Games

'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
URL

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.

8

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less
Theatre

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less
10

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less
7

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image