By many accounts, Never Alone is a risky title. Setting records as the very first of its kind, the market for a commercial game about indigenous people was untested. There was also the fact that Never Alone has been made to both pass on the stories and educate the world about the Iñupiaq people and so we could have gotten an uncomfortable experience not dissimilar to a Sunday school teaching you’ve tried to sneak out of. Could have. With the greatest risks comes the greatest rewards and so successfully living up to the potential, hype and hopes for it, Never Alone is a unique slice of video game brilliance.
Most of this ‘brilliance’, I’d argue, is down to the Iñupiaq people themselves. The tale of a young girl named Nuna and her ethereal fox companion, Fox, Never Alone‘s plot is one of the most well known Iñupiaq stories in their entire culture so naturally, it’s a great starting point for clueless players.
When a seemingly unending, torturous blizzard strikes her village, Nuna becomes the world’s unlikeliest hero, setting out to find the source of the blizzard and save her people from the worst cold they’ve ever known. If the blizzard continues, they’ll be unable to hunt and will surely starve. And so Never Alone makes you feel small at first. It’s a heavy oversimplification but you go from ‘zero to hero’; clumsily escaping from a polar bear, trying not to skid off of ice floes and learning the hard way that neither Nuna nor Fox can swim.
But soon, you’ve mastered the switch between Fox’s wall-climbing skills and Nuna’s bola throwing (a bola is a ranged weapon made of bones on string) and are making friends with spirits like your mothers go way back (‘help me get across this gap and you can come round mine for tea!’). Never Alone does not have a particularly steep learning curve at all but there is one there – it’s gentle and its gradient is such that you feel like you’re genuinely putting the skills you’ve learnt to good use, rather than just trial and erroring your way across the game’s many, chilly platforms and well-designed puzzle stages.
But I suppose it has to be that way. Too difficult and your brain would clap out and ignore the game’s emotionally harrowing story, but dumbing it down would similarly put you to sleep. And, with Iñupiaq teachings being the game’s lifeblood, it’s incredibly important that developer Upper One Games and publisher E-Line Media got the balance right.
They really do though and as it was one of my biggest fears prior to release, I’m incredibly happy that Never Alone has pulled it off. Rather than shoe-horning in its lessons, here they are ingrained. From the Iñupiaq elder who beautifully narrates the game in their native tongue to the unlockable Cultural Insights videos that match gameplay elements with short videos of Iñupiaq people (which feature some stunning shots of Alaska too), such as the featurettes for the bola, the Manslayer enemy and the Northern Lights.
What’s more is that you can tell how much the Iñupiaq people’s influence (Upper One Games is made up of several Iñupiaq elders and non-Iñupiaq developers) makes a difference. In just the second video that you unlock, they tell you plain “we are not a living museum”. This is not some documentary maker who has gone in and captured whatever they wanted for exploitative purposes, everything in Never Alone is in their own words. From their fears of climate change to their belief that everything in the living world is one and the same and should be treated with respect, you know that it’s honest and the game benefits all the more for it.
That’s why it’s a shame that Never Alone misses a perfect score due to the small amount of issues that I encountered. What would otherwise be a perfect experience was marred slightly by glitches such as odd spasms of my characters, the lack of a ‘drop down’ button (and so trying to get off of ledges sometimes led to uncomfortable struggles with gravity) and too many instances where I would switch to Fox or Nuna only to see that my AI-controlled companion had shot off a platform into water (resulting in a game over) or had wandered off in the opposite direction.
I should stress that as I played Never Alone on PS4, these things may have already been fixed in the PC version of the game. The second update rolled out to PC last week but it has yet to come to those of us on PS4 and Xbox One (the dev says it’ll be out in the next two weeks). So it’s incredibly likely that these niggles will be eradicated if (or when) you play the game – but for me they sucked the fun out of a handful of sections.
However, these fixable problems aside, the game is everything I could have asked for and more. Never Alone may be the first of its kind, but my word, is it an absolutely stellar debut.
Never Alone is available now on PC, PS4 and Xbox One.