'Never Alone': The Rise of the "Docu-Platformer"

Never Alone feels like an old Discovery channel special in game form.

Never Alone

Publisher: E-Line Media
Rated: Teen
Players: 1-2 players
Price: $15
Platform: PC (reviewed), PS4, Xbox One
Developer: Upper One Games
Release Date: 2014-11-18

As of this writing, the Discovery Channel is planning to air a show in which a man is eaten alive by a giant snake. This comes after one of their Shark Week specials speculated that the giant prehistoric megalodon shark could still be alive, and its sister channel, Animal Planet, aired two "documentaries" about real-life mermaids. It’s clear by now that Discovery is well on its way in following its peers, the History channel and The Learning Channel, in prioritizing supernatural or shock schlock over anything actually educational.

Enter Never Alone, a game intent on filling that cultural void.

Never Alone is a puzzle-platformer steeped in the culture of the native Iñupiaq people of Alaska. It takes one of their folktales as the basis for its story and spends the rest of the game adapting cultural elements into gameplay elements. The result is a game that’s far more than the sum of its parts. Never Alone is just a pretty good puzzle-platformer, but it’s a pretty great docu-platformer.

You play as Nuna, a little girl whose village is beset by an endless blizzard. She decides to venture forth and find the source of the blizzard with her pet fox. Nuna and the fox have different, complementary abilities, and you'll have to switch control between them to overcome the various obstacles in your way (or a second player can just take full control of the fox).

The puzzles are simple and straightforward for the most part, but the game ends on a frustrating note. It’s a chase scene in which there's too much happening on the screen at once, and you're on a time limit. The panic from that limit, coupled with the imprecise controls, will likely get you stuck playing the same three second section over and over again. Your awe at the (truly amazing) scale of the climax will turn to annoyance. Thankfully, the ultra forgiving checkpoints ensure you only ever replay the past three seconds, and not the past three minutes.

The rest of game is all very standard, but the game is buoyed by its strong visuals and atmosphere. It does a tremendous amount with its limited environment. You're always surrounded by snow and ice, yet each section of the game is strikingly unique. In lesser hands, Never Alone could have become a slog from one white screen to another, but the attention to the color, lighting, shadows, and texture around and within the snow prove the artistic prowess of Upper One Games and that they know this subject matter well.

However, what makes Never Alone truly special is that it doesn’t just tell its own story of Nuna and her fox, but it also tells the story behind the game -- the how and why it was made.

Throughout the game, you’ll unlock Cultural Insights, short documentary videos about the Iñupiaq people. These videos explore their community, their survival tips, their tools, their folklore, and more. These segments are very well produced, and part of me wishes Upper One Games had just made an actual documentary and not bothered with the whole game part. They’re clearly very good at the former. The irony is, of course, that if they had actually done that I wouldn’t be talking about it because I wouldn’t know it existed. Make an Iñupiaq documentary and I probably wouldn’t glance twice at it, but put it in a game and suddenly I’m all ears. I am part of the problem, and at the very least Upper One Games deserves kudos for recognizing the audience potential of the docu-platformer.

This does all circle back to the game itself. For as interesting as the actual Iñupiaq documentary footage is, what’s equally interesting is how that footage acts as a kind of design document for the game.

It's easy to connect the dots between the footage and the game to see which cultural elements were incorporated heavily (spirit animals and bolas), which just make an appearance (the Little People), which were given lip service (the importance of drums and drumming), and which were passed over because they wouldn't fit in the game (snow houses and hunting trails). We can even see how this inspiration affects the core of the design. The Iñupiaq believe Man and Nature are equals with no animosity between them, and most of your obstacles aren't antagonistic. They're indifferent -- just Nature doing its thing without concern.

In this way, the footage gives a deeper meaning to the little details within the game. Things that we previously would have ignored or though unimportant, like a drum as a reward or a house on high stilts, are enriched once we understand the inspiration behind them and realize that every aspect of this game stems from Inupiaq culture. Those Aurora Borealis ghosts aren't just some gamey new thing the developers thought up because it was time to give the player a new challenge. I mean, they are, but they're more than that as well. There's a story behind them, just as there's a story behind every obstacle you face and every reward you earn.

By offering us so many details about its inspirations, Never Alone is the rare game that exposes itself completely to the audience. It's a bold move as it allows every player to judge whether the game is a worthwhile reflection of Inupiaq culture, to judge its very reason for existing.

I, for one, judge it favorably. Not just because of its eye-opening look at another culture or because it gives us a unique view of the game development process, but because it’s also a beautiful and fun game in its own right. The fact that it succeeds at all these things is what makes it great. It would also be great if this were the start of a trend of docu-platformers. Never Alone feels like an old Discovery channel special in game form, and it’s good to see someone picking up that slack.

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