The frequent grisly deaths affect the aesthetic impact of a game ostensibly meant to be inclusive of children.
Nuna and her fox, hunkering down. Image: Never Alone Trailer
Having a high tolerance for witnessing the death of a child is your first hurdle to enjoying the new puzzle-platformer game Never Alone.
While I had been prepared by the marketing campaign behind the game that this was the first entry in a new genre called "world games" that seek to communicate the culture of marginalized peoples in this case, the Iñupiat people of Alaska—I was not ready for the grisly depictions of its heroine's multifarious deaths.
The game starts with a polar bear chasing your character, an indigenous Alaskan girl named Nuna, across an arctic snowscape. A prompt tells you to run right. When I failed to run in time, the bear knocked the girl to the snow with its paws and then began ravenously chewing into her body. The screen fades to black, and without any prompting begins again. Doing nothing leaves the game locked in this nightmarish cycle. It's brutal.
Because Nuna's body ragdolls after the bear strikes her down, there is an element of randomness to the proceedings. Sometimes the bear snatched her leg and whips her limp body around his head. Other times, a gnome-like creature from native Alaskan mythology drops a boulder on her head. She is beaten to death in the snow by a full-grown man, and later crushed between colliding ice floes. Nuna's sidekick, her pet Arctic fox, is likewise crushed a moment later.
Nuna was often left twitching in the snow when the ragdoll effect didn't allow her body to settle properly.
Now, I'm not claiming moral outrage at the developer. But the deaths, often occurring several times a minute, do affect the aesthetic impact of a game ostensibly meant to be inclusive of children.
The game itself is based on a story originally told by an Iñupiaq storyteller named Robert Cleveland, in which a boy, Kunuuksaayuka, sets out to find who, or what, is behind the blizzard ravaging his village downstream. So then, why Nuna?
"The narrative arcs of stories generally downplay character specifics, like gender, in order to focus on the important themes, knowledge and values that the story is communicating," reads a FAQ from E-Line Media, educational games publisher behind Never Alone. "We feel that girl characters have been underrepresented in gaming, particularly girl heroes who are powerful and can survive and overcome incredible challenges."
As such, Never Alone is intended to be the first of the newly-minted world games genre created by E-Line Media under the brand Upper One Games. Originally, Upper One Games had been independently created by CITC Enterprises, the for-profit subsidiary of the Cook Inlet Tribal Council. But CITC Enterprises' Upper One Games soon merged with E-Line Media.
SHE was often left twitching in the snow when the ragdoll effect didn't allow her BODY to settle properly
Never Alone was actually developed in Seattle, not by Native Alaskans but by industry veterans such as Creative Director Sean Vesce and others whose credits collectively include, according to E-Line's FAQ, Mech Warrior II, MechWarrior IV, Tomb Raider Legend, Tomb Raider Anniversary, SOCOM, Rage, Quake Live, and Quake 4. But the devs consulted with "nearly three dozen Alaska Native people... during the course of the project" to guide them in making the game.
I have no doubt about the sincerity behind the origins of this game. I was curious, initially, to see what would manifest from this bold declaration of an entirely new genre, and particularly one that claimed to innovate storytelling in the medium.
But after reading through E-Line's FAQ, and finding some of the staunchest, most soulless corporate English imaginable, I began to think E-Line might not have been the best place for the Cook Inlet Tribal Council's Upper One Games to go to develop their idea involving the culture and spirituality of their people. To wit:
As Upper One Games and E-Line worked together, it became clear that both organizations shared the same vision, passion and long-term goals. After a period of collaborative strategic planning, both organizations felt that this vision would be better realized through the integration of Upper One Games directly into the operations of E-Line to streamline operations and unify the strengths of our management teams.
Regardless, the idea was for Never Alone (Kisima Innitchuna in Iñupiat) to further cultural knowledge of a people that is in danger of being forgotten, even by their own younger generation. As you play through the game as Nuna, you encounter owls who unlock documentary videos, accessed through a menu, of members of the Iñupiat talking about their present and past way of life.
These videos are the best part of the game. The cinematography, music, and anecdotes told of the Iñupiat way of life are emotionally engaging without exception. One woman doesn't seem to be joking when she speaks of going outside and whistling to communicate with the Northern Lights which reacted by swirling around and coming closer.
In the same video, Ishmael (Angaluuk) Hope elaborates on this topic. His mother told him that the Northern Lights were the souls of "children who have passed away," but that you don't want to call the dead children down from the sky too much, because they will decapitate you and play "Eskimo football" with your head.
While the Northern Lights children do make an appearance in the game, they are just rotating obstacles. There is such an abundance of material from the documentary section to draw from, but only the broad strokes are utilized in the game. The details, the things that make the documentary videos so interesting, are forgotten as soon as you withdraw from the menus and resume the game.
I perked up when one of the documentary videos showed the stilt village on King Island, and found myself leaping through it—only to be immediately impeded by more of the same standard video game puzzles involving blocks and ropes.
Nuna plods through the snow during long, dull stretches where nothing is happening other than an occasional gust of wind that slows you down (there's a button for hunkering down). I found myself mashing the jump button simply to break up the tedium. But jumping didn't speed me up.
Spirit helpers, such as giant loons, appear in the sky, though in practical terms they are platforms that elevator you up to a new area. But your spirit helpers are iffy, unreliable. They appear when you reach a certain point, but not always. Often I had to run back and forth to make one reappear after it had faded before I had a chance to get on it. Sometimes they disappeared while I was being carried upward, giving way to Nuna's sudden impalement on the long, blue icicles below.
Platforming, which in the best cases, like in Mario, captures the freedom and joy of physical traversal through running and long, dreamlike leaps. In Never Alone, the concept is made uncomfortable due to recalcitrant controls, and is doubly problematic by the fact that, in addition to Nuna, you must also control her pet fox.
If you are playing Never Alone by yourself, you must hit a button to switch characters to solve the puzzles using both of their (slightly) different abilities. Nuna climbs ropes; the fox can scamper up walls. The game seems like it is supposed to be played in co-op mode with a friend sitting next to you.
When I tried co-op with my wife, the fidgety controls ended up killing us many times, resetting all of the progress made of the puzzle we were working on. When I asked my wife how she felt about the documentary videos that we discovered as we progressed, she referred to the jarring effect of adding one medium to another. "I wasn't prepared to watch a documentary during a game," she said. When I asked her about the game itself, she was blunt: "It's not so fun."
E-Line decided on spreading their cultural message through a platformer because, as the publisher's FAQ reads, "we wanted to build on a structure that would be instantly familiar and comfortable for audiences of all ages, no matter where they may be." But is unfairness wrought by the game's glitches something that should be inflicted on a child? Are the repeated, abhorrent deaths of Nuna and the Fox appropriate for kids?
More than once, as I controlled Nuna my AI-controlled fox leaped of his own accord into frigid waters and drowned, initiating the sole grief animation that Nuna has: dropping to her knees, and pointing at the fox's tragedy. The game is slipshod enough from a programming perspective that Nuna often ends up pointing in the wrong direction. That is, before she's killed. Over, and over.