Once I graduated from college, I stopped reading non-fiction or watching documentaries. Any overt learning was pushed to the wayside, and yet I still do crave information; it's what separates me from my dog. So how could I procure knowledge while still doing what I enjoy? That's where fiction based on real beliefs becomes invaluable. I adore novels that offer cultural insight (like The Orphan Master's Son and Americanah), and there are games that provide this dual benefit as well. Never Alone is a beautiful platformer in which a young girl is joined by an arctic fox to brave an unceasing blizzard. It combines puzzle solving with teamwork--two components that I tend to adore--in such a way that I could envision happily playing this in my living room, DualShock controller in hand, while my wife and I push ever deeper into the wilderness.
Never Alone is fun. That's important, because behind its intriguing design lies a cultural history that elevates this from a neat diversion to a (potentially) important communication tool. E-Line Media specializes in combining entertainment with education (excuse me for avoiding the unsightly term "edutainment"), so there's no surprise that it's behind such an enterprise. What is surprising is how Never Alone began. Gloria O'Neill, the president and CEO of the Cook Inlet Tribal Counsel, approached E-Line to design a game based on Inupiat folklore. The idea was that the Alaska Native's youth were getting harder to reach with so many electronic distractions surfacing. So Never Alone is a way to pass down these traditions that speaks to people on their own level, doing something that they already enjoy doing.
Merging entertainment with information is a tricky business. Like making healthy food tastier, one has to do just enough to draw in those reluctant to change their eating habits without pouring so much cheese on top as to eliminate any tangible benefits. From what I've played, Never Alone expertly walks this line. Platformers are what I was raised on, and what I still flock to during my valuable free time, so the serene, 2D backdrop immediately drew me in. The frozen tundra is begging to be explored. As I ran away from a chasing polar bear, and scampered up a nearby cliff, I was taken in by the action. This is the type of game that I most enjoy. During those early moments, I could see a white blur in the background, an indistinct poof that hinted at something greater beyond. It was moments later that Never Alone revealed its most inescapable hook. An arctic fox joins you, and like that, my love of animals and platformers was merged into something delightful.
Traversing this desolate land would have been enough to draw my attention. The two characters are inseparable, though they have different traits to complement each other. The fox can scamper through small cracks and climb up sheer walls, while his companion can push heavy boxes into place. You switch between the two with the tap of a button, and the other follows right at your heels. After a few minutes of toggling back and forth, I was joined by a developer, and Never Alone became a cooperative journey. My thoughts drifted toward Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze, a brilliant platformer with a similar mechanic. The difference is that Donkey Kong is also incredibly challenging, whereas Never Alone is much more palatable. A parent could join up with his or her child, for instance, making it easy for lesser skilled individuals to see what lies ahead.
This is an important feature, because Never Alone seems to be worth playing for reasons beyond the core appeal. The situation on display is based on an Inupiat folktale, and though some liberties were taken (such as the protagonist being realized as a young girl here instead of a boy), it stays true to the themes and key plot points from this story passed down through the generations. As you play through the adventure, you learn bits and pieces of the Inupiats' beliefs through environmental details. There are animal spirits who help you cross dangerous passages and spirits housed in the aurora borealis that threaten to carry you away. You see a boogeyman of sorts attack a nearby village, razing the houses and terrifying the people. These and other such beliefs are precious to the Inupiat people. And playing through Never Alone with someone else, learning who the Inupiat are, would give a reward to experience the game other than the platforming.
For those who crave more information than the game communicates during its action, you unlock stories as you discover each new event. The Alaska Natives explain that the spirits within the aurora borealis are children who have passed away, and if a living person were to step outside without a hood, their head would be plucked from their body to be used in a game of football. Such tidbits are dark, yes, but also enlightening. We all grew up with our own stories. To learn about what others were told, and how such things may have shaped them, opens your eyes to a world that you previously were not aware of.
I admit that I am often too lazy to search for information of my own accord; but I relish opportunities to learn. With Never Alone and the recently released Valiant Hearts, developers have melded traditional entertainment with important facts to put a new spin on entertainment. Games can be incredible teaching tools, because I know that I learn better when I'm having a good time, and there's inherent fun in interacting with digital worlds. Never Alone should be out later this year (Native American History Month is November), and it's one of those games that could be as important as it is fun. We'll see how the final game comes together, but after spending a little time with it, I'm intrigued to both see more puzzles and learn more about the Inupiat.