Presentation of Never Alone (Kisima Inŋitchuŋa): Mechanics, Dynamics, Aesthetics, Economy, and Uncertainty

WARNING: CONTAINS SPOILERS!

Never Alone is a game made by Upper One Games, an Indigenous-owned game studio of the Cook-Inlet Tribal Council. In Never Alone, Nuna, an Iñupiaq girl, and fox, a creature that can communicate with spirits in the arctic of Alaska work together to stop a winter storm. The players encounter spirits and game elements that reflect the Iñupiaq culture. The players learn values that may differ from their own. The game itself is beautiful and immersive, and the storyline is absolutely heartwarming.

Mechanics

Never Alone uses the mechanics of achievements, cascading information, urgent optimism, reward schedules, quests, progression, ownership, loss aversion, and discovery to create an amazing game:

Achievements: Never Alone uses achievements to encourage engagement with the game and contributes to the overall fun of the game. For example, the player must first play alone as Nuna, the young Iñupiaq girl, until the player unlocks the co-operative play function of fox. The player can then play as both Nuna and Fox, or can play in co-op mode with another player at that point. The player also unlocks the bola weapon later in the game, which is necessary for progressing through the game, defeating enemies, and destroying ice blocks that obstruct Nuna and Fox’s path. When fox dies half way through the game, the player unlocks a new ability when Fox returns as a young boy. The Fox-boy gives the players new abilities, such as flying through the sky to reach hard-to-get spirits that are necessary for progressing through the game. As the player reaches checkpoints, they unlock cultural insights, which are information about the Iñupiaq culture.

Cascading Information: As the player plays through the game, they are given little bits of information about the Iñupiaq culture and way of life. These are unlocked at checkpoints and contribute to the player’s engagement and immersion in a way of life that may be different than their own. The cultural insights match the information in the game, for example, when Nuna receives the Bola, the cultural insight gives information on how a bola is used by the Iñupiaq people. This action is then displayed in an example in the game, so players can mimic this action as they play. 

Urgent Optimism: As players progress through the platformer puzzle/adventure game, they are motivated by the hopes of progressing to a new checkpoint or a new part of the narrative. Players aim to complete the game and find out more about the story of Nuna and Fox.

Reward Schedule: Players are rewarded with cultural insights that reinforce the immersion of the player in the Iñupiaq way of life. As players explore the gameworld, they unlock cultural insights after completing certain tasks, such as receiving the bola, defeating a polar bear, encountering northern lights and spirits, or watching a cut scene that is drawn in a scrimshaw art style that is traditional to the Iñupiaq people. Players are also rewarded with abilities, such as the fox companion, the Bola, and later the ability to fly.

Quests: The main quest in the game is to stop a terrible snow storm that is haunting Nuna’s village. Throughout the game, the player must overcome smaller quests, such as defeating a polar bear, getting a drum for the Owl-Man while avoiding the spirit human-like creatures that cause mischief, defeating the manslayer who wants to steal Nuna’s bola, and stopping the storm by stealing an ice giant’s adze. 

Progression: Player progress by unlocking cultural insights, receiving new tools and abilities (such as the Bola, or Fox’s ability to fly), and by moving through the puzzles presented in the platformer game.

Ownership: Never Alone promotes ownership as the player wants to protect Nuna, the Fox, and save Nuna’s village from the terrible snow storm. As the player becomes immersed in the environment of the Iñupiaq story, the story of the Iñupiaq girl and her fox becomes the story of the game player, and the player comes to see themself within the narrative. The player becomes the story of the young girl and her fox, and the story becomes their own.

Loss Aversion: The player is not rewarded with points or levels, but rather by progressing through the game without dying. Therefore, the player avoids dying in order to progress through the game.

Discovery: Players explore and discover a game world that reflects the Iñupiaq way of life. Players are encouraged through cultural insights, scrimshaw cut-scenes, and through dynamic environments to discover a world that may be different from their own.


Dynamics

Never Alone is very successful at retaining engagement in-game. By employing mechanics that encourage the player to play through the narrative and discover a world that may be different from their own, the player emotionally connects with the struggles of Nuna and Fox, and forms a relationship with the two avatars who embody reciprocal values of the Iñupiaq people. The mechanics of the game encourage the players to respond to problems and quests presented in the game in a way that reflects the values of the Iñupiaq culture. In that way, the mechanics encourage an immersion in a different way of life and cause the player to perhaps displace their worldview in order to come up with solutions that are grounded in community knowledge.

 

Aesthetics

According to the taxonomy set out by Hunicke et al. (2004), Never Alone meets all the categories that make up the aesthetics of a game:

Sensation (Game as sense-pleasure): In Never Alone, the player has the sensation of being in the game world of Nuna and Fox who try to save their village from a winter storm. The player becomes emotionally invested in making sure that Nuna and Fox survive the many challenges and the winter storm.

