Q&A: Never Alone Brings Alaska Native Culture to Life

Posted August 22nd, 2014 at 2:00 pm (UTC-4)
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Never Alone traces its roots to a native Alaskan tale of an Inupiaq village besieged by an unrelenting blizzard – until a young hero comes to its rescue.

The idea surfaced while Alaska’s Cook Inlet Tribal Council (CITC), which provides social, educational and employment services in the Cook Inlet region, evaluated new revenue sources, fresh opportunities, and ways to inspire indigenous people to connect with their traditions and history. They settled on a video game – the first made by Alaska natives.

What followed was a partnership between CITC, E-Line Media, a company that makes video games to educate and empower, and dozens of elders, storytellers, cultural ambassadors, historians and youth from Alaska’s native communities who came together to breathe life into the project.

Amy Fredeen, CITC’s Lead Cultural Ambassador, and Alan Gershenfeld, Co-Founder and President of E-Line Media, shed more light on Never Alone in an email interview with TECHtonics.

Q. What genre is the game and what story does it tell?

A screenshot of Nuna and the fox, from Never Alone (E-Line Media)

A screenshot of Nuna and an Arctic fox, from Never Alone, a game that explores the fantastical world of Inupiaq stories to help a young girl save her people. (E-Line Media)

E-LINE: We describe this game as an atmospheric puzzle platformer. It starts with classic platform running and jumping, adds a second controllable character with very distinct abilities, and then layers in creative puzzles that require both characters to work together to progress.

FILE - A handout photo shows the Inupiaq Eskimo village of Noorvik in Western Alaska. (Reuters)

FILE – A handout photo shows the Inupiaq Eskimo village of Noorvik in Western Alaska. (Reuters)

The game is set in the harsh, but beautiful, world of the northern Arctic where the environment becomes as much a part of the game as the characters. The presentation is evocative, using traditional Inupiaq art and design to inform the landscape, lighting, level and characters.

The main narrative arc of the game is anchored upon the traditional Inupiaq story “Kunuuksaayuka” [phonetically Koo-nook-sah-yooka]; and the team worked directly with Minnie Gray, the Inupiaq elder whose father was first recorded telling the story, to ensure that the key themes, plot and messages of the story are accurately reflected in the game design.

At its heart, the Kunuuksaayuka story is about an endless blizzard that is laying waste to a village, preventing the people from hunting or gathering food. One young protagonist finally decides to brave the blizzard to try to find its source and bring balance back to nature.

… Many important elements of the game [characters, art, environments, themes, etc] have also been based on and inspired by additional traditional Alaska Native stories, folklore and cultural perspectives.

Q. What’s the difference between this game and what you normally produce?

E-LINE: Creating a game like Never Alone is very different than traditional game development! Never Alone comes from an inclusive development and publishing process.

… Prior to beginning any core development work, the team met regularly with Alaska Native elders and storytellers to discuss how Inupiaq culture, stories and art could fit into a video game structure. Together, the stakeholders selected the traditional story “Kunuuksaayuka” as the narrative arc for the game and the team worked directly with the Inupiaq elder most closely associated with the story to ensure that the game captured the most important messages and themes.

… Alaska Native team members continue to participate collaboratively on all aspects of development. Much as the game development team members needed to immerse themselves into Alaska Native culture, the Alaska Native team members had to immerse themselves into the culture and world of video games.

The game has been developed around the key themes of interdependence, resiliency and inter-generational exchange which are core themes of Alaska Native cultures, a collection of cultures that have evolved to ensure survival in one of the harshest environments on earth. Our deep collaboration with the Alaska Native community is at the core of the development – there is no way that we could successfully help these stories come alive without the communities’ active participation in all key decisions around the game’s development and publishing.

Q. Why Native American culture?  Why not African or Asian?

E-LINE: … We know that there are a huge number of cultures around the world with great story-telling traditions, including both African and Asian cultures as well as North and South American indigenous cultures.

We believe that, through inclusive and participatory development, we can extend this model of games based on the traditional stories of unique human cultures to new stories, new cultures, and new types of game genres; Never Alone represents the first of what we hope will be many products in this exciting new category of entertainment (“World Games”).

Q. Does the game let players face cultural and racial dilemmas?

E-LINE: The game takes the form of a telling of the Kunuuksaayuka story by an Inupiaq storyteller – all spoken narration is actually in the Inupiaq language. While the storyteller relates the tale, the player becomes the main characters, a young Inupiaq girl and an Arctic fox, and brings the story to life through game play.

Because the team desired to immerse the player in the world of traditional Alaska Native stories, the world is completely based on those stories and Alaska Native culture.

Morris Oviok performs with the Tikigiq Traditional Dancers from Point Hope, Alaska during the Potlach festival in the remote Inupiaq Eskimo village Noorvik, Alaska, Jan 25, 2010. (AP)

Morris Oviok performs with the Tikigiq Traditional Dancers from Point Hope, Alaska during the Potlach festival in the remote Inupiaq Eskimo village Noorvik, Alaska, Jan 25, 2010. (AP)

We also  add a layer of depth by including a number of special, unlockable cultural “Insights” – short video vignettes recorded by members of the community that provide additional perspective and explanation on aspects of the Arctic world touched on by the game. Some of these Insights do address some of the challenges of maintaining a traditional culture and way of life in an environment that is modernizing and changing with incredible speed.

Q. What audience is Never Alone for?

E-LINE: Never Alone has not been developed specifically for the Native American demographic. It … is being designed to appeal to all gamers across generations – from younger players to adults who grew up with classic console platform games, and as something they might play together.

… We believe that Never Alone can celebrate and share Alaska Native cultures through game play with an audience who might otherwise never have been exposed to the rich storytelling and artistic traditions of the Arctic.

… We hope that the experience opens a gateway of inspiration for players to seek out new stories, new peoples, and new cultures that they might not have considered before playing Never Alone.

Q.  Do you see a potential for this game to parry moral choices as it entertains?

E-LINE: … The greatest stories and the stories that have survived being handed down from generation to generation are those that address universal human themes; these themes often involve moral choices.

We expect games that explore the great stories from indigenous cultures will reflect the moral choices that are core to the story, particularly when the people of that culture are involved in the development and publishing of the game! This is what inclusive development is all about – to ensure that the important themes, wisdom and teaching of the stories are authentically translated into the game experience.

And we hope that by playing a really fun, inclusively developed World Game, players will naturally absorb some of the important themes and elements of the story and feel a closer connection to the people behind the game.

Aida Akl
Aida Akl is a journalist working on VOA's English Webdesk. She has written on a wide range of topics, although her more recent contributions have focused on technology. She has covered both domestic and international events since the mid-1980s as a VOA reporter and international broadcaster.

One response to “Q&A: Never Alone Brings Alaska Native Culture to Life”

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