Never Alone

footage courtesy of Virtual Gaming Library

The main storytelling conceit of Never Alone (Kisima Ingitchuna) is that the narrative is being told to you, the player, by an unseen narrator. As you control Nuna, a young girl from the Iñupiaq tribe, through a beautifully-designed (if mechanically familiar) 2D puzzle game, the real narrative depth comes external to the actual gameplay. Developed in a collaboration between Upper One Games and Iñupiaq cultural ambassadors, the project was designed, in part, as an exploration of the linkages between oral folklore and videogame storytelling. A partial-retelling of the traditional myth “Kunuuksaayuka,” an omniscient narrator “tells” the game’s story aloud in the Iñupiaq language as the player-controlled character progresses through a series of levels drawing from indigenous traditions of narrative and visual art. The game was released in 2014 to critical acclaim both inside and outside the world of gaming, with academic and popular sources alike commenting on its atmospheric level design and ability to stride the line between educational games and appealing to a more popular audience.

Still, the ways in which the game diverged mechanically from the conventions of both its genre (“arty” puzzle games) and gaming as a whole raises deeper questions about the role of storytelling and what it means to “play” a game. While there is a narrative to Never Alone, much of its thematic complexity comes not from the gameplay itself but in the form of video footage “unlocked” after each chapter, using a combination of animation and real-world imagery to supplement the barebones, folkloric story. This is where the input of the Iñupiaq elders and cultural ambassadors are seen the most, pushing back against the gameplay-emphasizing conventions of game design to ensure that the game was not merely “using” Iñupiaq aesthetics but rather engaging wholeheartedly with the culture. This formal choice understandably divided fans and critics, many of whom felt that having “collectibles” that existed external to the game world to be a confusing design decision.

Playing Never Alone nearly a decade after the fanfare surrounding its release, it’s clear that for all the rightfully-positive reception to its art direction and cultural significance, it’s construction as a game meant to be played and enjoyed has not held up in the same way. Even for early-2000s independent games, the controls are choppy, the game is short, and regardless of one’s feelings about the video portions, the narrative is undoubtably unconventional. But despite these flaws, the questions Never Alone raises about the non-linear storytelling traditions are undoubtedly important. In his article “Native/American Digital Storytelling,” Timothy Powell defines the “radiant textuality” of non-literary mediums, such as oral folklore or the world wide web. Powell writes that despite the postmodern associations of internet media contrasting with the way we view the oral tradition as belong to the past, these radiant textualities are alike in how they’re able to “instantaneously [deliver] the viewer across spatial and temporal distances” (Powell et al. 16). Whether that transportation comes in the form of a digital hyperlink or the interpersonal relationships that underscore the iterative performance of an oral story is less important than the understanding that these frontiers of media, new and old, outline new ways to encounter stories that push back against and complicate Western notions of linear written literature.

Depending on the intention of designers, contemporary narrative-focused video games can take on aspects of both the literary– scripted quests in role-playing games are a notable example – and the iterative, “radiant” oral tradition. Never Alone, uniquely, incorporates elements of both. While many of the “gamey” aspects of Never Alone – its level design and puzzle mechanics – fit a scripted model of interactive game storytelling, the real depth comes in the way its video portions, hyperlinks of sort, flesh out its connections to the oral. Beyond just adapting folklore into a game, the way Never Alone turns its narrative and cultural knowledge into an “unlockable” currency is a design choice that embraces the radiant textuality of the oral tradition in function, form, and content. One way to think about the mechanics of Never Alone is to divide them into two broad groups: the “radiant” ones that enrich it’s ambitious, abstract narrative and the linear, “scripted” ones that make the game itself familiar to players yet often undermine the narrative. Understanding both the merits of each, but also how they clash from an audience standpoint, is indicative of how the true narrative capacity of games lies beyond safe scripted design choices and instead embraces the recursive, iterative shape of myth.

Video game scholars have drawn the connection between Never Alone’s video portions and the “collect-a-thon” game design of platformers such as Super Mario 64 (NWCP). But while past collection-heavy games have created incentives to explore and unlock collectibles in the form of extra levels or easter eggs, the reward for progressing through Never Alone’s video section lies external to the universe of the game itself – real world cultural knowledge. This is a design choice that hasn’t really been reckoned with in the realm of games scholarship – most models of why players keep playing games they like are centered in immersion, control, and challenge, not cultural education (Sweetser and Wyeth 5). In fact, scholars have often pointed out that traditionally educational games have been unpopular for exactly that reason. The closest thing in the academic discourse to explaining why some players connected with the video sections of Never Alone is Sweetser and Wyeth’s definition of “social interaction” – that the emotions being felt inside the game world will connect to communities that exist or can be carried over external to the game (Sweetser and Wyeth 7). Yet for most players, the communities seen in Never Alone’s video portions will never be encountered again once the game is finished, so besides simplistic explanations of “empathy” or “curiosity,” it’s necessary to look beyond the field of gaming theory for why the video sections work the way they do.

