In an era where conveying a message has become just as important to developers as building a game that’s fun to play, it’s surprisingly hard to find that one special game that does both equally well. Never Alone, a puzzle-platformer created by a brand new Alaskan game developer called Upper One Games, is just such a game. While primarily intended as a tool for transmitting cultural traditions to a generation of Iñupiat youth that has all but forgotten where it came from, it also serves as a gateway for players everywhere into a world that most of us didn’t even know existed. And despite some not-insignificant mechanical issues, it’s one of the best co-op experiences I’ve had in years.
Also known as Kisima Inŋitchuŋa, Never Alone is the story of Nuna, an Iñupiat child, and the arctic fox she befriends on her quest to find the source of a blizzard that has destroyed her village. Like all stories that live on through oral tradition, the journey of Nuna and her fox is full of embellishments: moments of impossibly good fortune explained as acts of divine providence; natural cataclysms passed off as the work of evil spirits. Between chapters, players are presented with an opportunity to learn more about the Iñupiat via brief, informative, and deeply nostalgic video clips featuring modern Iñupiat people talking about their lives, and the ways those lives have changed over the past fifty years due to the effects of global warming. And if you don’t give two flips about any of that, no problem: you can skip the cultural insights entirely and focus solely on the adventure at hand. You’d be missing half of what makes Never Alone so special, but nobody’s forcing to you learn anything here, which I’m sure some players will appreciate.
Set against the frozen, windswept landscapes of wild Alaska, Never Alone presents a stark yet stunning representation of life as it might have been for the Iñupiat people thousands of years ago. Gale force winds blow our characters to and fro. Icebergs drift between frozen shoals, cracking under the weight of a pursuing polar bear. Frosted cliffs shimmer green under the glow of the Northern Lights. The natural beauty of the backdrop makes for a uniquely compelling platforming adventure, too, with Nuna and her snow white companion working both against and with the natural world to reach the end of their journey. In single-player mode, players will have to switch frequently between Nuna and her fox; each character possesses a unique skillset, and certain challenges can only be overcome by taking control of a specific character. For instance, the fox can scramble up tall ice walls that Nuna couldn’t possible scale on her own, while Nuna’s bolo weapon can destroy large chunks of ice that sometimes block the duo’s progress. Occasionally, the AI stumbles: while it’s generally capable of navigating from one platform to the next, it sometimes idles when required to do anything more complicated than jumping. The camera, which is more or less locked on Nuna, proves an equally unreliable companion in single-player: players controlling the more agile fox will often find themselves walking off the edge of the screen, then forced to switch back to Nuna to allow the camera to catch up.
Neither of these minor annoyances exist during cooperative play, making Never Alone a profoundly better shared experience than a solo one. The moment-to-moment storytelling that’s unique to co-op play ties nicely into Iñupiat storytelling devices, making Never Alone feel almost like an evolution of an oral tradition that’s existed for thousands of years. After all, one of the main lessons Upper One Games hopes to impart with Never Alone is that we only get to exist in this world if we’re willing to exist in harmony with one another. I played through the game with my wife, and we haven’t played a game where we were this in sync with each other since Portal 2. Each new challenge we completed together felt like a reward for the unspoken understanding we share; each new hidden collectible we discovered like a re-affirmation of how well we work together. Unfortunately, that harmony can sometimes be interrupted by the game’s unreliable controls and inconsistent physics: even experienced players may find it difficult to control the skittish fox or navigate some of the game’s trickier platforming sections, simply because the characters don’t always do what they’re supposed to. Never Alone was a great experience during most of the five nights it took us to finish it together, but on a couple of occasions we threw in the towel early because our characters simply refused to behave.
It’s these occasional frustrations that reminded me that Never Alone was made by a brand new developer, and in the face of what is otherwise such a cohesive and magical experience, this lack of polish bummed me out a bit. On the other hand, Never Alone does something that very view pieces of so-called “edutainment” software have ever been able to pull off: it teaches without ever feeling like a lesson plan. And I, for one, am eager for more of that. Perhaps Upper One Games will find new stories to tell once it’s moved on from Never Alone; perhaps it won’t. Either way, I hope we continue to see more storytellers use games in ways we never considered before. Because if there’s one thing Never Alone teaches us, it’s that you don’t have to be deeply entrenched in the narrowly defined world of video games to give players a great experience: you just need to have a story to tell, and the drive to bring that story to life.
Invisible Gamer’s review of Never Alone is based on final Wii U review code provided to us by the developer. The Wii U version was released on Thursday, June 25th, 2015; the game was also released on PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One in November 2014.