Fantasy (Game as make-believe): The player plays through a narrative in digital form. The Iñupiaq narrative teaches players many values of the Iñupiaq people. I wish to shy away from the idea that the narrative is make-believe, but instead focus on how the environment, the challenges, and the way that the story is told places the player in a world that may not be a world they are familiar with. In this way, it is more appropriate to say that the fantasy is not in the fact that the story is make-belief, but rather that the player is in a world that they are possibly not familiar with and wish to know more about.

Narrative (Game as drama): Never Alone relies heavily on its narrative of saving Nuna’s village from a terrible winter storm. The player unlocks parts of the narrative throughout gameplay, and this contributes to the game’s intrigue and fun. The player learns more about the Iñupiaq people and culture through the narrative.

Challenge (Game as obstacle course): As a platformer game, the game presents many challenges that are typical in this type of game. The player must jump and run in the game and perform actions in a certain way at a certain time to ensure they are able to jump to a new platform, break a block of ice, or destroy an enemy. These actions are challenging but fun.

Fellowship (Game as social framework): Although Never Alone has a co-op option, the game itself encourages fellowship as it forces players to see themselves within the relationship of Nuna and Fox. Players learn values that can be applied outside of the game and teaches important values such as reciprocity.

Discovery (Game as uncharted territory): As players progress through the story that takes place in the arctic, the player learns more about the challenges of living in a harsh environment and how to survive, both in-game and in real life. The discovery aesthetic of the game keeps players engaged with the game world, and as the player discovers new spirits or terrains they may want find out more about the game world.

Expression (Game as self-discovery): As players discover the relationship between Nuna and fox, the player learns more about the values of the Iñupiaq people and may wish to adopt these values. Never Alone encourages players to reflect on the challenges of living in the Arctic and to reflect on how those values are changing over time. Through cultural insights, players see themselves in relation to the Iñupiaq people and see how their actions at home affect people in the north. Players discover their own place in an inter-connected world.

Submission (Game as pastime): Never Alone is a great game to play as a pastime, because players can pick it up and play for either a short or long amount of time. I played Never Alone over the span of a few months, although the game itself is quite short (about 4-5 hours of gameplay).

 

Uncertainty 

Never Alone demonstrates performative uncertainty, solver’s uncertainty, narrative anticipation, and development anticipation, as outlined in Costikyan (2013):

Performative Uncertainty: As a platformer game, the game relies heavily on player’s performance of being able to jump, throw the bola, run, switch between Nuna and Fox, in order to overcome a challenge. This uncertainty can be frustrating at times, and the game can be quite glitchy forcing players to blame themselves for not being able to overcome the game. For the most part, this form of uncertainty is directly related to the level layout.

Solver’s uncertainty: Solving puzzles is central to Never Alone. For example, there is a scene where Nuna, Fox and a Polar bear are together in a scene with no apparent escape. The player must quickly switch between Fox and Nuna to distract the bear and ensure that it does not attack either character. As the polar bear pounces, it breaks off ice from the ceiling and eventually Fox and Nuna can escape.

Narrative Anticipation: Players are uncertain of how Nuna and Fox will overcome the winter storm and how the spirits will react to the characters. As the player progresses, the player finds out more about the story of how Nuna and Fox will save the village. The player has a desire of finding out what comes next. Players anticipate what comes next in the story, and also anticipate unexpected challenges, such as a polar bear. For example, in the final scene where Nuna and Fox run away from the giant, as the player is running the polar bear (that the player defeated in a previous scene) appears. Players do not anticipate this challenge and respond by trying to avoid the polar bear’s attacks. However, it turns out that this polar bear is another spirit that is helping the player along their journey, and he transforms into fish that will hold Nuna while she crosses the frigid water in the arctic.

Development Anticipation: Never Alone has released downloadable content (DLC) . The game is called Fox Tales and builds on the story of Nuna and Fox and aims to teach players about respecting all creatures on earth. Players can anticipate additional DLC in the future.

Internal Economy

Never Alone employs a simple, intangible resource: Nuna and Fox’s lives. If either player dies, the game restarts from the last checkpoint. As the game relies heavily on its narrative and unlocking cultural insights to teach players about the Iñupiaq people, I would consider the cultural resources as an intangible resource. They do not have physical properties in the game world, but are still a source of cultural meaning in the game. Players also unlock the Bola, which has an unlimited number of throws. The Bola is a tangible resource in the game that allows players to progress through the game. The weapon compliments the physics of the game, as it tests the player’s dexterity, timing, and accuracy.

Bibliography

Costikyan, Greg. 2013. Uncertainty in Games. Book, Whole. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.

Hunicke, Robin, Marc LeBlanc, and Robert Zubek. 2004. “MDA: A Formal Approach to Game Design and Game Research.” In Proceedings of the AAAI Workshop on Challenges in Game AI, 4:1.

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