Native American folklore is grossly underrepresented in pop culture. There are countless tales from the many tribes that populate the United States offering their own unique interpretation of a classic mythological tale. Creation stories, legendary heroes, epic battles, each varying between the people who tell it. Yet these stories are ignored by a mass media which prefers ignorantly oversimplify depictions of these rich cultures. Usually this will either involve a First Nations character shoehorned into a tween sitcom to deliver a moral about respecting ones elders or caring for the environment, or a commonly known creature from lore (Skinwalker, Deer Woman, Wendigo, etc.) as a monster of the week in a supernatural series.

Currently the best hope of seeing accurate depictions of indigenous culture in the media is to see it presented by creators who are Native American and have thorough knowledge of the material. While they have been denied a voice for decades, recent years have provided them with a greater opportunity for their stories to reach a wider audience. Upper One Games, most of whose staff is of Iñupiat heritage, recently released Never Alone (Kisima Inŋitchuŋa) through publisher E-Line Media. It’s the first title in their “World Games” series which is intended to create rich worlds based on the legends of indigenous people from various countries. While the game is unpolished in some areas, it more than succeeds in bringing their vision to life.

Many years ago, a young woman named Nuna lived with her family in the remote Alaskan sound. She was a capable hunter whose skills rivaled that of any man in the tribe. One day while returning from the hunt, her village was besieged by a massive blizzard. It lasted for days, refusing to let up. As a result the villagers were unable to hunt and risked starvation. Curious about the cause of the blizzard, Nuna set out to discover its source and if there was a way to stop it. She did not make it far before the storm overwhelmed her, leaving her at the mercy of predators. Miraculously she was saved by a spirit who took on the form of a white fox, which would act as her constant companion. Grateful for this assistance, Nuna pressed on, determined to save her village no matter what stood in her way.

Never Alone adapts Robert (Nasruk) Cleveland’s retelling of Kunuuksaayuka, a centuries-old Iñupiat myth. It’s a tale intended to teach humility. For all of humanity’s knowledge and accomplishments, there are forces in nature that cannot be so easily understood or conquered. There is always something bigger, something more dangerous, which can pose a significant threat, a lesson reinforced when the source of the blizzard is finally discovered. Usually in such stories one of the more humble members of the tribe is responsible for overcoming the dangers and restoring order to their community. Nuna’s journey shows how one person can make a difference that benefits all around them, even if no one else expected them to achieve such great things.

Several changes were made to better translate Kunuuksaayuka to an interactive format. One of the greatest differences between the game and the story is the gender of the protagonist. Kunuuksaayuka was originally a young man, while Nuna is a young woman. This change wasn’t influenced by social pressure or a desire to be seen as progressive, as some cynics might claim. Writer Ishmael (Angaluuk) Hope explained that in Iñupiat lore, whether the hero is male or female is irrelevant; what’s important are the lessons they learn. The change in name also has a deeper meaning – Nuna is the Iñupiat word for “land”, so the character can be seen as a living bridge between the people and the world around them.

Another significant alteration is that while Kunuuksaayuka traveled alone, Nuna is aided by several spirits. The presence of the spirits represents how the members of the tribe are so closely connected to nature. The Fox specifically was chosen as Nuna’s partner because Iñupiat culture portrays foxes as tricksters that will help people in trouble. While there’s never any spoken dialogue between the girl and the fox (aside from occasional narration), it’s clear that there is a strong bond between the two. They genuinely want to assist one another in stopping the blizzard since it will not only help the people in Nuna’s village, but heal damage done to the land as well. Whenever one character dies, the other will let out an anguished cry of sorrow at the loss of their friend. It’s a very effective method of conveying emotion without words.

 

The only change made to the story that I felt was unnecessary was the presence of the Manslayer. In lore, this figure signifies a chaotic presence that threatens the stability of a tribe. Yet his appearance in the game didn’t really serve any purpose. He destroys Nuna’s village and appears to lead its people away (for what reason is never explained), and is obsessed with obtaining Nuna’s bola, but his motivation is never revealed. It honestly felt like the only reason the Manslayer was included was to have a more conventional video game antagonist that could be fought and overcome, even though there was already a strong enough conflict against nature. It didn’t necessarily hurt the story, but it didn’t improve it either.

