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The week of September 13, 2015
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Why ‘Never Alone’ is so much more than a video game

By Dennis Scimeca

The Manslayer stood on the edge of the glacier and held an arctic fox by the scruff of its neck, demanding that a little girl named Nuna must hand over her bola. The bola, a traditional hunting tool of her people, had gotten Nuna out of trouble countless times. But so had the fox.

Nuna refused his demand, so the Manslayer snapped the fox’s neck, laughing at the fact that Nuna was now alone. Nuna knelt in the freshly fallen snow and cried over the body of her friend.

Then a magical thing happened: Over the body of the arctic fox rose a spirit in the form of a little boy. The form of the fox was only a guise by which the spirit had accompanied Nuna. She was not, actually, alone. She would persevere, because that is what the Iñupiat do.

These raw, emotional moments may sneak up on someone who is playing Never Alone, or Kisima Inŋitchuŋa. The video game, whose title translates to “I am not alone,” blends engaging puzzles crafted from story elements common to most Alaska Native storytelling traditions, with short, engaging videos about Iñupiaq culture and meticulously crafted character art and winterscapes. In doing so, Never Alone achieves something never before seen in the video game industry: a truthful and respectful representation of an indigenous culture that is made all the more powerful for the way it places the player inside their world.

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But the Manslayer’s casual brutality breaks the spell of Never Alone, in just how abruptly and curtly the moment is presented. It may even seem like a moment entirely out of place—that is, until you understand that Never Alone is not only a story about a little girl trying to save her village. It’s a story about the resilience of the Iñupiat and the video game studio that brought its history and pride to life on-screen.

To represent a culture, you must listen to a culture

Like Nuna’s journey in Never Alone, the idea for a video game emerged in part out of necessity.

The Cook Inlet Tribal Council (CITC)—a service organization based in Anchorage, Alaska, that serves the Alaska Native population in the region, or some 12,000 people—created a for-profit subsidiary in 2010 as a vehicle to explore ways to pursue financial independence. In 2012, CITC’s subsidiary partnered with E-Line Media, a game development studio that focused on the production of games for the educational space, and used its own savings and a recoverable grant to fund the creation of Upper One Games, billed as the first indigenous-owned video game development studio.

“It was inspired by this sense that we have so much to offer the world,” recalled Gloria O’Neill, president and chief executive officer of the CITC, who came up with the idea to make video games. “Instead of us going and trying to be like any other corporation, why not determine our own destiny by being ourselves in the world?”

In practice, Upper One Games actually subcontracts game development to E-Line Media, which established a development studio in Seattle specifically for the task. And for E-Line, level one of the partnership started on the ground in Alaska, getting a crash course on the native culture.

“The spiritual world is not something that is on demand. We can’t will that into existence and go back.”

In the space of a week, Sean Vesce, creative director at E-Line, met with four different groups, including an Alaska Native elders group that counted William Hensley, who helped negotiate the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971, among its members. He also met with a group of kids hand-picked by the Alaska Native community to represent youth issues and a group of CITC employees of indigenous heritage.

The fourth meeting was with an artists and storytellers group, where Vesce met Ishmael Hope, an actor, playwright, and poet who immediately delivered some hard truths about the project. Hope’s father is Tlingit, an Alaska Native people whose culture is based in the southeastern portion of the state. Hope is an expert in the Tlingit language. His mother is Iñupiaq, an Alaska Native people who hail from the state’s northernmost regions and who currently live in large numbers in the town of Barrow, Alaska, which sits above the Arctic Circle.

“[Ishmael] was the one that came out right at the outset and said, ‘Hey, look, if you guys are thinking that you’re gonna come up here once in a while and make your game down in Seattle, and check in with us once in a while to see if you’re on the track, there’s a long list of films and books and other kinds of artists that have come up to try that, and they have all failed,’” Vesce recalled. “‘If you want to succeed in this, if you want to create something that’s really appropriate and authentic, and you want to make something that not only excites people outside Alaska but makes people inside Alaska proud, you’re going to have to involve us in a very direct way, throughout the entire development.’ That really set the tone with us, in the way that we engaged with the community from that point forward.”

