The first of its kind, a video game rooted in Alaska Native culture is set for release next month.
Never Alone (Kisima Ingitchuna) is a one- to two-player puzzle-platform game. Set in the harsh and beautiful northern Arctic, it follows a girl named Nuna and her Arctic fox companion as they try to figure out what’s causing the endless blizzard that’s impacting her people’s village.
Designed for Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and personal computers, the game will be available for download Nov. 18. Alaska kids got a sneak peek of it this week as part of the 2014 Elders and Youth Conference at the Dena’ina Civic and Convention Center, the 30th annual gathering of Alaska Natives from around the state.
Sixth-grader Piccola Ferguson of Togiak was one of those kids. Tuesday afternoon, she sat in a bulky, black chair at a demo station for the game at the Dena’ina Center, eyes glued to a flat-screen TV as her fingers mashed buttons on an Xbox controller. On the screen, Nuna and the fox hopped from ice floe to ice floe.
Piccola’s mother, Anna May Ferguson, sat nearby, allowing her 11-year-old daughter to try her hand at the game for a few minutes before they moved on to other booths. Ferguson says she doesn’t typically like for her children to play video games. She prefers they play something they can learn from. This game, however, seems different, she says.
Never Alone is a game that’s meant to be fun, but it was also created to promote an understanding of Alaska Native culture, said Eric Watson, a village liaison with the Cook Inlet Tribal Council (CITC). He got involved with the game early on and helped run the demo station at the conference.
“It’s spoken in 100 percent Iñupiaq, so we’re promoting language,” Watson said. Iñupiaq is the language of the Iñupiat people, whose traditional lands are north of the Arctic Circle. Subtitles in English and other languages are also available. “There’s cultural insights in the game, which is unlockable content.”
Those insights, about 40 minutes in all, come as snippets that are spread throughout the game. They describe what went into making Never Alone and offer cultural information, such as the significance of the spirits in the game, Watson said.
Never Alone also offers a new revenue stream for CITC through their for-profit subsidiary. CITC provides support to 10,000-12,000 Alaska Natives and American Indians per year, said CITC President and CEO Gloria O’Neill in a speech at a pre-launch event for the game Monday night at the Hard Rock Cafe in downtown Anchorage.
“This is truly going to be a game changer for CITC and our mission moving forward,” she said to an audience that included community stakeholders and people who were integral in developing the game.
Years ago, CITC staff racked their brains to come up with a way to make the nonprofit more self-sufficient.
“We’re very dependent on grant funding and it’s not always reliable,” said Watson, adding that CITC researched everything from funeral homes to real estate as possibilities for additional income.
The idea of a video game came up and they ran with it, forming Upper One Games in 2012 — the first indigenous-owned game company in the U.S. It was an out-of-the-box concept that could offer an opportunity to educate Native youth about their culture and teach on an international platform, Watson said.
Upper One Games pitched their idea to E-Line Media, and the company agreed to team up with Upper One Games. E-Line CEO Michael Angst says he initially tried to talk them out of the idea.
“Very few organizations have been successful with trying to meld a mission with a game,” he said. Never Alone, however, has defied the odds because of the persistence and patience of the people involved, Angst said.
Now, after two-plus years of exhausting work, the game is a reality. At the Monday pre-launch event, Sean Vesce, creative director for Never Alone, said working on this game has been a transformative process. It involved many trips to Anchorage and a couple journeys to Barrow. While in the most northernmost city in the U.S., game developers visited schools and met with people in the community to get feedback on a prototype of the game.
“The amount of personal growth that I and the development team have had working on something as important as this … we really felt throughout the entire development that we had a duty of responsibility to a community, which is very different from traditional games where you’re working on fictional universes and you’re working for big publishers,” Vesce said.
For Never Alone, the E-Line Media team had to immerse themselves in a long-established culture. Vesce described trying muktuk and observing a whale harvest as some of the standout moments from his trips to Barrow. He also spent many hours reading up on Native culture and history and was struck by the people of the Arctic northwest, O’Neill said.
In addition to learning about the culture, involving Native elders like James Nageak of Anaktuvuk Pass was an integral part of making Never Alone.
Nageak — who started the Iñupiaq program at University of Alaska Fairbanks years ago when he was a student — transcribed and translated the story used in the game. He is also the narrator in Never Alone and traveled to Seattle to spend time at the E-Line studios there.
CITC and E-Line Media say they hope this is a first in a new genre of “world games,” which bring stories from indigenous cultures from around the globe to life.
“If it is successful, we would love to do a sequel, we would love to highlight other cultures in Alaska, but then we’ve also been contacted from a more global audience,” Watson said.
Never Alone will be sold for $14.99. Click here to learn more about the game.