There are many games that are built with the specific purpose of teaching you something. Many of those games are designed for younger players and are referred to as edutainment. Then there are games that teach you something without specifically trying to. I think games like Assassin’s Creed fall into that category. Never Alone, from developer Upper One Games falls into the previous category, but it’s designed with an older player in mind.
The developer set out to design a game specifically to tell people about their heritage. They are members of the Inupiat people of Alaska. The game tells the story of a young girl named Nuna who sets out to save her village from a never ending blizzard. Along the way she receives aid from a small arctic fox who turns out to be a little more than a fox. The two journey through the frozen tundra in search of the source of the blizzard.
Never Alone is a blend of both a serene and beautiful puzzle platformer and an interactive CD-ROM. As you journey through the game you’ll find little owl statues that unlock short videos telling you about various parts of the Inupiat culture. These little videos are a core part of the overall experience of the game and not just fun little collectibles to find. They tie in not only to the events that are occurring in the game, they give you background on the story you’re taking part in and how it ties to the story of the culture. Sure you could find them and never watch them, but you’d be depriving yourself of a large part of the game.
The game itself isn’t an incredibly difficult experience. There are puzzles to solve, many of them requiring the use of both characters. They can be played either solo or with a co-op companion. They’ll have you doing things like using the fox to climb a cliff and toss down a rope so Nuna can climb up and advance further. The fox has the ability to communicate with helper spirits in the game that create platforms across gaps, help you reach higher ledges and cross vast expanses of the Arctic Ocean. I never found any puzzle so difficult it couldn’t be figured out with a couple cases of trial and error. They may be easier to complete with two people playing, but none of them were the cause of any frustration.
Visually and thematically it reminds me a lot of the LostWinds series on WiiWare. The platforming is slower paced, even when you’re running. You use the wind to help you cross large gaps. Many things in the environment can be destroyed or used to help aid you along the way.
I don’t remember the last time that a video game caused me to gasp audibly, but Never Alone did. I won’t spoil it for people, but what happened came completely out of nowhere and I wasn’t prepared for what happened. I was in shock. The story plays out so beautifully that you can’t help but get wrapped up in it. Combine that with the amazing visual style of the game and it will capture all of your senses. The Northern Lights come to life and the spirits inside them attempt to capture you and take you away. If one of the characters falls to their death you see the heartbreak in the other one. Every moment of the experience is incredibly moving.
If you keep up with the real world story bits along the way it adds a layer of depth to the game that you might not get otherwise. People who’ve spent their lives growing up in these tribes with this stories bring them to life in a way you just can’t get with a video game. You see the love of the people for nature and their fellow man. You hear the story behind the story told by someone who’s been sharing it with multiple generations of children. That’s the beauty of Never Alone. The game play is good and it’s solid, but the story is what’s going to keep you playing for the 3-4 hours the game lasts.
I was expecting a nice platformer, but what I got was a lesson in a culture I didn’t really know much about. Much like Nanook of the North brought the lives of Northern Tribes to people in the early 1900s, I think Never Alone could do the same thing for this generation. I cannot begin to recommend this game enough. It’s a beautiful experience and one you’re going to remember for a long time to come.