It is very unlikely that you have ever played a game quite like Never Alone. Though its DNA is seemingly stitched together in a bizarre amalgamation of other successful titles, the final patchwork blanket that is produced has a beauty and reverence about it that we only get to experience once every few years. Never Alone might not be perfect, but it delivers a narrative experience truly unlike anything else, creating an entirely new genre in its wake.
Boiled down to the most basic of mechanical terms, Never Alone is a 2D, side-scrolling platformer not too far removed from the likes of Limbo. Playable either solo or cooperatively, the players take control of Nuna, a young native Alaskan girl, and a friendly arctic fox. The pair work together to venture across Alaska to discover the source of the endless blizzards that have been wreaking havoc upon Nuna’s village. The gameplay is simple, but steadily ratchets up the complexity of the puzzles over the course of the experience. Using both Nuna’s strength and Fox’s agility, the players have to use both characters abilities to progress. Unlike most other cooperative titles, developer Upper One Games have avoided the pitfalls of giving the bulk of the puzzle commands to player one: rather, both characters will need to be used constantly to progress. By ensuring that both characters receive equal time in the lead position, Never Alone successfully establishes the spirit of cooperation that the game so strongly relies upon.
Moreso than any mechanical nuance, it is the plot that drives the player to continue. Though the story itself is pretty simple, there is such a strong emphasis on traditionalism that dictates the tone of the narrative. From the story beats themselves to the cutscene design, all elements presented to the player are imbued with a sense of cultural authenticity from the Alaskan native people.
This authenticity is by design. Strangely, the story of the development of the game is just as interesting as the story in the game. The Cook Inlet Tribal Council is a group focused on the preservation and recognition of the native Alaskan ways of life. They spread this message to the world through films, exhibits and oral storytelling. When searching for a new avenue to spread this traditional message, they decided that a video game would be an excellent way to reach an entirely new audience, likely unaware of the Alaskan way of life. A partnership was formed with Upper One Games to create a title that focused on being representative of the Alaskan people, rather than the flashiest, fanciest thrill-a-minute experience.
This emphasis really bears fruit, giving the player a deeper cultural insight into an avenue of the world not often explored. Though we all have a cultural understanding for the natives in our own countries, exploring those of another region in such a format is riveting. The narration throughout the game greatly helps towards this. Spoken entirely in the native Alaskan tongue, and translated via on-screen subtitles, the commentary is doled out in a methodical, almost rhythmic tone. As Nuna and Fox work their way through the frozen world, the narrator will chime here or there in with a sentence or two. It begins to feel as though you are watching some kind of foreign documentary film, and builds upon the sensation of being taken completely out of the regular, video game norm.
Aiding that feel are the short form, behind the scenes videos that unlock through the game. These documentary style segments are used to expound upon references that pop up in the game in greater detail. Each of the 24 videos only go for three or so minutes, but are packed to the gills with unique and highly interesting insights. Combining interviews with many Alaskan natives and simply beautiful video footage of the land and its various peoples and animals, they further explain segments of the traditional Alaskan way of life. The intrinsic beauty of the stark, desolate winter landscape is masterfully captured, and will have you pleading for a full length documentary feature. These are above and beyond the best parts of the title, and some of the best unlockable content I’ve ever seen.
The art and sound in Never Alone may be relatively spartan by design, but is strongly evocative of the feelings of isolation and oppression by nature that walking into a blizzard exudes. There are a number of different areas that the linear narrative pushes the player through, each producing a very distinct and visually impressive spectacle. The section inspired by King Island is a particular visual marvel – a dark, night-time traipse across jagged rock and thin, rickety wood beams held by fraying rope. This all takes place beneath the undulating, greenish glow of the Aurora up above. The wondrous nature of the level design presented is made all the more eerie by the unlockable documentaries that show just how similar living on King Island was. Somehow, the thought of knowing this outlandish area was directly influenced by a real world counterpart makes it all the more fantastical.
Never Alone is the first title from Upper One Games, and it can show at times. The AI of your partner can be frustrating, and there are a couple little path finding and navigational burrs that would be filed off by a more experienced developer. Even with these small errs, however, there’s no denying that Never Alone is a masterpiece in its own right. It’s an unforgettable experience that at just over 2 hours long doesn’t outstay its welcome and leaves the player clamouring for more. The team at Upper One Games have created a genre ripe for continued sequels, and I would love to see a similar style experience produced for other cultures around the world in the future.
Even if we don’t receive these sequels, however, I can rest easy knowing just how special an experience Never Alone was. In a time in gaming where only the biggest of sequels manage to capture the attention of the masses, the sheer audacity of the partnership between the Cook Inlet Tribal Council and Upper One Games to create something quiet, cultured and low-key must be applauded. Never Alone is a title dripping in style and passion, and a true gem amongst the war-torn landscape of ga
ming. I adore Never Alone, and am so glad that someone had the passion to create it.