The Iñupiaq people of Northern Alaska might be the most hardcore gamers to walk this Earth. They create weapons out of the bare nothingness they find in the ice, and use them to hunt seals and birds. One such example is the Bola, a throwing weapon with weights on the ends of strings, made out of bones. They throw it upwards to catch birds, and can score combos by hitting one bird on the way up, then another on the way down. They sometimes even get a third as the birds fall onto each other. With such an opportunistic eye and advanced usage of motion controls, I bet they could get every medal in Star Fox Zero. Now switch that scenario around and put a hardcore gamer in a freezing climate, they would die within a week. The Iñupiaq spend their entire day grinding their survival skills and contributing to the community. They create parkas out of seal intestines and feathers, and sleds out of driftwood and bone. They’ve put thousands of years into this game called living.
Never Alone is a videogame that has you take control of a little girl named Nuna, as she braves harsh weather with the help of a fox, her spirit helper. You can also control the fox either by switching with the Y button, or playing co-op. Otherwise it will follow you and make every jump by itself. I bought this game without knowing anything about it, besides an interesting trailer with “10 out of 10” from typical Indie praising sites. Just another one of those feels-based puzzle platformers with bad controls right? That’s exactly what it is. However, it really did get my feelings and my interest. It turned out to be so interesting that I played through the ENTIRE game in one night. I never even thought about the time or length of the game. It’s a short, educational and spiritual journey that does a great job making you feel connected to the game world as well as the real one.
The gameplay can best be described as making the most of a poorly optimised engine. The second I saw Unity at the startup screen, I knew it was going to run like shit. Sure enough, the framerate is awful and collision detection is inconsistent, with a bit of lag and a clunky jump that sometimes doesn’t know where it’s going to land. However, the game does a pretty good job working with these mechanics, and I never got frustrated with any of the movement. From a visual standpoint, it looks very impressive with great effects going on and very good attention to detail in the environments. There isn’t much precise platforming, and most of the puzzles in this game are logic based with very slow execution. For example moving a crate to allow the fox to wall-jump somewhere, or dragging an object with your spirit helper powers, so it’s in range for the girl to throw her Bola at it.
The hazards in the game consist of the things you hear in Iñupiaq stories, with spirits of the northern lights to evade, a bad man who will chase you, environmental hazards to anticipate, and wildlife to engage. One example I’ll use to illustrate the clever game design is a bear fight. You get the girl to a safe platform then take control of the fox to lure the bear towards certain areas, so it hits cracks in the ice that will allow you to escape. It’s pretty intense because you have to put yourself in dangerous positions and utilise the fox’s wall jump to get out of them. Wall jumps are pretty easy to do but the bear is huge and unforgiving. I could feel the warm air from the bear’s breath as I leaped over its head. Not today, bear.
Apart from the core movement of running and jumping, there are a few areas where you can swim. The swimming is worth mentioning because I thought the controls were GREAT, significantly better than the regular ones. It felt like fucking Tropical Freeze out of nowhere. You barely need accuracy with swimming in this game, but damn they nailed that part of the mechanics and made that part really enjoyable for me. They should make a new game about the Mermaid people or some kind of underwater tribe. Just make them up.
This game has you constantly unlocking Cultural Insights and Artifacts that you can browse in a menu. It’s optional, but I took the chance to look at every single one. The Insights are videos of actual Iñupiaq people, with real footage of the areas and interviews. The people in the videos speak decent English and have a very focused, engaging way of speaking that I really enjoyed. They talk about the things they do, the stories of the land, and what’s happening in the world with a notable acknowledgement of climate change. Just a quiet community that embraces the natural world, without destroying it. It’s something I would normally feel is out of place in a videogame, but eagerly anticipated the start of each chapter just to hear more.
While the cultural reflections are a big part of the experience, this is still a videogame and a good one at that. By far the biggest strength of the game design comes from how the environments are constructed. They are incredibly detailed to the point where a lot of things look real. I unfortunately couldn’t get the screenshots I wanted because this game doesn’t support the Miiverse screenshot feature. I’d like to think that’s in respect to the Iñupiaq people and their lack of technology to tell stories, but in reality it’s a dev resource limitation I’ve seen with quite a few Indie games on the Wii U. Nonetheless, the game looks wonderful and inspiring. This feeling of awe magnifies the more you progress through the game, as the structures start to get more unique and otherworldly. By a certain point I couldn’t tell the difference between the natural world and the stuff of stories. It didn’t matter, because it was all real and alive. This is just where we’re going. We’re going to find the cause of this blizzard by talking to it.
Even though the gameplay mechanics weren’t super optimised, I still had fun playing it which is an achievement in design. I get extremely judgemental of games that run poorly but this didn’t inspire any frustration. A few jumps near the end took me a few attempts, but instead of ruining my experience I just took the 5 seconds to try again. The game is extremely forgiving with checkpoints, and it just wants you to play it. The most difficult gameplay comes with some very involving interaction near the end of the game, and it’s best you discover it for yourself.
I got such a rare feeling of connection with this game, with the lore and the setting making my Wii U feel like my best friend. It was great to get familiar with the Iñupiaq tribe because they are so friendly. I found it refreshing to be taken outside of my gaming comfort zone with these movies and this kind of story telling. The Inuit people don’t have TVs and scripts, but their ability to tell a story is only strengthened by this. Their words and phrasing is captivating because it has to be. Just the concept of people gathering to be entertained by one mans words is truly beautiful, and brings out the power of expression and imagination like nothing else. They tell stories of the “little people”, tiny people with huge strength, and talk like they are a sure thing. Watching the man talk about it, I believed him, because he believed it. They tell stories of spirits, and how weather and objects have a soul. None of this is presented in a factual way, but it allows a new perspective and a harmless way to give meaning to things.
Never Alone is a great game that achieves something a lot of games do not, by successfully merging story with gameplay. The whole concept of spirit helpers is the core gameplay mechanic of Never Alone, with the fox being absolutely necessary. The other heavy story element is that everything in the world is alive, and objects in the game help you see that. Even the name of the videogame is spot on. I have spent the past 4 years living alone and it was pretty good, but I also know the feeling of despair and hopelessness when you feel disconnected from the world. Everything can feel dead and pointless. Playing this game NAILS down the point that the environment around you can be your friend if you respect it. It doesn’t do this through speech bubbles, but knowledge of the natural world.
Did you know there’s an Arctic region that has an entire month of nights in November? No sun, for the entire month, as it never even reaches the horizon. I had a bad November last year, but it was still brighter than that. I am pretty happy about that, and pretty happy I played this game. I’d happily keep buying games like this just to learn about new cultures, as I never would have met the Iñupiaq people by accident. You’re never alone if you have a new game to play.