How much do you know about the Inuit? If the first things that come to mind are igloos, dog sleds, and seal hunting, then the answer is clearly “not much”. That’s not a criticism. Neither did I. But that’s largely because the Inuit story is rarely told outside of their own circles. But now, not one but two new games hope to change that, and maybe just offer a little education about a fascinating culture that most of us know nothing about. In our latest search for missing puzzles outside the usual adventure genre boundaries, I headed north, then went north some more, and then still farther north until I reached the Arctic-based platforming adventures Never Alone and Last Inua.
Never Alone (Kisima Ingitchuna)
Let me tell you a story of the time I became a little girl who saved her Alaskan village from a terrible blizzard with the help of a white fox…
It might seem odd to frame a review as a “story”, but it’s only fitting since storytelling is at the very heart of the first videogame ever developed by an indigenous company in the United States. Inspired by the Inuit tale “Kunuuksaayuka”, Upper One Games’ Never Alone (or Kisima Ingitchuna in the Iñupiaq language) is a unique puzzle-platformer infused with elements of traditional Iñupiat culture and folklore. Its goal is not merely to entertain but to enlighten as well, about these fascinating people that date back millennia. Some touchy mechanics prevent the former goal from achieving the same success as the latter, but the overall package is certainly worthy of attention, particularly if you have even a passing curiosity about Aboriginal culture.
Never Alone stars two playable characters, a young girl (bundled in the warmest caribou skins, in keeping with Iñupiat custom) named Nuna and an Arctic fox who soon appears at her side. The game begins with an oral narration in native Iñupiaq accompanying moving scrimshaw (carved art) images, giving the game a distinct ethnic flavour right off the bat. Though the gender of the human protagonist has changed from the titular male lead in “Kunuuksaayuka”, the basic premise remains the same: an endless series of blizzards is afflicting a small village, threatening its people with starvation. From this group of experienced hunter/gatherers used to dealing with the most inhospitable of climes, it’s the least likely of heroes who takes it upon herself to venture out and find the source of the terrible weather.
Nuna doesn’t get far before being confronted with an inevitable fact: the frozen landscape is a dangerous place, especially for a child. A frantic polar bear chase seems to spell certain doom, but she’s rescued by a brave little fox in her moment of peril. From that point on the two remain companions, each assisting the other in overcoming obstacles such as powerful gusts of wind, cracking glaciers, seemingly impassable chasms and cliffs, and dangerous creatures of legend. Each protagonist has crucial skills that the other does not: Nuna can climb and swing on ropes, push crates, and hurl a bola (a kind of throwing weapon made of straps and bone), while the fox can scurry up sheer walls too high for Nuna and, most importantly, commune with the spirit world to call up traversable platforms.
On a purely superficial level, Never Alone is a fairly standard side-scrolling platformer with some light puzzling along the way. Unfortunately, this is where the experience suffers the most, so let’s get the bad news out of the way first, clearing the way for all the good stuff to come. The game can be played either alone or with a friend, and I’d suggest co-op, partly because sharing the adventure seems so much more Iñupiat, but mainly because the partner A.I. can be somewhat dodgy. You can switch back and forth between protagonists any time, but the game is inconsistent in how it handles the secondary character. At times they’ll follow helpfully along, while sometimes they’ll need to be handheld to the other’s position. And sometimes they’ll make unintentionally suicidal moves that send you both back to the nearest checkpoint. As touching as it is hearing the fox yelp sorrowfully or Nuna gasp in despair at their companion’s demise the first few times, it gets old fast. Thankfully the checkpoints are very generous, but it’s still an annoyance.
Even the basic controls have some problems. You can play with either the keyboard/mouse or gamepad (or both, with two people), and while a controller feels much more natural in a game of this type, neither method is ideal. The standard running, jumping, and climbing are all rather routine, but the most critical element in any platformer is its responsiveness, and the characters in Never Alone sometimes react like they’re up to their knees in snow. (Well, sometimes they ARE, but I mean when they aren’t supposed to, like when sluggishly performing what needs to be a hairpin turn.) Conversely, while the fox is much nimbler than Nuna, at times it’s too light on its feet, making it difficult to gauge exactly how far it will leap. Usually this clunkiness is not a problem, as the game isn’t particularly punishing for the most part. But in areas with lots of precision jumping, expect to fall or die – a lot – more from finicky controls than actual dangers.
Another questionable control issue concerns the bola. On a gamepad, you must move the analogue stick first backward, then forward to mimic the cocking back of the weapon and then the actual flinging. Great idea in concept, not so great in practice as it’s far too easy to misfire, sometimes ridiculously so. Again, just a temporary nuisance most of the time, but with a rampaging enemy on your tail it becomes much more serious. A simple backward aim with trajectory reticle and stick release would have worked much better. (And if that sounds too artificially “gamey”, nothing breaks immersion faster than your bola landing nowhere near when you believed you were actually aiming it.) This part is much easier using a mouse, as you simply click to hold, aim and release (your aim represented by the direction Nuna is looking).
The “puzzles” aren’t overly demanding, largely just requiring a bit of strategizing, like how to weigh down a platform so both characters can reach it, or how to flood an ice chamber to ascend ever higher. Often the planning is more tactical on the fly, like timing wind currents for best jumping results, coordinating movable tree branches to form a path, or darting through heaving icebergs between safe points without being crushed. This extends to a couple of “boss” fights as well, which are potentially deadly but more a matter of figuring out what to do to defeat them than having the physical dexterity to do so. In all, there’s nothing here that should leave you scratching your head in frustration, just enough to give the gameplay a slightly slower-paced thoughtfulness.
