Never Alone held exciting prospects for me, partially because I’ve enjoyed indigenous folklore as long as I can remember.
When I was a kid back in the seventies, the small, country school I attended had a library tucked along one wall of its gymnasium/cafeteria. Amidst the usual assortment of grade-school texts, the library also offered stories on microfilm. Each film was accompanied by an audio tape that provided narration, music and sound effects.
African folktales were my favorite. I recall one in particular that depicted masked demons dancing out of a forest at night. Now, our school was bordered by a forest. This scene terrified me. I’m pretty sure it gave me nightmares.
In short, I loved it. I watched it over and over again.
So when I heard about Never Alone, it brought back fond memories of fantastic stories full of strange creatures and unlikely heroes. Sadly, while the game is visually appealing, Never Alone never quite lives up to its promise or potential.
Stories are important to me. My love of a good story is the reason I play any game, watch any film, or read any book. Games have become my favorite storytelling medium, though some people insist on questioning their capacity, even their very ability, to tell stories.
(For those who may not know: Every time someone says, “Games can’t tell stories,” Link loses a heart, Lara Croft falls into a bottomless abyss, or a cute little arctic fox is eaten by a polar bear.)
Never Alone’s authors seemed to understand this potential. Here was a small group of people setting out to do something unconventional and ambitious. Having recognized the power of games to tell stories, a council representing multiple indigenous Alaskan tribes set out to make a game, one that would help them bridge a generational gap and pass on their stories to their children and grandchildren.
A Fun, Light Platformer
Overall, Never Alone isn’t a bad game. It certainly stands out in regard to its visuals. While the game’s controls are mostly adequate, there are a few areas where glitches and inconsistencies can lead to frequent, frustrating retries.
Never Alone lives up to its title—though maybe not quite in the intended way— in that it’s most enjoyable as a co-op game. The asymmetry between the characters of Nuna and Fox provide twice the fun. Each character plays a different role in surmounting obstacles, and it’s fun to be able to switch between the two.
As expected, Never Alone tells a different kind of story than many narrative games. I particularly enjoyed the indigenous artistry that appears in the form of various spirits who assist Nuna and Fox. These unusual characters seem benevolent, but are strange and numinous enough to evoke feelings of uncertainty and caution.
I loved the way Never Alone kept its storytelling well-rooted in its cultural origins. The voice of the narrator we hear isn’t an actor reading a script, but is a member of the tribe recalling a story that has been passed down through the generations.
All the same, I have to break with the generally enthusiastic praise the game has received. While Never Alone was a good game, it wasn’t the great game I’d hoped for. Worse, I don’t think it was the game its creators set out to make.
Disjointed Story and Gameplay
Never Alone’s story was interesting enough in its own right, but it failed to use the medium of games to its full effect. Guiding Nuna and Fox through the snow and over chasms while listening to someone tell a story does nothing to connect us directly to that story or its characters.
The separation of play from story is heightened by the short documentary clips that players can unlock. By augmenting a light game so heavily with short films, it suggests the authors were divided in their approach. Worse, it suggests the game is really just an enticement and not the primary medium.
A lack of player connection through gameplay persists throughout the experience. When we see Nuna’s village burned, it’s sad, but it’s not tragic because, at that point, we don’t yet have any connection to her tribe. What if we had instead helped to feed or clothe Nuna’s family earlier in the game?
Similarly, when the game’s antagonist heartlessly kills Fox, the moment’s sharp emotions are too quickly dampened by Fox’s reappearance as a spirit that looks like a young boy in a white hoodie. I can’t help but think it would have been better to let Nuna wander by herself for a time before rediscovering her lost companion. Doing so would have had the double-effect of heightening the joy of their reunion while also emphasizing the explicit theme in the game’s title.
Contrast this with “Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons”. That game told an archetypal story, one that was virtually indistinguishable from a thousand other tales. Yet Brothers used game controls in such an engaging way that, at its emotional climax, I was experiencing the story anew. That all-too common tale, told in a profoundly new way, brought me to tears.
Never Alone’s authors had a worthwhile ambition in using video games to convey their culture to a new generation by telling old stories in a new medium. Unfortunately, that goal was eclipsed by Never Alone’s gorgeous visuals.
Nuna and Fox are adorable. More than that, they were rendered in such detail and so fluidly animated that I found myself thinking only about their artistry, leaving the colder, technical questions of framerates and polygon counts far behind.
The same could be said of the lush, wintry environment. Never has so much ice and snow looked so warmly inviting.
But that raises a key point: one wonders whether it makes sense to soften scenery in a game intended to convey the culture of a people who have endured and learned to thrive in the face of such harsh, inhospitable conditions.
To be clear, I’m not saying that Never Alone’s authors should have done one specific thing or another. Rather, it’s worth asking if the results serve their intended goals of connecting a younger generation with their ancestral heritage and values.
If the game’s purpose was to lead players in a light, playful romp through the snow, then yes, the game was a resounding success.
From everything I’ve seen and read, that just wasn’t the intent.