You’re never alone in Never Alone: game mechanics as cultural metaphor

neveralone

Never Alone (Upper One Games, 2014) is a 2014 plaformer puzzle game featuring a young Iñupiat girl, Nuna and her pet arctic fox. The game was developed when the Cook Inlet Tribal Council considered creating a video game as a way to engage Iñupiat youth in their Iñupiat identities and approached game developers E-Line Media for assistance. Upper One Games was born and Never Alone was developed. Both the Tribal Council and the developers agreed from the beginning of the project, that it was very important to work closely with the Iñupiat community in order to develop a game that reflected Iñupiat culture .This truly collaborative process can be referred to as ‘inclusive development’ (Oppenneer, 2014). Traditional Iñupiat stories and were used in the game’s narrative and the game’s art was based on traditional art and techniques. As the project developed, there were regular meetings and discussions between the developers, Iñupiat community members, cultural advisors, and the Cook Inlet Tribal Council regarding all aspects of the game’s design and content.

Particularly striking in the design of Never Alone, however, was not just the powerful Iñupiat narratives and art that have been passed down through generation to teach the younger generation, but the way in which the game mechanics embedded and promoted these Iñupiat knowledges and values. The game has a heavy focus on mechanics as metaphor, and the central theme of the narrative and the mechanics are based on interdependency. One of the game’s lead developers Vesce explained that interdependency is a core value of the Iñupiat people. He discusses how in talks with the community, the developers learnt that due to the harshness of the environment and because of the large distances between people, staying connected and working together was, and still is, critical to ensure the survival of the Iñupiat people (Donlan, 2014). As the unlockable cut scenes throughout the game explain, nature and animals are an important part of Iñupiat life and history and animals were relied on for a variety of needs; from companionship to traditional clothing required to keep warm in harsh blizzards. Taking the history and the values of the group into account, the developers implemented the primary game mechanics around these values of interdependency and nature. The game focuses on the story of two playable characters – a young girl named Nuna and her pet arctic fox – that are closely connected; they care for one another and work together (Donlan, 2014). When Nuna reaches a high tower, Fox must scramble to the top and lower a rope for Nuna to use to climb up. When Nuna finds a crate, she can push it to the edge to allow Fox and herself to climb. These mechanics are utilised as a metaphor for Iñupiat history and values, the girl (Iñupiat people) and the Fox (nature) have to work together to survive in the environment.

As well as a metaphor for the life of Iñupiat people, it could be said that this theme of interdependency is a metaphor for the development of Never Alone, which required game developers and the Indigenous Iñupiat community to work together across cultural divides throughout its development.


References:

• Donlan, C. (2014). Never Alone and the quest for an Iñupiat video game. Eurogamer. Retrieved from http://www.eurogamer.net/articles/2014-08-17-never-alone-and-the-quest-for-an-inupiat-video-game
• Oppenneer, M. (2014). Cultural gaming: Iñupiat stories come alive in Never Alone (KisimaInŋitchuŋa). Ethnos Project. Retrieved fromhttp://www.ethnosproject.org/cultural-gaming-inupiat-stories-come-alive-in-never-alone/
• Upper One Games. (2014). Never Alone [Video Game]. Seattle, Washington: E-Line Media.

Image credit: Upper One Games