Sunday, August 02, 2015

Tech: Never Alone

When I was a kid, the only way a video game could be "educational" is if it asked you trivia questions: solve this equation, name the capital of Paraguay, state when was the Battle of Gettysburg. Now, some good games came out of that approach (I still have fond memories of the "Carmen Sandiego" series), but it always felt a bit didactic and artificial.

I'm pretty sure my eight year-old self would have loved "Never Alone":

Created in partnership with the Cook Inlet Tribal Council, "Never Alone" is a puzzle-platformer about Nuna, a young girl on a quest to find the source of a mysterious blizzard threatening her village. With her Arctic fox spirit animal, whom you can switch to at any time (a second player can also control the fox), you must lead Nuna through a series of gorgeous Alaskan environments while avoiding both real and fantastical hazards.

Everything in "Never Alone" is steeped in the culture of the Iñupiat people. The overall story comes from a native Alaskan folktale, of course, but most of the gameplay elements are grounded in the heritage of the Iñupiat, too. The enemies, the spirit animal mechanics, and even the levels draw inspiration from indigenous experiences.

For instance, early on in the game, you find mystical bolas. The bolas are a traditional weapon used by the Inuit peoples to hunt birds (the game gives you the option to play a "Cultural Insight" movie clip, with real-life footage and interviews of native people using bolas). From then on, you use the bolas to hit airborne "spirit targets" brought to you by your fox companion, and to crack spots of fragile ice high above your head. It's an interesting and effective way to teach people about the Iñupiat culture, since it allows them to experience it firsthand instead of quizzing them on it.  

Viewed strictly as a puzzle-platformer, "Never Alone" is only okay - it's short, the controls are sometimes a hindrance, and there are several harsh trial-and-error challenges near the end that get old fast. Still, "Never Alone" takes you on a journey through another world, which is all I can ask a game to do.

Rating: 80/100


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