Upper One created the Never Alone with educational purposes in mind. It was originally conceived to help younger generations of Iñupiat reconnect with their heritage, as well as offer players of other ethnicities a look into their culture. They achieved this through Cultural Insights, short videos which are unlocked by finding owls located in each level. Aside from expanding on the various aspects of Iñupiat mythology, they also provide a deeper analysis of how the tribe has lived and the values that guided them over the centuries. Members of the tribe and development staff discuss the importance of storytelling as a way of maintaining a sense of community as well as sharing wisdom, their dependence on caribou to make clothing that would ward off the cold, and how their communities are being seriously affected by climate change. These miniature documentaries shed light on a demographic that most people are probably unaware of. They demonstrate, as Cook Inlet Tribal Council Executive Vice President Amy Freeden states in one video, that the Iñupiat are not simply “a museum piece” but a living people with a living culture.

Just as the developers drew upon their culture’s history to strengthen the game’s narrative, they took inspiration from the natural world to create puzzle platforming mechanics that felt true to the setting. Many obstacles are based on actual hazards found in the Alaskan wilderness, the effort put into recapturing these conditions making it feel as though the game truly is set in the harsher regions of the Arctic rather than another generic ice level. Fierce winds will frequently push the player back and threaten to throw them into a chasm if she doesn’t brace herself. But if the gales are blowing in the direction Nuna is headed, they can be used to gain extra distance over large gaps with a well-timed jump. Ice floes will shift, sink and crack as Nuna moves across them, requiring quick reactions to avoid a deadly fall into the frigid sea. And of course, icy surfaces have reduced friction, necessitating careful maneuvering if players don’t want to slide off a ledge after jumping.

 

Much like Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, Never Alone allows players to control both Nuna and the Fox in utilizing their individual strengths to move forward. A second player is required to use both characters simultaneously, while single players must alternate between the two. Nuna, being larger, is able to move certain objects like cages in order to open new paths or use them as platforms. She also has a bola which, instead of being used as a weapon, serves to destroy obstacles such as fragile ice walls or tree branches. The only time the bola serves any real offensive purpose is when fending off a polar bear, though it serves as a distraction by angering the beast instead of inflicting damage.

The Fox is much more nimble, capable of jumping higher and holding onto ledges for slightly longer before falling. With its smaller build it can pass through narrow passages Nuna can’t to find something that will help her progress, like lowering a rope so she can climb up to a higher ledge. Its most significant skill is the ability summon natural spirits when in their presence to provide platforms that will help the two reach previously inaccessible areas. During the second half of the game players gain the ability to directly influence the movement of the spirits with the Fox, making these sections much easier. Both Nuna and the Fox’s talents must be used in tandem to conquer the most difficult challenges the game holds: escaping a polar bear in a claustrophobic cavern, vanquishing the Manslayer as he hurls an endless barrage of fireballs, and scaling the body of a massive ice giant in a harrowing segment which reminded me of Shadow of the Colossus.

 

There are some issues concerning how the game controls. When preparing to throw the bola, there’s no reticle or cursor to indicate its trajectory, which resulted in several instances when I missed a target even though it seemed like I had the analog stick at the right angle. When only one person is playing characters have a tendency to randomly move around when they’re not being controlled, which led to some frustrating situations. Sometimes Nuna or the Fox would jump off a platform I’d just moved them onto after I switched to the other to get them up and then had to repeat the process, hoping that the one I wasn’t controlling would stay on until both were together again. Before players can directly control the spirits their movements are still dictated by the position of the Fox. When the Fox moves around at random it can cause them to go backwards or in some cases disappear, often when I was prepared to have Nuna jump to the next position. It led to a number of annoying setbacks and deaths which greatly soured my experience.

Unpredictable NPC movements are problematic, but they’re not the biggest flaw. During the second half there are segments which require trial and error repetition to avoid dying. Two instances stand out as the worst offenders. When the spirits of the Northern Lights are introduced, some of the first few to appear on screen will be very close to Nuna and the Fox upon spawning, floating directly towards them. Since they show up without warning, there’s a high chance of instantly being killed because the player is caught off guard.

 

The more egregious example comes in the segment where Nuna travels through a damp forest with the help of moving trees. Players need to stand on the branches as the trees move, then jump off when they’re close to land before the tree sinks. However, the positions of the next safe platforms aren’t revealed until just the camera pans out a few seconds before rapid descent. The first time this happened to me I was on the wrong branch with hardly any time to get to another at the correct height. I always find it annoying when a game that had built itself up on testing skill suddenly resorts to unfair deaths that are overcome through memorization.

Despite my frustrations with some unfair gameplay, I found Never Alone to be incredibly compelling. It tells a unique story that I was unfamiliar with, and most of the mechanics were sound. I truly want to see Upper One continue their plan of bringing more lesser-known tales to a greater audience, refining their design while expanding cultural horizons. And I hope more studios will take notice and act similarly.

About Author

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.