounds echoing back to our infantile memories of listening to the tilting voices of our family by campfires, next to fireplaces, on the dinner table, or before bed, a sound one could surrender oneself to, a voice that promised fantasy and dreams.
The permeation of Iñupiat culture throughout the game is complemented by the appropriate art and sound design, which draws up the ambiance of the dark Arctic night not by the presence, but the absence of music and light. The game is dark, broken only by white snow and various shades of grey and brown. Luminescent spirits paint the sky in eerie bright sparks, while treacherous ice floes and shifting dead trees totter and sink into the ever-present black waters. In this world almost absent of colour, players become acutely aware of differing kinds of white, indicating levels of safety. We ally with pale, effervescent spirits that gently bear us over freezing oceans and up cliff sides, and fight against malevolent aurora spirits that leave behind an iridescent, verdant trail. Combined with a sound design that is more ambiance than music, of creaking ice and howling blizzards and the crackle of dry wood, I could almost feel the bite of sharp ice into my skin, hear the thick perennial snow swallow the sound of my footsteps, and sense the vastness of the frozen, precarious world that the Iñupiat people have lived in and adopted to over countless years to form their unique culture. I could share their awe and respect towards nature in those moments, and feel the courage and perseverance that such a life must have required.
In terms of the technical development of the game, Never Alone manages to deal with some issues while still left quite a bit to be desired. The command system between Nuna and the fox companion works admiringly well, with the fox being able to enter narrow passages and rebound off walls, and Nuna being able to wield the bola as the only way to defend the duo. The player can switch between either characters when required, and the idle companion is able to follow without glitches. The switch between Nuna and the fox provides an interesting variety to gameplay, as well as being a reflection of the harmony the Iñupiat people have with nature, and the belief that man is a part of nature’s flow. Moreover, the Game Over screen appears when either the Nuna or the fox dies, and the other character makes a sound of grief as the screen fades into black – man cannot survive without nature, and yet with the man’s demise, our story would end.
Two major complaints I have towards the game are the lack of clues during certain fights and the decidedly tricky movement of the benevolent spirits that carry Nuna and the fox. In certain moments, the monotonous white of the map does not work towards gameplay’s favour, making it hard to decipher which part of the terrain is collapsible or could be climbed. Water spirits also seem particularly reluctant to move forward at times, requiring Nuna to stand on the very tip of the moving platform – where one button press too many would cause her to plummet to a watery grave. Spirits that hung vertically on cliff sides seem to have issues coordinating with each other, with some spirits completely disappearing when I was trying jump from one spirit to another higher up on the screen. I have died to the erratic movements of the spirits more times than I could count, and I still internally cringe whenever I see another water spirit platform. That is actually something that genuinely upset me, to a degree that I had to look up guides and undertake trial-and-error tests to see how one is supposed to get past the stage. Those considering to pick up the game should be warned of gameplay that is not always smooth or logical, a rather noticeable tarnish to the immersive canvas of the entire game.
As a project envisioned to promote Iñupiat culture, Never Alone had received multiple awards, including being the Winner of the 2015 Games for Change Awards. The game successfully brings out the feeling of living through the performance of an oral story, letting the player feel immersed in the sounds and scenes of the dark Arctic. Culturally, the game achieves its goal admirably, successfully letting players sink into the root and heart of the Iñupiat culture. While the gameplay does leaves quite a bit to be desired, Never Alone is an excellent example of the integration of appropriate game design with serious purposes, obtaining critical as well as commercial appreciation. The tales of local cultures around the world provide ample narrative and cultural material for fascinating game design, a treasure trove of inspiration and originality. With the increasing diversity of game developers world-wide, it would be advantageous for the industry as a whole to explore these novel inspirations, both to widen the audience for video games as well as to preserve a fading part of our intangible, collective human history.