Never Alone (Kisima Innitchuna)
Upper One Games, E-Line Media
PS4, Xbox One, PC
Never Alone (Kisima Inŋitchuŋa), a game created in collaboration with the Iñupiaq, a Native American tribe in Alaska, is a rare example of a video game consciously bridging cultures together. Based on Iñupiaq folklore, Never Alone weaves the tale of a young girl named Nuna, an accomplished hunter, and an arctic fox, a spiritual medium, as they journey through the arctic tundra in order to discover the source of a series of devastating blizzards.
A living, breathing folk tale, Never Alone is sure to delight casual gamers. This arctic legend begins with Nuna setting out alone to find out why blizzards continue to strike her village. Nuna doesn’t get very far before a blizzard, and a very hungry polar bear, force her to turn around. Luckily, an arctic fox, who serves as a gateway to the spirit world, comes to Nuna’s aide. Returning home with a new companion, Nuna is shocked to see her village in shambles. Though saddened by the destruction, Nuna continues on her quest to stop the blizzards after learning that her people are safe. Together, Nuna and the fox overcome numerous obstacles, determined to restore a sense of balance.
The puzzles themselves are not difficult to solve once players understand each character’s strengths and weaknesses. In no time at all players will be out-running polar bears, summoning spirits, and scaling mountains with ease. Never Alone can be played in both single player and co-op mode. Single player does present some interesting challenges for those who are not used to playing with two characters, especially when a situation demands that you switch between characters at a moments notice. Determining which character to control often depends whether you need to use Nuna’s bola (a throwing weapon made with two weights on the ends of an interconnected cord) to knock down ice barriers, or the fox’s ability to connect with the spiritual world.
In the game, Nuna encounters both good spirits who are moved by her plight…and spirits who find humans troublesome.
If helpful spirits are your aim, the fox should take the lead. He can sense where benevolent spirits are, and can bring those who are shy around humans forward. When avoiding troublesome spirits on the other hand, it’s best to let Nuna take charge. Her steady pace allows players time to calculate the next move, which is critical when moving across elevated platforms where strong winds are blowing. Even one misstep can be disastrous.
Never Alone’s strength lies in its atmospheric landscape. Players are sure to get lost in the beauty game as they trek through the snow. Many will find that standing still to listen to the soundscape tends to happen unconsciously.
One of my personal favorite things about the game are the cultural insights that can be unlocked. Each insight is a short video vignette that teaches players about certain aspects of the Iñupiaq culture that are tied to the game. When searching for the Owl Man’s drum for example, players will discover an insight about the importance of drumming.
The gameplay in Never Alone has it’s quirks, but I see the game as a second string, the star of the show is the piece of oral history that the Iñupiaq have decided to share with us. Folklore plays a large role in the Iñupiaq community and Never Alone captures the essence of oral history beautifully by asking a member of the Iñupiaq tribe to narrate the game in his native tongue, using animated pictographs meant to replicate ancient carvings where stories were recorded, and an adventure that is larger than life. Never Alone is a memorable experience, and one that I am glad I was able to participate in.