Can a genre as old and established as the 2D platformer still show us something new and surprising? In the past few years, a succession of developers have proved that it can. And in terms of storytelling and design, Never Alone offers something unique: an insight into a culture and folklore never before seen in a videogame.
Never Alone (or Kisima Inŋitchuŋa) was created by Seattle-based studio E-Line in conjunction with Upper One Games – a company set-up and owned by members of the Native Alaskan community. The game tells the story of young girl named Nuna, whose village is at risk of starving to death because of a perpetual blizzard. With the howling winds making the hunt for food impossible, Nuna bravely sets off to find the blizzard’s source. As she journeys across the dangerous snowy wastes, Nuna’s joined by an arctic fox, who becomes an invaluable ally long the way.
Never Alone has the ethereal quality of Frontier Developments’ underrated WiiWare platformer LostWinds, blended with the shadowy puzzles (and frequent deaths) of Limbo. Never Alone‘s main mechanical twist comes from its two central characters, which can be switched between at any point. The differences between Nuna and the fox are logical enough: she can climb ladders, swing on ropes and (as the game wears on) use a throwing weapon called a bola. The fox can jump further, run faster, and scurry up to hard-to-reach platforms.
The fox’s most interesting asset, though, is his ability to expose and manipulate the spirits that lurk in the environment. In pure videogame terms, these are simply hidden platforms that only the fox can move around, and in Never Alone‘s best moments, the constant back-and-forth switching between one character and the other as you move through the environments is a real pleasure.
(At the time of writing, we only had the chance to briefly try out the two-player cooperative mode, but it brings about the extra dimension you’d expect: having two minds to solve the puzzles is a help, though trying to negotiate with one another as to who jumps where and when can, on occasion, be more tricky than playing on your own…)
What makes Never Alone feel so special is that it seldom feels like just a mechanical game of levers, switches, boss battles and one-hit kills, even though it’s absolutely full of these trappings. As the fox teases out the spirits lurking behind trees, or Nuna uses her bola to free a spirit trapped in a floating cloud of ice, so she can jump across a ravine, there’s an organic flow that feels entirely of a piece with the game’s design and atmosphere.
And that design and atmosphere really is top-notch. From the opening cut-scene, etched out in the traditional art style of the Iñupiat, Never Alone is consistently beguiling. Nuna and the fox are beautifully animated; Nuna lumbering along in her caribou-skin coat and boots, the fox’s tail bobbing up and down as he rushes nimbly in her wake.
What at first looks like a repetitive hinterland of ice and snow gradually reveals itself as somewhere magical. There are underground caves full of strange, diminutive beings. There are friendly tree spirits who creak and groan as they form a path through a frozen forest. A beautiful, shimmering aurora borealis is revealed to contain emerald-coloured demons who shimmy through the sky.
Never Alone keeps inventing, even as it adheres to all the challenges you’d expect from a platformer. Some of the puzzles that require boxes to be pushed and pulled around feel a little rote, but then something happens – which, of course, we won’t spoil – which throws the story through an emotional loop and subtly changes the way the game plays, revealing a new series of puzzles that are ingeniously designed.
It has to be said at this point that Never Alone contains two quite intimidating antagonists. One is a polar bear, who shows up almost as soon as the game starts and resurfaces again from time to time when he’s hungry. The other is more unexpected but even more imposing – and, unlike the bear, who’s just trying to put food in his gigantic belly, is downright nasty and detestable. Both are superbly animated.
Progressing through the Never Alone gradually unlocks a series of 24 short documentaries, which give an additional (and entirely optional) look at the people behind the game and their culture. They’re elegantly made, and say a lot, we’d argue, about the care and attention that’s gone into the game. Never Alone doesn’t use unfamiliar mythology as exotic window dressing; instead, it uses the mechanics of a traditional platformer to express a specific way of seeing the world.
As those miniature documentaries explain, the interplay between Nuna and the fox parallels the connection between the Iñupiat and their environment. They’ve lived for generations in a hostile place that nevertheless provides food and shelter; community and folktales have formed a vital part of that survival, and that sentiment is the thread that runs all the way through Never Alone.
All of this might make Never Alone sound terribly worthy, like a piece of well-meaning educational software, but it’s important to emphasise that this is, first and foremost, a beautifully-designed videogame. Sure, there are rough edges here and there – including a few instances of frustratingly iffy collision detection – but the overwhelming impression left by Never Alone is of a game made with real thought and affection.
It’s a timely reminder of how effective videogames can be when they’re exploring unfamiliar territory, or throwing a spotlight on new and compelling stories. Never Alone’s makers have taken ancient folklore and a time-worn genre and fused them to create something fresh and even heartfelt.
Over on Develop, there’s an article about how Upper One Games came into being. It tells of how members from E-Line travelled up to Alaska in the depths of winter two-and-a-half years ago, and collaborated with the Cook Inlet Tribal Council – an organisation designed to support Native Alaskans – to set up the first games company owned to by indigenous people in America. One of that studio’s key members is Minnie Gray, an octogenarian Iñupiat woman who worked as a story consultant; the story of the eternal blizzard was her father’s.
Through the game, that story can potentially find a global audience who might otherwise have never heard it. That alone is a major reason why you should play Never Alone. Here’s hoping Upper One Games share another bewitching new story with us soon.
Never Alone is available to download now for Microsoft Windows, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.