For three days, PAX Australia 2014 was a vibrant cacophony of games and gamers, bright colours and loud music. The combination of new titles, tens of thousands of attendees and the frenetic pace that beset all within the Melbourne Convention Centre created a distinct, in-your-face celebration of games and gaming cultures. It is perhaps strange then that the game that I walked away most impressed by from my time at PAX displayed none of these core tenets. Quiet, reflective and deeply steeped in its own history, Never Alone was a clear individual amongst the games on display.
Never Alone is unique not just in terms of games that were on display at the show, but in terms of gaming as a whole. Never Alone is the result of a joint venture between development studio Upper One Games and the Cook Inlet Tribal Council, an Alaskan non-profit organisation. The CITC are an organisation tasked with serving the native Alaskan and American Indian people within south-central Alaska, maintaining their culture and assisting in a variety of services including education. The importance of storytelling and oral traditions is deeply ingrained in the native Alaskan people, and finding new and varied way to demonstrate these stories to the world is of an absolute imperative.
Realizing that video games were an untapped potential audience to spread cultural messages, a partnership was formed between CITC and Upper One Games to develop a product that honoured the past whilst translating its messages into a modern format. As such, Never Alone was created. Playing similarly to 2010’s Limbo, Never Alone tasks the player with navigating Girl and Fox throughout the snowy Alaskan landscapes. Players jump, climb, manipulate physics and complete some light puzzle solving to progress within the wintery landscape. The demo was not particularly difficult, and the puzzles that we were tasked with were relatively simple. Strangely, however, the gameplay is far from the most intriguing part of the title.
In order to preserve as much traditional Alaskan native storytelling, the plot is derived from traditional oral folklore. The animation done during cut scenes is derived from native whale bone carvings, whilst the various supernatural spirits that assist Girl and Fox in their exploration are the same as the ones mentioned for hundreds of years amongst the native folk of the area. In order to ensure that as many people can learn and be inundated with this knowledge as they play, a series of unlockable documentary shorts are peppered throughout the game. These short, 5-minute video logs delve into deeper detail on plot elements and references that would fly over the head of anyone not steeped in Alaskan lore. For instance, not long after reference is made to the Aurora overhead in the skies, a quick clip is unlocked detailing how traditionally, parents would use the Aurora to warn their children against playing outside without their hood on. Heading outside without a hood on would encourage the spirits of the lost children who occupy the Aurora to “play football with their heads”. These clips are easily the highlight of the total package: informative, beautiful and uniquely presented for a video game.
The strong combination of light platforming gameplay and a rich, unexplored vein of world culture leads to Never Alone feeling unlike any game I’ve had the pleasure of playing before. The sheer weight of potential knowledge and culture that could be imparted from such a unique experience is deeply appealing, and longingly sought after by this editor. For the first time in a long while, Never Alone feels like something completely different; a new way to approach both games and education. Neither is compromised in sake of the other, which makes for a title that could truly shake up our perceptions on what video games can and cannot be.
Never Alone launches on November 18, 2014 for Xbox One, Playstation 4 and Steam.