Never Alone, by Upper One Games in collaboration with the Cook Inlet Tribal Council and E-Line Media, is a ‘side-scrolling’ digital game. It’s unique in that it was developed in partnership with the Iñupiat, an Alaska Native people, who seized an opportunity to deploy the medium of digital games to preserve and explore their traditional values, share stories of native Alaskan folklore, and revitalise interest in Iñupiat culture (de Matos, 2014). Upper One Games state Never Alone is part of a new genre, “World Games”. Other pundits have called the game an “interactive piece of folklore” (Starkey, 2014) and a “playable fable” (Narcisse, 2014). Overarching these labels, Never Alone, sits under the broader umbrella of electronic game narrative (Unsworth, 2006).

 

Due to the collaboration with the Iñupiat the story content of Never Alone is authentic and compelling. You play as Nuna, a young Iñupiat girl and her animal companion Fox. A blizzard has decimated their village leaving starvation and destruction in its wake, and the duo set out to find the source of the blizzard. As you control Nuna and Fox through the various scenarios, an age-old Iñupiat voice narrates the action, while a translation in English rolls across the top of the screen. In addition, as you traverse the arctic environment, players unlock “cultural insights” in the form of mini-documentaries – real life interviews and footage of different aspects of Iñupiat life and culture which expand on the themes explored in-game. The story of Never Alone is dispersed evenly throughout the narration, cultural insights, animated cutscenes, and gameplay scenarios (Unsworth, 2006).

 

Together, Nuna and Fox traverse the harsh arctic environment

 

The digital affordances of the game medium in Never Alone enhance the story’s themes. Nuna and Fox each have unique abilities. Fox can crawl under small areas, climb up walls, and jump high. Nuna can throw her bola (a many-tasseled projectile used for traditional hunting), move heavy objects, and climb ropes and ladders. Players can switch between either character depending on the type of obstacle faced. You cannot succeed by simply using one character. This relationship embodies the theme of interconnectedness which the Iñupiat so valued – the interconnectedness of the people, the land, and the creatures who inhabit it. Further gameplay elements add to the diegesis: erratic blizzard winds can knock players off icy cliffs if not reacted too at the right time and ghostly Aurora Borealis phantasms can reach down and snatch the life from you, reflecting the dangerous weather conditions Iñupiat had to be weary of on a daily basis. In addition to these gameplay elements, inky animated “scrimshaw” illustrations of traditional Iñupiat artwork act as cutscenes which advance the narrative between chapters and a soundtrack of eerie and atmospheric music adds a sense of suspense and adventure to the unfolding story. When digital affordances such as these mix with a wonderful story, it creates a synergistic experience more than the sum of its parts (Yakota & Teale, 2014), and Never Alone certainly qualifies as an example of this.

 

Between chapters, traditionally illustrated cut-scenes advance the narrative

 

In terms of usability and accessibility, Never Alone is available on a great many platforms. The game offers support for 17 different languages, is updated across these different platforms regularly, and has an online customer support portal with frequently asked questions and help ticket submission. In game, the controls are customisable – players are able to change the sensitivity and layout, and the menu contains quick access to cultural insights, previous chapters, and game settings. On the downside, the game will stretch the processors of even the newest tablets, creating heat and draining the battery considerably. In terms of gameplay, while Nuna and Fox are generally “smart” when not being actively controlled, the characters can sometimes become stuck on random objects, breaking the immersion of the story and causing frustration.

 

Never Alone presents many opportunities when considering alignment to the curriculum – the key though, of course, is making sure students activate thinking and the teacher promotes comprehension (Lamb, 2011). Digital games, perhaps more than any other medium can captivate and engage a student so they get caught up in the game elements rather than taking time to consider and reflect. Unsworth believes relating game activities to literary aspects is one way to begin unpacking a game’s narrative, it’s themes and messages, just as you would a novel (2006). Never Alone can also be used to explore concepts of values, culture, and interconnectedness; as a primary resource for learning about traditional Alaskan culture (Fuhler, 2010); and as an example of cultural preservation and new forms of oral or traditional storytelling.

 

Mini-documentaries called “Cultural Insights” extend the learning

 

Never Alone’s story and design reflects Iñupiat values and principles: interconnectedness, coexistence, community, communal stories, respect for nature and one’s elders, and binding together to achieve impossible tasks. It is a rich, unique transmedia digital game created to share, celebrate and extend traditional Iñupiat culture. It powerfully leverages the affordances of the digital game medium to disperse a literacy experience across a rich transmedia environment.

