Here’s a sentence I never thought I’d write: Never Alone is a video game based on indigenous Alaskan folklore, developed in conjunction with the Cook Inlet Tribal Council – a non-profit organization comprised of genuine natives who seek to share, celebrate and extend their culture through folkloric intergenerational stories.
That, in and of itself, is worthy of admiration and praise. Very few games are created with the express purpose of opening people’s eyes to another, often unexplored culture, and still fewer which allow those who exist in that culture to speak to you directly with a generations-old voice. So for all Never Alone’s faults as an actual game, the philosophy behind it and the care and respect with which it handles its subject matter elevates its artistic merit and cultural value significantly.
It’s still not a very good game though.
Perhaps that isn’t entirely fair. For one thing the experience should really be judged as a whole, and in this case the gameplay is far from the most important component. Not to mention I played a pre-patch version of the game which, apparently, has a lot of bugs and issues that were subsequently ironed out.
Still, I don’t think we can overlook large, significant chunks of a video game just because it does other things very well, and unfortunately I’m only able to base my opinions on the version of the game that I played. So take this as a kind of disclaimer: despite all the nitpicking I’m about to do, there’s still a lot to be enjoyed about Never Alone, and some of the problems I experienced may not even exist in the latest version of the game. Take that as you will.
The premise is very simple. You’ll play as two characters; both a young Iñupiaq girl, Nuna, and her arctic lupine friend and companion, Fox. Nuna’s village has been brought to the brink of starvation by a constant blizzard, and the pair set out to discover its source and stop it in order to end their people’s suffering. As you can probably tell, there’re strong themes of connectedness and interdependence here, themes which also translate to the gameplay.
Nuna and Fox have slightly different abilities. The girl can push and pull objects, and use her bola to destroy obstructions. The fox can jump slightly higher, climb walls, and also summon ethereal spirits which are strewn around the landscape. In solo play, the player can switch between the two at will; co-op play allows a real person to directly control one or the other.
Most of the game’s puzzles rely on using these complementary skills to navigate beautiful, minimalist environments. It’s often very peaceful. There’s little challenge, particularly in the early portions of the game, but that’s fine. Trotting through the ice and the snow feels serene, almost meditative, and Nuna’s animation – especially when she’s stomping through knee-deep drifts – is incredibly charming. Even though she receives no direct characterisation I nonetheless felt very connected to her, which I suppose is the point.
The problems are inherent in the way these skills work (or don’t, in certain cases) and in how the world, as pretty as it is, often doesn’t seem to want you there. Take the basic act of jumping, for example. Sometimes when Nuna makes a long leap, she will grab the edge of the platform she is striving for and pull herself up. Sometimes she won’t, instead scraping along the edge and falling to her death. Other times, while Nuna is preparing to make a jump, the AI will walk Fox off the end of the platform for no reason. Things like this happen a lot.
Aiming the bola is incredibly imprecise too, which isn’t much of a problem except when the game enters into one of its mandatory chase sequences. These demand a lot of speed, and it’s tough to hit a target when you can’t see where exactly you’re aiming and there’s a polar bear breathing down your neck. This issue is particularly rampant during the final sequences of the game, when the difficulty spikes considerably. It’s an odd, irritating way to close out something which remained so reserved through most of its running time.
Controlling Fox is often even more aggravating. His wall climb ability only occasionally works, even though the input is always identical. The spirits he is able to manipulate, forming platforms, are a nice idea in theory, but in practice they’re temperamental at best. It’s tough to figure out the scope of their movement, and frequently even harder to actually coax them into moving at all. Again, time pressure during chase sequences makes this far more annoying that it should be. Segments of the game which require a lot of character-switching teamwork feel muddled and imprecise because of it. It often takes a couple of runs through a checkpoint in order to figure out how and where to move the various spirit platforms, and much like in Deadlight, the flow of the game being continually broken by trial-and-error sections works to its disadvantage.
That isn’t to say the game doesn’t have some excellent ideas or several wonderful moments, because it does, but far too much of the game is either broken (wholly or partially) or simply repeats ideas it used earlier. Early in the game there’s a cute mechanic that has you brace against strong gales, and time your jumps between them. It continues to reoccur through the entire game, even though it stopped being interesting after the first couple of occurrences. There are plenty of platforming segments which require you to use that wind to blow you over large gaps; during one of them, the wind grabbed my AI partner (Fox, unsurprisingly) and threw him over the obstacle we needed to surmount. I had to restart the checkpoint, as Fox was too far to the right of the screen and Nuna too far to the left for me to be able to pull the camera far enough one way or the other to actually solve the puzzle properly.
Twice I had to restart a checkpoint because Nuna was stuck in an animation loop, once because she was stuck in the world geometry, and several more times because some component of a puzzle didn’t work the way it was supposed to. This is a short game, remember. Just two or three hours. There should not be so many game-breaking technical issues in something you are able to beat in a single sitting.
It’s also odd for such a slight game to feel so padded. This isn’t like Limbo, which used all of its ideas and then had the good sense to clear off before it began outstaying its welcome – Never Alone has one or two core scenarios which it just continually reuses. There are occasional moments of deviation, but these are the exceptions rather than the rule.
Thing is though, everything outside of the gameplay is so charming, interesting and enjoyable that it’s tempting to sweep all of these issues under the rug. I love how the narration is in native Iñupiaq. I love how the cutscenes are silently-animated, ink-scrawled scrimshaw art. I love how a lot of the characters, events and mechanics are takes on conventional cold-weather survival wisdom. I love how the entire game feels as though it is built on painstaking research and cooperation; how it stands for something; how it is representative of an entire people.
I love these more than anything else:
But the other thing is, I can’t overlook the issues. I just can’t. And in that regard Never Alone is a disappointment. It’s broken, in a lot of ways. I sincerely hope that the patch fixed these issues to the degree that people can enjoy all the other aspects of the game and give it the attention I really feel it deserves without having to suffer through so much nonsense. I’m sure folks will let me know either way. Until then though, I can recommend Never Alone as a piece of art, and as something which communicates the spirit of a people often left in the margins of popular culture. But I can’t quite recommend it as a game just yet.