Hope and Vesce had a lengthy dialogue about how Westerners needed to break down internalized stereotypes, especially if they wanted to share, articulate, and understand an indigenous worldview. Without the ability to articulate the Alaska Native experience, Never Alone would be dead on arrival.

“Part of those internalized stereotypes is looking at our stories as if they are fairy tales, folklore told by an anonymous elder from a vague tribe,” Hope told the Kernel. “That’s the way Westerners process it. When we look at it, when we study these stories, when we recognize these stories, we see it as oral literature that’s among the finest achievements in human history.”

Before work could begin on Never Alone—in terms of basic play mechanics, level design, and the overall structure of the game—E-Line Media had to choose the appropriate story for the game’s narrative.

“In general, if you read indigenous stories, they’re very hard to understand if you haven’t been raised in that culture,” Vesce said. “They don’t follow the same conventions, the same kind of arcs. Characters don’t evolve and develop in the way that we’re used to, just because we’re steeped in our movies or television.”

The trick was to find an Alaska Native story that would require the least amount of changes to become the basis for a video game—a story with a narrative that could progress from beginning to end in a straightforward fashion. Through collaboration with Hope and other cultural ambassadors, the team settled on a story named “Kunuuksaayuka,” as told by Robert Nasruk Cleveland and published as part of a collection of stories titled Unipchaanich imagluktugmiut – Stories of the Black River People.

“What was very important to me was that it doesn’t end up being a rewrite by a Westerner—an adaptation,” Hope said. “We needed to go to the direct source.”

“We still have a long way to go. What [Never Alone] starts to do is create an understanding.”

The hero of the story is Kunuuksaayuka, who investigates the source of a blizzard that’s preventing him from hunting for caribou to feed himself and his mother. Kunuuksaayuka discovers a giant man cutting into the tundra and shoveling the loose snow away from his work. The loose snow is picked up by the wind and becomes the source of the blizzard. The story, as Hope read it, is about “the living nature of the weather and the environment, its unpredictability and power.”

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In Never Alone, instead of a boy named Kunuuksaayuka, the hero is a girl named Nuna. Instead of a giant chopping away at the snow, a man made of ice is chipping away at a huge ice wall, causing the blizzard plaguing Nuna’s village. And Nuna’s quest, like Kunuuksaayuka’s, is to find a way to stop the blizzard so her people can hunt again.

E-Line Media wanted to change the hero from a boy to a girl, as female characters are underrepresented in video games. This was not a change to be made lightly. “Kunuuksaayuka, as told by Robert Nasruk Cleveland,” is not merely a label for who told the tale. It is also in Iñupiaq culture a signifier of ownership. Robert Nasruk Cleveland was the first Iñupiaq storyteller recorded as telling the tale.

“With someone like Robert Cleveland, he was a genius,” Hope said. “His book, Stories of the Black River People, is one of the greatest pieces of literature I’ve ever experienced.” To approve this change in gender for the hero of the story, E-Line Media consulted with Cleveland’s daughter, Minnie Gray, to ask for her blessing in making the change.

It was granted.

Growth from misunderstanding

Never Alone is categorized as a “puzzle-platformer,” a game genre that includes the venerable Super Mario Bros., a two-dimensional game in which the player crosses gaps and avoids enemies while crossing from one side of the level to the other.

The puzzles in Never Alone require Nuna to cooperate with an arctic fox that accompanies her on the journey to discover the source of the mysterious blizzard. The fox is not present in the original tale as told by Cleveland, but its inclusion allows for local, cooperative play. In other words, one player can control Nuna using the first controller, and a second player can control the fox.

The fox is faster, more nimble, and a better climber than Nuna. He can scurry up walls and toss down ropes so that Nuna can climb up after him. Nuna is stronger, so she can drag and push objects. She also has a bola (a traditional Iñupiaq tool for hunting birds) to smash ice walls that are in the players’ way. The partnership is meant to represent a theme of interdependence, a key cultural value of the Iñupiat. It was also a change to the tale of Kunuuksaayuka that E-Line Media could not take for granted.

