It’s not often we get our hands on such a gaming curio as Never Alone but Upper One Games indie adventure is a strange beast. Occupying a space in the gaming smorgasbord occupied by few others, Never Alone stands alone as a testament to educational gaming. Before you start rolling your eyes and having fevered nightmares of Mario’s Early Years! though, it’s worth giving this unusual tale a go. Never Alone, or Kisima Innitchuna in its native tongue, is a game developed in collaboration with the Iñupiat, an Alaska Native people. Rarely have so games so thoroughly embraced and immersed itself in the culture of anything, except mass murder.
Set within the harsh wilderness of the Alaskan tundra, a young Iñupiat girl becomes separated from her village by a never-ending blizzard, setting off into the freezing cold to find the source of the foul winds in an effort to put an end to it. Along the way there’s encounters with strange spirit creatures, a rogue polar bear, and an errant whale intent on making the pilgrimage that bit more perilous. It’s based on Iñupiat folklore and is a tale that has been passed down from generation to generation, with the Native Alaskans obviously keen to partner up with Upper One Games to share a slice of their culture.
At its heart Never Alone is a simple 2D puzzle platformer, and in gameplay terms it never strays too far from the norm. Playing as both the lost Alaskan girl called Nuna and an arctic fox she encounters, the two must work together to progress. While clearly designed with a co-operative experience in mind, a single-player can quickly and easily switch between the pair to make use of each of their unique abilities; whether it’s Nuna throwing a hunting Bola or the fox’s ability to crawl under narrow spaces or scamper up walls.
To put it nicely the platforming is a little shonky, and there are moments where, if you’re playing solo you’ll be wishing there was someone else to help take the strain. It’s not that the platforming is particularly difficult but that the intention is clearly to perform very specific actions, not helped by imprecise controls. Dying again and again at a seemingly simple moment can prove frustrating, and the howls of anguish from the surviving partner ensures that each brutal death weighs heavy on your conscience.
In order to succeed the pair must learn to rely on each other, and it doesn’t take much to grow attached to this pair. Throughout the journey they definitely go through their fair share of hardships, and without one another they'd most definitely be lying in an icy coffin.
The puzzling in Never Alone isn’t exactly the sort to make your brain implode, more gently probing at the pulpy mass between your ears. It helps things progress at a gentle and steady pace and, usually, prevents you from getting too hung up on frustrating or difficult solutions. There was a couple of moments that left me scratching my head where it seemed like there was no indication of how to progress, but once I’d hit upon the solution it felt stupidly obvious.
Stitching the narrative together are a bunch of insightful featurettes, tied in with the folklorish tale and given some remarkable insight into the Iñupiat way of life. Each of these two-dozen videos is only a few minutes long but provides some fascinating behind the scenes tidbits and interviews with the Iñupiat themselves. Their present can be somewhat jarring in the midst of gameplay but they offer some welcome respite from platforming and help bridge the gap between gaming and culture exploration effectively. Throughout Never Alone’s 4-hour or so length I wanted to, and did, watch all 23 of the videos which I managed to unlock, which tells its own story.
All told Never Alone is a beautiful looking game, and the development studio have done themselves proud making somewhere as unendingly white as the arctic a true visual feast. Whether it's the Northern Lights cascading across the sky or the shadowy effect around the edges of the screen making it feel like you're peering out of Nuna's tired eyes, the soft palette and eerie atmosphere lends itself to a game filled with wonder and fraught with peril.
It's rare to pick up a game now and actually learn from the experience. All too often we're gunning down hundreds of people in the name of some cause or another, but seldom are we asked to actually think about what we are doing, why we are doing it, and where we are. In Never Alone I felt like I'd been given a real grasp of Iñupiat culture and enough of a peek behind the curtain to understand a certain way of life. For that reason Never Alone is a wholly worthwhile tale, a chance to learn something new, but the occasionally frustrating gameplay jars slightly with the usually ethereal and dreamlike experience.