The world is full of mystery, spirits, and incredible things, but Nuna didn’t know how much this was true until she had to journey to save it.
IT WOULD BE NICE TO HEAR A STORY
At the top of the world, snow is a part of daily life, and the Iñupiaq people have learned to thrive in it, by working with nature. But one day, the balance is thrown off as blizzard after blizzard hits the village where a girl named Nuna lives. The blizzards are so bad that the village is threatened with starvation because hunting has become impossible. But Nuna knows that there is something strange about these blizzards, and sets off to find the source. She quickly meets an arctic fox, who becomes her companion on her journey.
Upper One Games describes Never Alone as an “atmospheric puzzle platformer,” and I can’t think of a way to describe it better. So much of the game is the beauty of everything surrounding it, but it still is a puzzle platformer. These are the sorts of games I want to see more of, partially because I’m nostalgic for the games I played as a kid. But this game is strong on its own, nostalgia or not.
A true strength of this game is how important both Nuna and the fox are to completing their task. There are things that only Nuna can do, there are things that only the fox can do, and they have to work together to do it. And there are distinct pros and cons for playing either of them, in the co-opt mode.
For example, by virtue of Nuna being a human and not a fox, she is heavier than the fox and therefore braces better against the storms. She also doesn’t slide as much when hitting certain ice (some ice you can’t fight, no matter who you are). She has the ability to climb rope and ladders, and also the ranged weapon of the game – the bola – which is a specific weapon to the Iñupiaq people. On the other hand, the fox can climb up walls for a short distance, can squeeze into small areas, and interact with the local animal spirits that can help Nuna get to places she can’t reach. Also, by being so light, there are certain difficult jumps that the fox does much better than Nuna. I quickly discovered that I had much more success on these parts by taking control of the fox and letting Nuna follow my lead when I jumped, rather than visa versa.
What shocked me the most, however, was the incredible lack of bugs. This has nothing to do with the fact that this is an indie game, and everything to do with the fact that it’s just something I’m used to in any kind of gaming I do. In the entire game, I only found one bug (towards the end), and that was in part because I took the fox somewhere he obviously wasn’t supposed to go. I was stuck on a puzzle and, of course, trying everything. I had to “kill” Nuna to resolve the bug, and after that everything was fine.
COLD, HARSH, HAUNTINGLY BEAUTIFUL
This story is told as the narrator recalling a story they once heard, and this style works well in two different ways. The first are the “exposition” points that are cutscenes, animated in a version of a traditional artstyle practiced for hundreds of years and still done today, and lends the idea that this story happened a long time ago. The second is the narrator’s voice over while the Player moves Nuna and the fox on their path. There is very little voice acting (a few phrases said by the antagonist, Link-esque non-word noises from Nuna), and often the role of the “voice acting” is really taken on by the narrator. The effect makes me feel like I really am sitting down with an old man and the game is what I’m imagining in my head as he tells the story.
As Nuna and the fox travel on their journey, I think my favorite aspect of the game was that of everything that could kill them, only one entity was an antagonist. The rest were situations or characters in Iñupiaq folklore that weren’t evil, but still dangerous. A hungry polar bear isn’t evil, but will still kill and eat you because it’s hungry. If a particularly hard gust of wind blows you off a cliff, the wind or the cliff isn’t evil – that’s just nature and the world you live in. It stresses the lesson that if one is to live in harmony with nature, they have to respect it and learn how to coexist.
This aspect of danger and the beautiful harshness of the elements helps fill in the spaces between the narrator speaking. I don’t need to be told how bad the blizzard is when I periodically have to brace against the wind or be blown away. I don’t need to be told to be nervous when I can see Nuna standing on unstable ground. And I don’t need to be told to be afraid when the fox has to use itself as bait to lure a polar bear away from his new friend.
Never Alone is revolutionary in its examination of video games as a whole, and realizing that it is an excellent tool to pass on oral traditions that have been cherished by a community for hundreds of years. And while it does teach lessons, it never feels pushed in the Player’s face. It is subtle, fun and beautiful in execution, and expertly polished. I can’t recommend this game enough to people who embrace the way stories can be told through video games, as well as to those who want to see the representation of those involved with building video games diversify. And thank you, Upper One Games, for providing me with a review copy.