Never Alone

When Never Alone fades to black and the credits begin to crawl, instead of a list of the staff that worked on the game’s code and art design there’s a list of the game’s cultural ambassadors. The cultural ambassadors are members of the Alaskan Native tribe known as the Inupiat, the community that provided the story, culture, and entire background for the game. Video games are not well known for their sensitivity or respect regarding minority cultures, but Never Alone’s number one priority is these people. The game’s execution stumbles at nearly every turn, but this level of respect and collaboration stays with you after you’ve finished the journey through the Alaskan wilderness.

Never Alone is the first game published by Upper One Games, “the first indigenous-owned video game developer and publisher in US history.” It’s probably the oft-cited sentence regarding this game, and understandably so. Unfortunately, it’s this exciting premise that makes the many mechanical and technical failures of Never Alone so bitterly disappointing.

The game begins with a few “Cultural Insights” unlocked, which are small documentary episodes that are earned by finding owls scattered throughout the game. The player is given an introduction to the Inupiat culture and then quickly put in the shoes (and paws) of Nuna, a young Inupiat girl, and her arctic fox. They travel past caves, cliffs, and polar bears as they search for the source of the blizzard that’s plaguing the girl’s village. It’s a harrowing journey for the young protagonist, but she leaps forward without trepidation.

The movement and puzzles are both highly reminiscent of Limbo, which used macabre deaths and limited visibility to carve out a terrifying atmosphere. Never Alone emulates both the ease of death and low visibility on multiple occasions, but these elements turn a joyous voyage through a dreamy Alaskan landscape into hellish frustration. It’s not just the vulnerability of Nuna that frustrates, either. Jumps often don’t connect, models fall through geometry, and obtuse puzzles all result in Nuna’s untimely death. This is not the relaxing Journey players might hope for.

The game is exceptional looking. The entire game is wrapped in a dreamy fog, making Nuna’s experience feel more like a reverie than the arctic nightmare it often is. The snow is undoubtedly gorgeous, and the sights only become more appealing as the journey goes deeper into the wild, where Nuna encounters the Northern Lights, malicious green spirits, and even a whale made out of ice. I didn’t enjoy playing it, but Never Alone has some of my favorite art design of this year. The blocky, sharp-edged textures in the world remind me of Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons. Unfortunately, that’s not where that comparison ends. Never Alone wears its indie-puzzler inspirations on its sleeve, but does so without the polish or forgiving nature it needs.

What’s perhaps most frustrating with Never Alone's gameplay is how Brothers has undoubtedly inspired how it is meant to be played. As a single-player experience, Never Alone tasks you with switching back and forth between controlling Nuna and the fox, making the already frustrating puzzles even more infuriating as the A.I. tends to move in small increments, which can ruin certain solutions to puzzles. For example, the fox can communicate with the spirits of the natural world, which creates platforms for Nuna to use to navigate the environment. When the player switches to Nuna there’s a chance that the A.I. will move fox, making the platforms disappear and resulting in Nuna’s death. I never got the opportunity to play Never Alone as a cooperative experience, so I can't speak for its successes or failures in that department. However, given the imprecise nature of the jumps and puzzle design, I still can't see much appeal in dragging another person along on for the ride.

“It captures the imagination,” said Ishmael Angaluuk Hope of the game in one of the final Cultural Insights. With all respect to Ishmael and the cultural ambassadors who brought us this story, I disagree. The story itself (referred to as "Kunuuksaayuka" by the tribe) is splendid, and the inky, eerily drawn cutscenes that appear throughout the game tell of a much more exciting and pleasurable experience than the one Never Alone delivers. The Cultural Insights, which are by-far the most rewarding bits of Never Alone, are beautifully shot and edited. Seeing actual video of the vast Alaskan landscape does grant a certain emotional weight to the gameplay, but the videos are too brief to distract the player from the repetitive gameplay. Between the technical blemishes and the sluggish controls, Never Alone never has that transcendental moment where the player can momentarily look past the game and see the world of the Inupiat. Instead, that world feels burdened with the task of being the appealing kernel of a heavily flawed machine. There's a land of wondrous play and exploration somewhere in this premise, but Never Alone isn't it.