Released in November for PC and consoles, Never Alone quickly emerged as one of the most inspiring indie game success stories of 2014.
Set in a frozen environment of ice and tundra, it’s a game that tells the story of a young villager named Nuna and her arctic fox companion. Together, they must set out to discover the source of a mysterious blizzard, working in tandem to overcome challenges and survive the treacherous landscape.
While reminiscent of 2D puzzle platformers like Braid and Limbo, the underlying themes and messages of Never Alone have their roots in a much older tradition of indigenous storytelling — primarily that of the Iñupiat culture of Northern Alaska. As players progress through the game, they also unlock a series of short documentaries called “cultural insights,” each of which highlights a particular topic relating to Iñupiat folklore, tradition, and way of life.
The game itself began as a special project by the Cook Inlet Tribal Council (CITC), a nonprofit organization servicing the indigenous communities of Northern Alaska, including the Iñupiat. The idea was to create an original game that could help convey the rich stories and traditions of the Iñupiat culture for a modern-day audience, as well as provide the Alaska Native communities with a way in which to connect with their own youth.
To help in their endeavor, the CITC recruited the talents of E-Line Media, an education and entertainment media company, to act as developer. They also formed Upper One Games as an independent publishing studio, with all proceeds from the sale of the game being used to support the CITC’s other programs.
“The entire project has been very much centered around the idea of inclusive development,” said producer Matt Swanson (2012, BFA in Digital Art and Animation), one of eight DigiPen graduates who worked on the game at E-Line Media’s Seattle studio.
From the very beginning, developers worked closely with a group of cultural advisors, including tribal elders, storytellers, scholars, and even youth — many of whom visited the Washington studio on multiple occasions to give their input and perspective.
One such advisor was elder James Nageak, who provided the game’s voiceover narration in the Iñupiat language. Another was Ishmael Hope, an Alaska Native scholar and storyteller who — in addition to contributing to the game’s script — supplied the Never Alone development team with suitcases of books on indigenous storytelling.
“He was a very integral part of helping us understand some of the culture, walking us through those stories, and then finding stories that could work for the narrative arc for a video game,” Matt says.
The protagonists’ quest in Never Alone is an adaption of an Iñupiat story known as “Kunuuksaayuka” — first recorded in the early 1900s by master storyteller Robert Cleveland — about a young boy who, like Nuna, ventures off to find the source of an endless blizzard that threatens his family’s home. In doing so, he learns a valuable lesson about the nature of community, and how one person’s self-centered actions can lead to negative consequences for other people — even unintentionally.
For a development team raised largely on games about lone heroism and bravado (Tomb Raider, The Legend of Zelda, etc.), it was a difficult lesson to internalize.
“These stories would be used to show that you can’t just be independent. You have to work with your community,” game designer Vincent Leone (2012, BS in Computer Science and Game Design) said. “We went through many iterations of how to show that before we finally ended on what’s in the game now. It took a lot of effort on the design side.”
While the experience of making Never Alone marked an exciting opportunity to meet and work with a diverse group of people, for each of the DigiPen graduates on the team, it was also a chance to reconnect with former classmates.
Such was the case for Matt, Vincent, and game artist Alexei Gil (2102, BFA in Digital Art and Animation), three graduates who had previously collaborated on the student game Salvage Youth during their senior year at DigiPen. Like Never Alone, that game was also a 2D puzzle platformer developed in the Unity game engine, featuring multiple protagonists who must work together to solve problems.
“Coming from DigiPen to this project was very seamless. It’s funny how many parallels this game had to the projects that we were working on [at DigiPen],” Matt said. “Having that prior experience and being friends before when we were in school just absolutely helped.”
Since the game’s debut, Never Alone has received a wealth of press coverage from mainstream news outlets like NPR, The New Yorker, and many others. The game was also a finalist at IndieCade and a “Games for Change” nominee at The Game Awards 2014.
And among the many people who have purchased and played the game, Never Alone has already become a fan favorite.
“Within five minutes of flipping the switch on Steam and releasing it to the world … we were able to start watching people play it on Twitch,” Matt said. “And that is awesome, that instant feedback of getting to see people laughing and smiling and playing your game and talking about it.”
More importantly, it’s a game that has so far succeeded in its mission of communicating the stories of one lesser-known culture to a new global audience.
“To get to be a part of that journey has been awesome,” Matt said.
The DigiPen graduates who worked on Never Alone were Brandon Anderson (2014), Anne Feeny (2014), Decker Geddes (2014), Alexei Gil (2012), Jonathan Gregoire (2014), Vincent Leone (2012), Siew Yi Liang (2014), and Matt Swanson (2012).