“Never Alone:” Until You Are

For the UAS Whalesong

If you own one of the big-name video game consoles – an Xbox or a PlayStation – or even if you just play games on your computer, you’ve probably heard of the game Never Alone (Kisima Innitchuna). You will also have heard of it if you attended one of the recent events at UAS, “The Making of ‘Never Alone’: Native Voices and New Media Display.” Released in 2014, Never Alone uses the technology of gaming systems to share Native Alaskan culture and storytelling with the world. The main website for the game (http://neveralonegame.com/) explains this better than I can: “We paired world class game makers with Alaska Native storytellers and elders to create a game which delves deeply into the traditional lore of the Iñupiat people to present an experience like no other. Never Alone is our first title in an exciting new genre of ‘World Games’ that draw fully upon the richness of unique cultures to create complex and fascinating game worlds for a global audience.”

I attended the aforementioned event about Never Alone and its creation, but in preparation for doing so, I thought I would go ahead and try to actually finish playing the game. I got it for free through PlayStation Plus about a year ago, and after it downloaded I let it sit on my console for a while   without actually ever playing it. Then, one night, I was tooling around on my PS4 while my friend sat on the couch trying to do homework, and found it in my menu of downloaded games. Recalling that I’d heard it was good and also short, I decided that my friend’s homework was less important than us having a Cultural Experience and kicked the game into gear.

The first thing you need to know about Never Alone is that it’s not easy. Oh, sure, it seems like it’ll be all fun and games at first when you set out to save your village by yourself. But, as I learned at the “making of” presentation, the gameplay is meant to reflect actual Native Alaskan storytelling tradition, in which there is rarely (if ever) a lone hero who sets out to singlehandedly fix a problem. You don’t get very far before you are immediately accosted by an Arctic fox who soon becomes your BFF. You think this will be great! Fun and adventures with a cool canine sidekick! Except that then the game throws the following caveats at you: you need both the girl and the fox in order to proceed, because each of them have different skills; if you aren’t playing with another person, you have to control both of them; and most importantly, if one of them dies, the game will reset to the last checkpoint, so you have not one but two virtual lives in your hands. Again, this is part of the Native Alaskan storytelling tradition, and it works for the aesthetic of the game – but I frequently found it a frustrating game mechanic to deal with.

This was especially true when you get to later levels. There is a lot to deal with in this game, which is technically only a few short hours in length; however, when it feels like you are just barely learning to take care of yourself in real life, it’s very stressful to suddenly be given control of two virtual lives simultaneously. Most of the time, whichever character I was not controlling was pretty good about taking care of themselves, but in levels where switching back and forth between them with an imminent hazard was required, it became less of a charming aspect of gameplay and more of an annoyance. However, I’ve dealt with worse game mechanics in my time, and any flaws were probably more noticeable for me since I played the game in fairly small segments rather than straight through in one sitting. And while I remember the struggles and how I died repeatedly, I also remember the thrill I got from trying to get both characters away from the myriad of game enemies. There’s an angry man who hurls fire at you, a polar bear that simply won’t leave you alone, typical Alaskan weather, freezing water – even the Northern Lights are out to get you at one point, and you have to deal with all of this by yourself. Or with a friend, but I only have one PS4 controller to my name.

I ended up not being able to finish the game before going to the event, but I did come home and finish it afterwards. Long story short, I am not worthy of being the wielder of the magic bolas that you are gifted in the game, since my virtual aim is about as poor as my real-life aim. Also, if you ever come across someone who is doing something you don’t like, I learned that the best course of action is apparently to steal what they’re using to do it with and run away. And finally, the most important lesson I can take away from Never Alone is that you should always be prepared for a polar bear encounter. Always. At all times. Even when you least expect it. A good piece of advice from an ancient Iñupiaq legend – and I imagine they knew what they were talking about.

Continued by Kaylyn Haslund.

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