Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Never Alone

Upper One Games presents a unique experience: a video game with a story based upon the legends and history of an indigenous people, made in cooperation with those very same people.  That background alone makes the game notable: what makes it worth playing is the great care with which it was put together.  The game is Never Alone, essentially a gift from the Iñupiat of northern Alaska to the rest of the world: a story told in their own language, faithfully derived from their own traditions.

One or two players control an Iñupiaq girl named Nuna, and an arctic fox, on their quest to uncover the source of an unending blizzard and save her village.  With her trusty bola and the fox's spiritual powers, they face elemental, supernatural, and very human challenges in a classic 2D platform context.  There are few mechanics that I haven't seen before, but they serve the story well and reinforce the game's core themes of cooperation and courage.

Never Alone is beautiful, and what's more it uses its visual prowess to further its storytelling aims.  One might be tempted to regard the Alaskan Arctic landscape as a desolate, featureless waste, but this game is determined to check that assumption.  Here we find gnarled woods and shadowy caves, violent seas and creaky ghost towns and yes, vast plains of ice and snow, all of it imbued with character by the most expressive snow and atmosphere effects outside of the real thing.  Even with graphical settings on low (I'm not working with the fiercest of machines here), the animation and art design are gracefully realized.

Mechanically, Never Alone could have benefited from a little more work.  Not only is the AI for the two player characters inconsistent, but difficult platforming moments are often as much a matter of luck as skill.  You can't really predict when a jump will inexplicably fail despite visibly landing safely, but you can be sure it will occur at least twice over a gap filled with freezing Arctic water.  If you're really lucky though, the AI will sometimes send your partner character far enough past a difficult challenge to reach the next checkpoint.  What I'm saying is, gameplay bugs can also work for you.

The gameplay is at its most interesting when it requires the close interplay of Nuna and the fox, and most challenging when they must cooperate quickly in extended, time-sensitive situations.  Naturally, this makes single-player mode an occasionally taxing experience, but the good news is that Never Alone genuinely wants you to succeed.  There is an embarrassment of checkpoints and rarely will the player have to redo more than two or three significant challenges following a tragic death.  Perhaps it goes against the traditional platformer's orthodoxy, but I say it's a positive development that many modern games don't want to let that one impossible level get in the way of telling their story.

For as smooth a play as possible, I'd recommend a controller.  I cleared this game using keyboard and mouse, and as far as I'm concerned their principal virtues lay in convincing me that I'd totally have made all those missed jumps with a more responsive piece of plastic in hand.  I don't know how you PC kids survived on WASD all these years, but I'll take a proper D-pad any day.

A secondary challenge in Never Alone is unlocking Cultural Insights, short documentary videos that tell the history of the Iñupiat and explain many elements found in the game.  While Never Alone is basically a fantasy, it achieves a much better grounding in realism than virtually any other fantasy game by pairing its mythical narrative with the voices of real Iñupiat people, who expound their culture not with dry reverence but warm, personal affection.  Too charming to feel like homework, the Cultural Insights educate in the best sense of the word, bringing the player closer to the real world of the Iñupiat while still feeling like genuine rewards.

I unlocked most of these videos, but my computer remains uncooperative in playing them correctly.  Fortunately, they can all be found on youtube, so I don't feel like I'm missing out.

I recommend this game highly, for fans of platformers and for those who want to learn more about indigenous cultures in a unique way.  Perhaps in a better world the jumping could have been tightened up, but Never Alone does so much right that it's hard to fault it for a little frustration.  It's accessible and beautiful and fun, and with a two-player mode it is begging to be shared.  It can also be a little bit scary and at one point (no spoilers) genuinely shocking, so play with care.

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