One explanation of why players connect to the video section goes back to the ideas in Native studies about radiant textuality. In her article “Wampum as Hypertext,” Angela Haas explores how indigenous traditions had embraced non-linear information exchange long before the internet’s rise. She describes the east coast tribes’ tradition of wampum belts as “compression of information” that, unlike Western-style written history, allowed for interactivity (Haas 81). And while in some ways the function of wampum belts – as ledgers, histories, and contracts – differ greatly from the recreational way contemporary players interact with videogames, I can see explicit connections between Never Alone’s video sections and how Haas describes wampum’s coded use of physical “nodes.” Haas writes that “like color is used in Western visual design to signify certain moods for readers, the color usage of wampum reminds its ‘reader’ how to organize and read the story woven into the material rhetoric” (Haas 86). Similar to how material and color signal a code that unlocks the wampum’s “message,” the cultural markers defined in Never Alone’s video sections give insight that complicates and adds nuance to the barebones puzzle-game narrative. Everything from characters to folklore to even the material elements of the game (such as why Nona’s cloak is significant) are elaborated on in the video sections, granting players cultural insight that isn’t essential to finishing the game yet allows for a much deeper experience. In a way, the experience of watching these videos – “hyperlinked” out of the game engine into something less immersive yet more educational – serves the same purpose as lore that be discovered by reading optional texts in role-playing games, except in the case of Never Alone any “world building” is done not inside the game world but rather in the world we, as players, exist in. So, while these video sections are decidedly “radiant” in the way they point players’ attention towards something external to the completion of the game, this design choice actually reinforces the themes of the game’s “literary” portions, too – that the insight “unlocked” by allowing yourself to stop playing and experience the video sections makes the game’s ending that much more fulfilling.

One of Never Alone's puzzle rooms

Despite the exciting possibilities opened up by Never Alone’s approach to narrative, the parts of the game that are more indebted to traditional video game structure – connected, I argue written, “scripted,” literary culture – often inhibit player enjoyment. While Never Alone had a lot to say, many critics still felt that the video game medium wasn’t the best place to say them. Major criticism of the game in the popular media were of its pacing – the way the video sections interrupted the flow of gameplay – that the gameplay was clunky enough that it seemed to almost be an afterthought. The general sentiment here, even among players who were interested in and emotionally connected to the video sections, is that the back-and-forth of the “hyperlinked” videos was jarring and that interrupted the forward momentum of the “main” narrative.

Again, I connect this criticism back to the ideas about hypertext that both Powell and Haas have defined as existing distinct from the linear, written, literary tradition. Radiant texts – be it folklore, repeated and revised over generations, or video games, especially ones which emphasize exploration and experimentation – thrive in part because there is no correct order to them. The act of experiencing a non-linear story, the differences between your version and someone else’s, is essential. Puzzle games like Never Alone, however, are among the few genres in which there has to be a finite number of correct paths to completion, frequently only one. Never Alone’ conceits to the puzzle game genre – being trapped in “puzzle rooms,” having to mess around with interactive environments and gameplay physics to, eventually, find the (singular) solution – run opposite to the radiant textuality of its narrative. Games, at least commercial ones, need to have beginnings, middles, and ends, difficulty spikes and gameplay rewards. Pointing out that Never Alone’s formal design seems to punish player interest in its narrative choices is less a criticism of its mechanical design than of the larger choice to make it a puzzle game in the first place. Certainly, a sandbox-type, exploration-based game – less focused on progression than engaging with the world – would lend itself better to a radiant narrative. Of course, there are explanations as for why this isn’t the case – that those types of games tend to cost more to make and sell less, for one. Yet since one of the few universally agreed upon truisms of both media and native studies is that form always influences function, it’s puzzling as to why Never Alone’s designers chose genre constraints that actively worked against the exciting prospects of the game’s narrative.

Still, whether or not Never Alone “works” as a game is beside the point. Especially as a project with so much media scrutiny because of the way it forefronted Native experience, Never Alone is a really interesting cultural artifact that says a lot about both the narrative capacity of games and the way that non-literary storytelling traditions, often written off as belonging to the past, are increasingly relevant in the digital world. Going back to Galen Brokaw’s ideas about breaking down the intellectual division between oral and literary culture, games like Never Alone prove that the radiant models of storytelling so attractive in the gaming world are indebted less to traditional Western ideas of media than might be expected. Especially since the Native “content” of Never Alone’s story underscores the way it is told, it’s clear that games which embrace complex non-linear storytelling are perfect examples of polygraphy in the contemporary world. Rather than get bogged down by the semantic debates around “literary culture” that Brokaw criticizes, it’s exciting that the new media of video games has led to a cognitive, or at the very least artistic, revolution that has developers looking both to the future and the past in pursuit of the next step in storytelling.