“[A] video game has its own tradition, and has its own structure, and so it was a constant dialogue about how to work with that structure, and then to bend and change that structure when you need to, and rethink some things when you need to,” Hope said.

There are other facets of Never Alone that are not present in the tale of Kunuuksaayuka, made to ensconce other defining characteristics or values of Iñupiaq culture. The Iñupiat teach that Siḷa—their name for the space between the land, the moon, sun, and stars, as well as the weather—has a soul, and that they have a relationship with Siḷa. Spirit helpers reside within that realm. In the game, Nuna is assisted by such spirits, like ghostly apparitions of schools of fish who jump from the water and allow Nuna and the fox to ride on their backs.

“What I really credit the team for is being a bit self-effacing and realizing the creative vitality and the intelligence and the fun and the joy of what our elders have to offer, and going with that as the structure,” Hope said.

“When we study these stories, we see it as oral literature that’s among the finest achievements in human history.”

“What was really important for us [was] to portray [the Iñupiat] spiritual worldview within the game, and it’s a really complicated subject,” Vesce added. “The game designers at the time, we all were in favor of a model … where the player can hit a button and basically move from a regular environment, a regular realm to the spirit realm, and there was a lot of gameplay involved in crossing between those by virtue of the player hitting the button to change modes. And when we showed an initial prototype of that to members of the community, they said, ‘You’ve got it all wrong.’

“The spiritual world is not something that is on demand. We can’t will that into existence and go back. You have to embody the values. You have to demonstrate a level of competency in order to experience that, and it’s a gift that’s given to you. It’s not something that you control.’ So that was a really core mechanic that we were starting down a path of, that was really representative of misunderstanding from us, that comes from being raised in a Western ideology.”

Reaching the youth

Never Alone was released for PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One on Nov. 18, to critically mixed reviews. The game currently holds a Metascore between 66 and 73—a middling score in video game criticism—depending on which platform you want to use. Taken strictly as a puzzle-platformer and removed from any cultural context, Never Alone is very light on skill challenges compared to some of the punishing installments in the Super Mario series or the diabolical difficulty of Limbo, one of the games that inspired the design of Never Alone.

What critics generally agreed on, however, was the charm of the game and the way it served as a bridge to understand Alaska Native culture in a way that gamers had never seen before. This concern weighed heavy in the members of the Alaska Native community who collaborated on the development of the game.

“When I was young, I was ashamed of my culture, my Tlingit and Iñupiaq side, and my parents were very attuned to their culture and very active in the culture, and they tried to share it with me and my brother,” Hope said. “I would hide all aspects of my identity for a while, even though a lot of that internalized knowledge was there with me. If [Never Alone had] come out at that time, I probably wouldn’t even have played it. Or if I did, I wouldn’t tell my friends about it.

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“But what was neat is my daughter and her non-native best friend were talking about how excited they were about the game. They knew that this game was coming out; they couldn’t wait to play it, and they loved playing it. They talked about it with their friends. That’s an enormous difference just in those few generations. We still have a long way to go. What [Never Alone] starts to do is create an understanding.”

“We were able to really take what the Elders said to us in their wisdom and guiding us, by ensuring that we always stand true in who we are and remain strong to that as a people and as a culture,” said Gloria O’Neill, recalling the early conversations about the goals for the game. “Use the tools of technology, living in a modern world, and figure out how we can share who we are with the world and at the same time connect with our young people. And use these tools so that not only is it another way to archive our stories in a digital world, but it’s a way [by] which we can communicate amongst ourselves.”

The team at E-Line knew they had nailed their mission of truthfully representing Alaska Native culture in Never Alone shortly after playing the finished game with Hope for the first time.

“I remember, he pulled me aside after that meeting,” Vesce said, “and he looked at me and he put his arm around my shoulder, and he was like, ‘We really did it. It’s amazing, the fact that we got all the way to the finish line with this, considering the challenge.’ Ishmael was one of those really hard critics at the beginning of the project, basically warning us at how challenging it would be, but he had this sense of pride that we finished, and that we really embodied the values.”

