Never Alone / 20th of November 2014
Never Alone is a game that I have been waiting a considerable amount of time to play, and whilst I may be disappointed to say that it will not be remembered because of its gameplay or mechanics, I am happy to report that it most certainly will be remembered. It is a guideline for those seeking to create a new way of recording folklore and history, a cultural odyssey of sorts, and a truly landmark moment in gaming, for showing that as a medium, it is capable of more than simply entertaining, but educating too.
Never Alone is the result of a people embracing emerging technologies to reconnect with themselves rather than simply shunning it, and in this case, it is the work of the Northern Alaskan Iñupiaq people, who opted to create this videogame as a means of passing along the essence of their culture and history to the younger generations who are beginning to look elsewhere. Of course, we can all benefit from developing a greater understanding these indigenous tribes endangered by our mutable climate, and it is this that, beneath a façade of somewhat ropey mechanics and technical shortcomings, is the true beauty of its succinct, yet memorable experience.
The game tells the folktale of a young girl, Nuna, and her companion, a small arctic fox, as they make their way across the frozen tundra, mile after mile, to discover the source of the seemingly endless blizzards that plague her people, and attempt to put a stop to them. This sets them off on a Limbo-like journey across the desolate, yet at times, frighteningly beautiful lands solving physics based puzzles and doing battle with overpowered midgets and a rather persistent polar bear among others beyond the environs themselves. The difficulty is kept quite mild throughout, however, enabling all gamers to experience the full extent of Nuna’s travels, though there are several issues that do make the game considerably more frustrating than it should have been, yet this is slightly offset by a rather generous checkpoint system.
A great deal of the game’s puzzles requires that the player switch between control of Nuna and the fox in order to progress, though controlling either can be a tad tricky thanks to the game’s rather unresponsive controls and iffy frame rate, though perhaps the worst culprit of all is the decidedly poor AI. Evidently, the game was designed for co-operative play (couch co-op at that), and a the arrival of a second player would presumably have done much to circumvent the constant failures in my own playthrough that were brought about by an AI controlled fox throwing itself off of a platform to an agonising death. Or, in the case of the first time that he died in my playthrough, an encounter with a rock throwing midget, who hurled his missile in our direction and despite having moved Nuna out of the way, her little fox thought best to simply stay where he was-at ground zero. Thankfully though, such problems do not escalate too far beyond being mere minor trifles thanks to the checkpoint system and some supremely quick loading times, so they are highly unlikely to be off-putting to any gamer.
Never Alone also manages to stuff a few other tricks up its sleeve to ensure pride of place in any digital collection, one of these being the touching relationship that the developers have carved out between the two protagonists, and remarkably, they achieve this without either uttering a solitary line of dialogue. There genuinely feels as though a bond has formed between the two of them, and subsequently, with the player as well, which will ensure that certain events later on in the game will unquestionably have the desired effect of warming even the most hardened of ice cold souls.
Another highlight to Never Alone, is the twenty four videos that are unlocked throughout the story, these feature interviews and mini-documentary’s that delve deeper into Iñupiaq culture-typically detailing a theme that runs concurrently within the level on which it is discovered. They are all well made, and a fine addition to the package as a whole, for as one would have probably anticipated, the story mode is very short, amounting to less than four hours of gameplay, should you unlock all of the Cultural Insight videos on a single playthrough, and given that the main goal of the game is to educate, these are not especially well hidden, which means that very few will likely return to see a second play.
Publisher, E-Line Games are planning on distributing a vast array of “World Games”, outings such as this one that delve into the cultural identity and history of a part of the world that technology has seemingly left behind, whilst seeking to preserve this within a digital age. Never Alone is just the first step toward this lofty and ambitious goal, sure, as a videogame, it is a highly flawed experience, yet as an educational and deeply moving piece of interactive entertainment, it’s just about perfect.