Never Alone, video game, box art, Nuna, girl, Fox, ice, cold

Interview: Never Alone

We played many games at EGX but one that stood out was Never Alone. We reached out to Upper One Games for further details about this lovely platformer.


Title overview

Name: Never Alone
Developer: Upper One Games
Publisher: E-Line Media
Release date: November 2014
PEGI rating: 12
Platforms: PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One
More information: Official website

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Kim says…

You may have already read something about Never Alone recently in the press, as the game has received a lot of attention and is causing a bit of a stir across the internet. Inspired by a traditional Iñupiaq story called Kunuuksaayuka and featuring a young girl and a fox who must make their way through icy Arctic conditions, this puzzle-platformer promises to be one of the most beautiful and unique titles released this year – we can’t wait to get our hands on it once it is released next month.

A big thank you to Stu from Dead Good Media, and the teams from E-Line Media and Upper One Games, for taking the time out of their busy schedules to answer our questions.

How was the Upper One Games team formed and what made them decide to start making Never Alone?

“The original idea for a video game based upon Alaska Native culture actually started with the Cook Inlet Tribal Council (CITC), a leading provider of social, educational and employment services to Alaska Native people residing in the region.

CITC was pursuing three objectives: to create new sources of revenue through its for-profit subsidiary, CITC Enterprises, Inc. (CEI) in order to allow CITC to increase the level of opportunities offered to Alaska Native people and to become more self-sufficient as an organization; to help strengthen the connection between Native youth and their cultural heritage; and to celebrate and share Alaska Native cultures with new audiences around the world.

“After evaluating many different types of business investments, the leadership of CITC and CEI determined that creating a video game based on Alaska Native stories and culture could successfully accomplish these goals in an innovative and fun way.

“The CITC / CEI team conducted an extensive search of possible development partners. During that process, they met Alan Gershenfeld and Michael Angst, co-founders of E-Line Media, a company with a long history of creating games to educate, engage and empower. Together, CEI and E-Line realized there could be a great opportunity to combine expertise and create a compelling game based on Alaska Native culture.

CEI and E-Line worked together to help found Upper One Games, the first indigenous-owned game company in the United States, and E-Line established a development studio in Seattle to work together with Upper One Games and the Alaska Native community to create Never Alone.”

Are any of the team gamers themselves? If so, do they have any preferred genres or titles?

“There are more than forty people who have contributed to the design and development of the game. The core team members are spread between Alaska and E-Line’s Seattle studio and have backgrounds spanning film, the game industry, education, and community leadership.

“Collectively, the development team boasts many previous games credits, including Interstate 76, MechWarrior II, MechWarrior IV, Tomb Raider Legend, Tomb Raider Anniversary, the SOCOM games, Rage, Quake Live and Quake 4, among others.

“The team encompasses a very diverse taste in games, from traditional platformers to obscure indie experimental titles. However, love of great stories and great games seems to be a common thread across the various genres.”

Never Alone has received a lot of media attention recently and we got our hands on the game at EGX. How did you find the event, and is there any pressure because of the attention?

“We have been amazed and honored by the great reception that we’ve received for Never Alone at all the shows at which we’ve participated – from E3, where we were a Polygon.com Editors’ Choice Award winner, to PAX Prime where we were a Destructoid Editor’s Choice Award winner to the Tokyo Game Show where Never Alone was named Indie Sector Grand Prize Winner by 4Gamer.net and EGX where StickTwiddlers named Never Alone as Best Indie Game.

“It’s gratifying to know that the concept of inclusive development and goals of sharing and celebrating Alaska Native culture through a video game are being so well received. The response from both press and fans is really keeping the team inspired and motivated… the team realizes that we are building something very special and are committed to delivering a great game.”

The game tells the story of young Nuna, who is sent out into the cold Arctic to find food for her people. Can you tell us more about her story and the challenges she will face?

“As Nuna and Fox journey forth together, they will meet many characters from other traditional Alaska Native stories such as shapeshifters, Manslayer, and the Little People. Nuna and Fox will escape from deadly polar bears, be challenged to retrieve mystical artifacts and receive objects of power. They’ll interact with Helping Spirits and avoid the Aurora People who will try to carry the characters off into the aurora borealis.”

Has it been difficult to tell a time-honoured tale in a modern medium, and what can video games offer that traditional storytelling doesn’t?

“It has certainly been a fascinating project to bring traditional stories and characters that have been passed down orally for generations to the modern, and very different, medium of video games!

“Fortunately, the development team was able to work very closely with Alaska Native storytellers and elders to ensure that the key meanings and wisdom of the original stories were retained, even as the plot was adapted to the needs of the interactive game experience.

“For example, in consultation with key Alaska Native team members, the team decided to record all spoken narration in Iñupiaq with subtitles for the player’s specific language; we feel it’s important to actually hear the native language because the Iñupiat people passed their stories from generation to generation solely via the spoken word for thousands of years. The spoken Iñupiaq brings both authenticity and helps to connect the game to the traditions of the Iñupiat people, even as it introduces the stories and cultures to a global audience.

“We’ve also tried to express some of the core cultural values of Alaska Native people, such as interdependence, through gameplay. We’ve integrated that concept by featuring two unique characters, Nuna and Fox, each with special skills, who must work together and rely on each other to solve puzzles and progress through the game.