When I spoke to Vesce, he had just returned from attending Kivgiq, or the Messenger Feast, in Barrow. Kivgiq is an annual celebration in which the Iñupiaq people from villages on the north slope gather to celebrate through eating and dancing, catching up with one another and reinforcing kinship ties. Vesce had been in attendance to show Never Alone as a finished, retail product to the community for the very first time.

Never Alone achieves something never before seen in the video game industry.

“We did a day’s worth of workshops with members of the Barrow high school community, and they bussed in elementary school kids from around Barrow to participate as well,” Vesce said. “Our goal with the kids was really to inspire them to think about careers in game development and to kind of help them. … One issue that [the Iñupiat community has] is a lot of the younger kids don’t necessarily identify with their traditions as much as they do with modern media and things. So we tried to get them to understand the value and the beauty of their heritage and to help them understand that people all around the world are starting to take notice that this group exists, and that there are things to be learned from them.”

Securing a financial future

Never Alone was never only about creating a touchstone to Iñupiaq culture for Alaska Native youth and the rest of the world. There were practical, economic considerations behind the project. And while the game has only been in the marketplace for three months, some of those economic goals were in essence completed before Never Alone was finished.

The merging of Upper One Games and E-Line Media in summer 2014 created working capital to build from. The CITC is now producing a workforce development game through E-Line Media, for use in assisting people supported by the CITC who are on temporary assistance programs. The game is intended for internal use, but Amy Fredeen, the the executive vice president and chief financial officer of the CITC,  believes it could be adapted for outside distribution. Should that come to pass, CITC owns the intellectual property, so while E-Line Media would serve as its partner in distributing the game, CITC would be the primary beneficiary of the sales.

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Likewise, E-Line Media has already had interest from Hawaii natives and the Maori people of New Zealand to further explore this emerging genre of “world games” focused on telling the stories of indigenous cultures. CITC is also working with a former instructor from the education school at the University of Alaska, Anchorage, to offer Never Alone as a supplement or alternative to the standard Alaska Studies curriculum.

“The CITC board understood that instead of just doing one game with a company, let’s be a part of this world-games thesis,” O’Neill said. “Let’s go out and really work hard to build value in E-Line, and then when we have that exit opportunity years down the road, that CITC will see the sale of those assets.”

Regardless of how things play out for the CITC, however, Never Alone will remain a standalone achievement.

“I’ve received only positive feedback from the community, from the native community,” Hope said. “That’s the biggest thing, is connecting Alaska Native young people to a really positive image of themselves.

“I think that was a major reason why our elders were so supportive,” Hope said. “They see [Never Alone is] a healthy, respectful representation of themselves, and they know how the generational divide works. They know how colonialism works and how destructive it is. And one of those tools, and one of the things that have been isolating people, has been playing video games, mass media–type things, and what’s really neat is that you can subvert that, turn that around, and actually use it to bring people together.”

In a larger sense, the video game format itself symbolically brings back an integral aspect of Iñupiaq culture.

“On the Tlingit side, we have these things that were kind of like longhouses, but we called them clan houses,” Hope recalled. “And that’s where everyone lived, where it was all made out of cedar or spruce. And it was a plank house, a big house with a fire pit in the middle, and then you’d have these amazing house poles, totem poles, and wall screens.

“On the Iñupiaq side is the qargi,” he continued. “There’s the men’s community house. Basically it’s like a sod home, just a very large sod home, dome-shaped. And that’s where all the men lived; you know, boys, when they turned about 8, they would move there. And then there would be constantly listening to stories at night, in both places, they’d be constantly listening to stories at night from their elders.”

It was in a qargi that Robert Nasruk Cleveland had learned the stories that would later appear in Stories of the Black River People.

“I asked my Uncle Elmer about a qargi, and he said ‘Well, you know, it’s just like a high school gym, where people get together and they have community activities,’” Hope said. “And [the idea of video games as a community house] fits in that sense of how at least my Uncle Elmer thinks of it. It’s a public space, a communal space, where the storytelling happens. On a metaphorical level, I would see, in some ways, this video game is reigniting some of that spirit of the qargi.”

This story was originally published in the March 1, 2015 issue of the Kernel.

All photos via Never Alone/Upper One Games