In 2012, a non-profit organisation based in Anchorage, Alaska decided to launch a company to generate revenue and decrease its dependency on government assistance. There were a number of options on the table, from real-estate to funeral homes. In the end the Cook Inlet Tribal Council made a slightly unconventional choice, which it believed had the potential to sustain Alaska Native culture as well as empower their youth — videogames. Released in 2014, Never Alone has gone on to win a BAFTA for best debut game. It is a rare example of authentic and empowering storytelling about indigenous cultural heritage using digital media.
The Iñupiat have thrived in what is now the northernmost settlement in the United States, for thousands of years. Alaska is home to about 13,500 Iñupiat, of whom about 3,000 still speak the language. Many still practise traditional ways of life such as subsistence hunting. Nearly 40 elders, storytellers, linguists and young people contributed to the development of the video game.
The game is a remarkable vessel that brings the spiritual beliefs of the Iñupiat to life.
Never Alone is a platform game about a young Iñupiat girl and her companion, an arctic fox, who go in search for the source of an endless blizzard that is destroying their community. Though the gameplay has received mixed reviews from being shabby and heartbreaking to relentlessly charming, Never Alone has also received unequivocal praise for its representation of the Iñupiat. The game is a remarkable vessel of their culture and artwork. It brings the spiritual beliefs of this community to life with stunning visuals that are dazzling and imaginative without resorting to cliches.
These past few years, I’ve come across another indigenous people from the Arctic, thousands of miles away from the home of the Iñupiat in Alaska. The Sami inhabit the Arctic area of Sápmi, which encompasses parts of Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia. In 2013 I met with a representative from Ájtte, the Swedish mountain and Sami Museum based in the town of Jokkmokk, just north of the Arctic Circle. She was a gregarious character with an infectious laugh, who patiently answered all my questions about life in the region.
Then I discovered the permanent exhibition about Sami life on the fourth floor of the Nordiska Museet in Stockholm. Every time I visit the city, I spend an hour or so in this section of the museum, re-reading the stories and listening to the powerful recollections of the Sami, of their connectedness to the land and the environment around them.
Back in the UK, when I played Never Alone for the first time, much to my shock and delight, the stories of the Sami, which are based on similar themes, came to life. A veritable calm descended on the room the first time the spirit helpers made an appearance in the game. They represent Siḷa. In Iñupiat culture, Siḷa refers to the weather and the atmosphere. It has a soul.
Never Alone has achieved its mission, ‘to leverage the power of video games to share, celebrate and extend culture.’
Never Alone has achieved its mission, to leverage the power of video games to share, celebrate and extend culture. It takes its responsibility seriously without being patronising. It seeks to educate, but not preach. At the same time it doesn’t shy away from its roots. For instance, the voiceover for the game is in Iñupiaq, which you can follow with subtitles. The cut-scenes feature artwork inspired by traditional Alaska Native scrimshaw. These little touches encourage to explore, research and discover more about the community.
As you play the game, you unlock a series of beautifully shot documentary clips containing interviews and archive footage. These 24 clips introduce different aspects of community life, from the historical to contemporary issues such as climate change.
These short, informative clips add cultural context to the gameplay. For example, the choice of the central character relates to the storytelling tradition of the Iñupiat, where the person least expected is the one who stands up and makes the difference. This element of unexpectedness plays out very well in the game. As you cross the landscape as Nuna, the little Iñupiat girl, you feel the urgency of her mission.
Never Alone is not a game about a community but a game made with the community
Never Alone captures the imagination. It is an invitation for people all around the world to explore the values and culture of an indigenous people. It is not a game about a community but a game made with the community. Alan Gershenfeld, President of E-Line Media, refers to Never Alone as a gateway to new ideas, to new themes, to new cultures. He adds that if this experiment is successful, there are many cultures that can be explored. After all, there is a growing movement of independent designers who want to create games that have the same cultural resonance as the best in film, literature and music.
Storytelling for the Iñupiat people is very important because it creates a sense of community and is a way to pass on wisdom to the next generation. By choosing to create a videogame, they have harnessed a powerful medium to ensure this tradition continues.
*This post is part of the research notes for the Age Friendly Smart City project in Leeds. In the next phase we focus on storytelling.