“We also believe that enabling two players to play cooperatively through the game helps to promote a personal connection and dialogue – we see players talking and laughing as they work together to advance. This delivers on another key cultural value whereby people can come together to build shared stories and experiences and pass wisdom down the the next generation.

“Via gameplay, players discover the wisdom and learning that are normally passed from one generation to the next through stories and players can also experience universal human themes that are focused in ways that help these indigenous people to survive their unique environments. Such games enable these indigenous peoples to share their stories with the world in a way that allows others to experience their unique culture in an authentic, engaging, and entertaining manner.”

he original Kunuuksaayuka story featured a young boy but Never Alone’s protagonist is an Iñupiaq girl. There has been a lot of discussion over the past year in connection with female characters in video games; what inspired this change and what effect do you think it has on the tale?

“Iñupiat stories are filled with both boys and girls, men and women. The narrative arcs of stories generally downplay character specifics, like gender, in order to focus on the important themes, knowledge and values that the story is communicating.

“We feel that girl characters have been underrepresented in gaming, particularly girl heroes who are powerful and can survive and overcome incredible challenges. Since many of the team members have daughters, we really wanted to create an inspirational role model that could show girls that they can succeed at anything they put their mind to.”

When we played the game at EGX, other puzzle-platformers such as LIMBO and Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons were brought to mind. Have any particular titles influenced the team’s work?

“The team has been inspired by examples from many media – from movies to music to games. In particular, we’ve been impressed with films such as Whale Rider which successfully integrate indigenous themes and culture into broadly appealing popular entertainment. Participant Media has also been successful in creating socially impactful films that are still appealing to broad audiences.

“In the music space, groups like Putamayo have been able to do an amazing job of curating music from indigenous and under-represented people and surfacing the best content to present to people who would otherwise never have the chance to explore these new genres and cultures.

“In the games space, we’ve been inspired by games that do a great job of presenting powerful worlds in elegant and unique ways. The team has loved games like LIMBO, Journey, Braid, Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, and is striving to create a title that can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with these great examples of craftsmanship.”

Whilst on her journey Nuna meets Fox, and together they must use their strengths to overcome the obstacles in their path – designed to emphasize the Inuit value of interdependence. Can you give us an example of how they will work together?

“Nuna and Fox each have different skills and abilities and must work together to overcome the challenges that they meet in their journey. For example, Nuna can push and pull objects, climb ropes and use a bola. Fox can scramble up walls and leap to reach areas that are inaccessible to Nuna.

“As an example, early in the game, Nuna and Fox face a steep ice wall. Nuna can’t climb the wall but Fox can scramble up. At the top of the wall is a rope; Fox can kick the rope into Nuna’s reach and she can use it to climb up and rejoin Fox at the top.

“As the player(s) progress through the game, the challenges become more complex and will require some careful thought about how the two characters can work together to solve the puzzles.”

The characters and environments in Never Alone are inspired by traditional Alaska Native art, and the game looks absolutely beautiful. Did you collaborate with any Alaska Native artists?

“The goal was to create this game with a very atmospheric, soft looking feel that captures Arctic beauty.

“Our Art Director, Dima Veryovka, worked together with Alaska Native artists and elders to study traditional Alaska Native art across many media, including carving, scrimshaw, masks, clothing and so forth. During this process, Dima really began to embrace the Iñupiat people’s philosophy and spirituality and to develop a style graphic style that is original, but at the same time reflected the Iñupiaq artistic vision.

“Initially, he draw all initial sketches in a bold, black and white style and then, as the design became clearer, developed the concepts further in 3D with more colors.

“The characters, themselves, were inspired by Arctic dolls. The team tried to give them a very authentic hand-crafted feel to make them as though sewn together using fur, skin and ivory. This approach really seemed to come to life as the characters were modeled in 3D with realistic materials like fur and skins.

“The overall look of the game was rendered using a lot of pastel, desaturated colors, which helped to create very moody, dreamlike visuals, while still portraying an authentic and believable Arctic world.”

The title has been described as one that fits into the ‘World Games’ genre. Can you share more about this concept?

Through Never Alone, we are striving to deliver a world-class game experience that builds upon the stories and culture of Alaska Native people. The game celebrates and shares Alaska Native culture with the world through game play.

“We believe that, through inclusive and participatory development, we can extend this model of games based on the traditional stories of unique human cultures to new stories, new cultures, and new types of game genres; Never Alone represents the first of what we hope will be many products in this exciting new category of entertainment (‘World Games’).”

Can you tell us which component of Never Alone is being worked on at the moment? How are the team feeling about its release next month?

“The team is in the final wrap-up stages of the game and is focusing on all the last minute polish needed to make the game great! The team is very excited for the 18 November release date!”

What does the future hold for Upper One Games?

“We believe that, through inclusive and participatory development, we can extend this model of games based on the traditional stories of unique human cultures to new stories, new cultures, and new types of game genres; Never Alone represents the first of what we hope will be many products in this exciting new category of entertainment (‘World Games’).”

Thank you again to Stu from Dead Good Media, and the teams from E-Line Media and Upper One Games, for taking the time out of their schedules to answer our questions. Never Alone is due to be released on PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One on 18 November 2014 – and we highly recommend you keep your eyes open for it.

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