Never Alone was one of those games that sort of just appeared one day for me. Running this site, I try to keep up with everything that I can and I have a general idea of what is being released from week to week. Then at some point last week while browsing the PlayStation Network, I noticed Never Alone sitting there amidst all of the new first-person shooters and racing games, almost by itself while still in the middle of a group of new releases. The cover image on the store intrigued me, so I clicked on it and looked through a few screenshots. I was drawn in by how it looked, and figured I would give it a try.
Never Alone is somewhat of an experiment in storytelling. It isn’t the first game that has ever attempted something like this, but it is one of the better examples of using a particular folklore and culture as the basis for storytelling and gameplay in a game. Thematically, the game uses the elements of an arctic landscape to add new layers to the story and personify a bit of the character’s journey within the harsh winter she faces. Between chapters in the game, the story is embellished by animation that takes the form of Native Alaskan artwork. A huge focus of this game is its connections and roots within the Iñupiaq stories and lore. Throughout the game, you will unlock new “insights” which provide some cultural context to what is occurring within the game and why it is significant to the stories that this culture has passed down for generations.
You play as Nuna, an Iñupiaq girl who is joined for her adventure by an arctic fox. The game can be played cooperatively or alone, by toggling between characters in order to solve puzzles. Gameplay here is pretty straightforward, involving sidescrolling platforming and some puzzle-solving elements. As Nuna, you will run, jump, and climb through the different stages within the game. Eventually, Nuna will equip a bola that she will use to break apart ice and other structures to open up paths within the level. The fox has a connection to the spirits, which allow him to call upon invisible platforms and make them something tangible for Nuna to utilize. He can also guide where these platforms travel, in order to allow Nuna to reach new heights or areas. The game never provides any sort of significant challenge, save for a few times when the game’s mechanics get in the way of themselves. There are a few sequences within the game where Nuna and the fox are being chased, and in these instances precision is key. The difficulty with precision is the floaty nature of the fox’s controls, specifically so in the latter half of the game. Calling upon those invisible platforms and moving them about under pressure takes some finesse and fine timing, something that is not inherent in the design of this game’s control scheme. When I found myself running into difficulty in a certain section, I became frustrated because I knew I was doing what I needed to do but the game was working against me in those moments. For a game that is reliant on story and places gameplay second, I feel that before the story can become primary there should have been a strong foundation in its gameplay. If the story is what the developers want me to see, let me see it and not have to fight with the game to do so.
What Never Alone will be remembered for is its story and not its innovation in gameplay. Largely, it takes systems that have been utilized before and combines them in a way that makes sense for the storytelling. Because this story is compiled from a number of Iñupiaq stories, and because those stories tend to follow a traditional style of storytelling there is no big surprise ending or moment of revelation. There are moments in the game that provided me with genuine emotion, be it heartbreak or tension or elation. I really enjoyed following the two along their journey and watching how it all played out. Along with the story progression, the world within changed to provide new backgrounds that were at times mesmerizing. The way that the sky would change, add in the aurora borealis, or drop you beneath the surface of the ocean was executed exceptionally well. I never felt tired of one area and the game’s pace continued to leave me wanting just a bit more out of each area. Conversely, I feel that the game wrapped up in just the right amount of time. Not to say that I don’t want more of what I played, but I really think that this is one of those cases where the game never overstays its welcome and it gives you what you need out of it in just the right amount of time.
I hope that as we continue forth in this generation of gaming, with everything that it may bring us, that more developers are willing to experiment a little bit with this style of game. I commend the developers for trying something new in game storytelling and for having enough confidence to release a game that counters a lot of what these new consoles advertise. I also love that the game can be completed in one nice sitting, acting more like an interactive movie than a game in some places. I really like Never Alone and I wish there were more games like this that I could spend an evening with.