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).
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.
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.
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.
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).