 


References

 

Fuhler, C. J. (2010). Using primary-source documents and digital storytelling as a catalyst for writing historical fiction in the fourth grade (Ch. 11). In B. Moss, & D. Lapp (Eds.), Teaching new literacies in grades 4-6: Resources for 21st-century classrooms (pp. 136-150). New York, NY: Guilford Press.

 

Lamb, A. (2011). Reading redefined for a transmedia universe. Learning and Leading with Technology, 39(3), 12-17.

 

de Matos, X. (2014) Sharing legends with the world in Never Alone, a game inspired by Alaskan Native communities. Retrieved from https://www.engadget.com/2014/03/19/sharing-legends-with-the-world-in-never-alone-a-game-inspired-b/

 

Narcisse, E. (2014). Never Alone: The Kotaku Review. Retrieved from http://kotaku.com/never-alone-the-kotaku-review-1659789150

 

Starkey, D. (2014) Never Alone Review. Retrieved from http://www.eurogamer.net/articles/2014-11-20-never-alone

 

Unsworth, L. (2006). E-literature for children: Enhancing digital literacy learning. Taylor & Francis.

 

Yokota, J. & Teale, W. H. (2014). Picture books and the digital world: educators making informed choices. The Reading Teacher, 34(6).

We are living in an increasingly digital world requiring a increasingly complex matrix of digital literacy. Our media-saturated, online, mobile world has developed quickly – as must the ways people access and navigate it. Developments are rapid, iterations are constant, and traditional mediums have faced (and will face) tremendous change.

Music is a standup example: vinyl evolved to tape evolved to CD evolved to Minidisc (for a few months) evolved to 320kbps lossless FLAC. Literature, too, has set off on a similar journey and just like with music, there will be pros and cons for each iteration of the medium; people hold a multiplicity of viewpoints based on personal connection, context, and nostalgia, not just the technical specifications. There will be feelings of loss as new forms arise. There will be mourning. There will be bafflement and scorn from generations raised on the previous iteration. Developments might not be well understood or utilised, except, perhaps, by a few. And the kids, of course. Always the kids.

In many cases, students are receiving a great education… in the kinds of literacies required for the world of the teacher, rather than for this new and rapidly developing world – the here and the now. And while there are teachers out there contending with digital media and related digital literacy practises steeped in the real lives of students, I think it’s fair to say it’s not quite so widespread yet.

Why is this? Perhaps because we mostly teach how we were taught. Perhaps it’s too complex. Perhaps because the digital world moves so fast. Perhaps because it’s not assessed. Perhaps because digital media and associated reading practises are considered not the “gritty” stuff, ripe to be studied, explored, and better comprehended. Who knows.

Consider though, the complex kinds of digital literacy and reading practises people employ today in a context where the written word is but one piece of the puzzle:

– Navigating hyperlinks, click-bait, social and participative commenting, non-linear pathways
– Text-language, fleeting messages, micro-blogging
– Visual elements: images, infographics etc. comprising a growing amount of site real-estate
– The utilities around reading (snipping, copying, pasting, CTRL+F, simplifying)
– Reader choice, patience, and profiling, and how this shapes content
– Author intention when anyone can be an author. Some want to tell a ripping good story, some want to entertain, some want to vent, some are subtly political, most try to sell you things
– Interactive reading, augmented with music, haptic feedback, activities and other content

This is interesting stuff, to be explored in combination with our traditional reading education. It is ripe to be studied: to learn how to read better online, to appreciate and explore the narrative of a great digital game, to analyse a tweet, to see through the glare of everywhere-advertising. To be literate in this world – i.e., comprehend communication, see through it’s veneer, understand it’s purpose… and ultimately to be awake and aware in a world that wants you to not think too much, means you need the comprehension skills and tools in order to do so.

Students need to have the opportunity to “closely read” a wide variety of texts, for a wide range of purposes. They need to enjoy some, disagree with some, and tear apart some. This “wide variety” needs to be a vastly wide variety of mediums and messages. From traditional printed text, to digital literature, to digital games, to movies, to SnapChats, to Instagrams, to Skypes, to YouTube tutorials, to images, to advertisements, to forums, to wikis, to letters, to emails, to emojis, to body language. And this is only just scratching the surface.

Any battleground where meaning is crafted and communicated needs to be studied and explored and ripped into at school. We can’t have a legion of sheep being led into the big wide without any armour. Students need the know-how to understand the media, messages, and mediums that will be thrust upon them, and to appreciate the stories that speak to them.

Engaging with digital literature, some of the time, as a part of a reading programme and broader media education / digital literacy strategy, is a meaningful way for teachers to get going on this journey.