I love what Never Alone (Kisima Ingitchuna) is setting out to do. It's a platform game - very simple, very traditional, presented in a lovely, misty way - about a young Iñupiat girl and an arctic fox. And at the same time, it's an attempt to communicate information about the Iñupiaq culture of Alaska. A preview version I've had my hands on contains the first three of nine chapters, giving a fair idea of how it all fits together.
Or indeed, how it doesn't quite fit together. Never Alone is unquestionably a charming game. It's relentlessly charming. It's cute, too. Charming and cute. The little girl you play, Nuna, is sweetly animated, and the arctic fox buddy is just a bundle of furry cuddle. They each have a huge array of lovely animations, giving them a lot of character without ever speaking a word. You would have to be an actual monster to not be warmed by them.
Alongside them are documentary clips containing filmed interviews with Iñupiat people of various generations, alongside film footage, archive footage, and photography (and, somewhat incongruously, game footage), exploring different aspects of Alaska Native life, history, and its future in a changing State, and changing climate. And these are really splendid - beautifully filmed, well put together. It's a subject about which I knew nothing, and even after just a third of the game, I feel informed and interested.
The linking factor between the two elements is the Iñupiaq emphasis on storytelling. It's explained in a few of the documentary clips (thirteen of them during the first three chapters) how crucial a part stories played and still play in the culture, and the intricate (and extraordinary) physical sculptures that were built to aid their telling. This game is, presumably, an attempt to replicate such a thing in a new way.
The problem for me, however, is that the two elements feel disjointed. As you play, occasionally you'll see an (incredibly adorable) owl take flight from the snow, which indicates a new video clip can be watched. As does a massive message appearing on screen telling you there's a new video clip to watch. Watch it, and it'll be tangentially related to what's happening in the game. At one point Nuna and the fox find themselves floating on an ice platform, and the video is of a young guy explaining how he, his older brother, and father, were once trapped on a drifting ice platform. Being chased by a polar bear is accompanied by a very appealing memory from a woman explaining how her older brother had raised a polar bear cub after killing its mother. But it remains the case that you're either playing a very, very simple side-scrolling platformer, or watching a video. The transition between them isn't smooth. For me, they didn't quite feel a part of the same thing. And perhaps most importantly, the story being told in the platform section doesn't quite live up to the comparisons with "Hollywood blockbusters" as one video describes the effects of being told a tale by a Iñupiat storyteller. Instead it's just, well, nice enough.
Of course, I've only seen the first third, and it could go anywhere in the second two thirds. For that first part, it's a very gentle tale of the girl and fox running from the left to the right, and jumping a lot. There are mystical creatures that appear in the sky to help them reach awkward platforms, a weapon to throw at ice and polar bear bottoms, and the mischief of strange little creatures ("little people", similar to Iceland's Huldufólk) to avoid. You can play as either Nuna or the fox, and the other will follow until a special obstacle blocks their path. Then you need to switch between them to get them both to progress, occasionally having them work together. And as I said, it's charming, while not offering any real challenge so far. That may well be yet to come.
At the moment it feels like it makes more sense to play the sweet little platform game, and then sit and watch the full 40 minute documentary in one go. Which you can do. I'd much prefer to see a more seamless way to weave them together, something that makes more sense. Although I'm not sure what that would be, and I'm not sure that'll happen between now and its November release date.
But let's approach it from another angle. As a project that combined game developers and Alaska Native elders and storytellers, it could have ended up being an oh-so-worthy piece of "edutainment", and that absolutely hasn't happened here. The game is by no means something thrown together to justify the message, but rather a lovely piece of indie platforming, and the documentary is beautifully presented, reminding me of the exquisite filming from the This American Life TV series. I hope there will be film clips to come in the full game that explore the negatives of the culture and hunter-gatherer lifestyle too - so far it's a little bit too dreamy-eyed. But both halves, even though they're in halves, are looking strong.
The game comes out on the 18th November, published by E-Line Media. The Steam page is here.