You’ll appreciate the slower pace at times, as it gives you the chance to soak in the beautiful aesthetic. The colour palette is predictably muted and the environments aren’t overly detailed, but the heavy use of depth-of-field haze for scenic backdrops gives each location a kind of surreal, almost-dreamlike atmosphere. In navigating the blustery wintry tundra, you will make your way through crumbling cliffside villages on stilts, half-flooded frozen caves, serene mystical forests, and across whitewashed plains and treacherous moving ice floes, providing a surprising amount of variety for a game about forcing your way through a blizzard. Other than the subterranean locations, snow is naturally ever-present and used very effectively in creating the appropriate ambience. I could practically feel the chill from the perpetually swirling animated flakes.
While I’m anything but an expert in such matters, the game didn’t sound as culturally-specific as I expected, usually opting more for moody tonal backdrops than overt musical scores. There is no voice acting at all apart from the storyteller’s periodic narrations, but there’s very little dialogue of any kind. Nuna doesn’t speak to the fox, though she will stop to playfully pet him if left idle for a bit. That leaves the ambient effects largely responsible for the audio accompaniment, which is appropriate under the circumstances and handled decently here. There’s no mistaking the first growl of a hungry polar bear, the howling wind that threatens to blow you off a ledge if not suitably braced, or the soft crunch of footsteps on snow.
So far so typical for the most part, really, but it’s once you start digging below the surface that Never Alone really sets itself apart, as its cultural influence isn’t mere window dressing but an integral component of the game. Along with the central story of “Kunuuksaayuka” and the irreplaceable Arctic setting (no lava, jungle, and desert levels here), every creature and character you encounter represents an ingrained part of Iñupiat culture and folklore.
Two key tenets of Iñupiat belief are the connectedness of all things and the spirituality of nature, both of which are essential to this adventure. The most tangible way these concepts are embodied here is the presence of spirit helpers, who appear in the immediate vicinity of the fox to act as platforms. That may sound conveniently contrived, but it’s hard not to feel a certain reverence for the playful pod of jumping dolphin spirits that collectively keep you from drowning in the frigid oceans below, or the wispy loon spirits as they gently stretch their white necks toward you, granting you otherwise-inaccessible passage. (At least until you sail past the vaguely-defined edge of one and plummet to your death, but that’s another matter.) Coordinating their positions is central to success; since they only respond to the fox, you’ll need to maneuver them carefully in order to guide Nuna to safety. This is easier said than done in the later levels, when the environment itself becomes a timed obstacle course whose spirits can only protect you for so long.
Not all creatures are friendly. The short but powerful cave-dwelling scavengers, known to the Iñupiat as the “Little People” (which purportedly aren’t just myth, as sightings continue to be regularly recorded) will jealously protect their territory with rock projectiles. When day turns to night, the initially lovely Aurora Borealis quickly transforms from a majestic lightshow to a hazardous playground of patrolling green spirits (“Sky People”) that will snatch you up and carry you to your death if you get caught. Along the way, you’ll periodically encounter a fireball-hurling “Manslayer” who destroys all the villages in his path and apparently wants no witnesses (namely: you). Then there’s the ultimate source of the inclement weather, the “Blizzard Man”, a name that does absolutely no justice to the truly impressive sight (if somewhat frustrating obstacle) that you’ll need to see to believe.
While the gameplay, setting, and characters all do a fine job of bringing these intriguing Iñupiat elements to life, the one drawback is that there’s very little attempt to properly integrate them for outsiders. To an Iñupiaq player, seeing familiar themes on screen will surely be a welcome delight; for the rest of us, there’s a regular sense of “who’s this dude?” and “why is that happening?” There are answers to these questions, thoughtfully and expertly provided – just not within the game itself.
As you progress through Never Alone, you’ll unlock up to 24 different “cultural insights”, a collection of interviews of Alaskan Native elders and youths, photos, filmed footage, and other documentary-style offerings. Here you’ll learn all about the heritage, customs, and way of life of these extraordinary people, and much of what you learn will loop back and provide greater insight into the game itself. Instead of cluelessly wondering who the green sky spirits are and why they’re trying to kill you, now you’ll know that they are merely mischievous children at play who want your head for a ball (a remarkable tale that I appreciate all the more for its utterly amoral perspective). These insights are unlocked by owls as you encounter them throughout the game, and while most can be discovered in a standard playthrough, a few are a bit off the beaten path. Fortunately, the chapter select screen in the main menu shows you how many owls you’ve missed and lets you replay only the levels you want to revisit. There’s no in-game bonus for unlocking them all, but all 24 are worth seeing in their own right.
The cultural insights should take about half an hour to watch in their entirety, on top of the three or so hours that the main game will take to complete. If the subject matter appeals to you but the action elements put you off, many of the videos have been made publicly available. (I told you sharing was the Iñupiat way!) But if you can handle a little frolicking in the virtual Arctic snow, save them for the game and discover them for yourself. Whether you play it with a friend or on your own, it’s not a long journey into the land and stories of the Iñupiat, but it’s a memorable one. The platforming mechanics could use some refining, and a more complex puzzle focus wouldn’t have gone amiss in order to deepen the experience, but Never Alone is an otherwise charming fusion of culture and gameplay that you’ll want to get your mitts on.Continued on the next page...