There are seven billion people on this planet, and despite the internet shrinking this pale blue dot smaller than ever before, there are few experiences which truly unite us. However, one thing to which all of us can relate is the love of a pet, and 2014 puzzle platformer Never Alone (also known as Kisima Inŋitchuŋa) by Upper One Games highlighted exactly how important it can be.
Never Alone is based on the Inupiaq tale Kunuuksaayuka, and blends together puzzles, platform hopping, and atmospheric storytelling in a short but powerful adventure. In it, you play as an Inupiaq girl, Nuna, accompanied by her arctic fox as she wanders through the Alaskan tundra. The developers, Upper One Games, were the first video game company owned and run by indigenous people of the USA, a notable point that was much discussed at the time of the game’s release.
Through its educational videos and confidence in its narrative, Never Alone felt like it had put down a marker for indigenous inclusion and visibility in the video game industry, and won well-earned praise. To congratulate it for including indigenous people (or worse, simply congratulate ‘them’ for having made a video game) misses the point though. It shows a shallow understanding of the game at best, and a patronizing outlook at worst. Though Never Alone clearly owes a lot to Inupiaq folklore, and the input of actual Inupiaq developers was crucial to its success, the scope of the game goes way beyond that fact.
Poland and its folklore clearly had an impact on The Witcher III, but nobody shears Geralt of the game’s thematic complexity to debate the merits of his Polishness. Likewise, the slow and haunting feel of Never Alone deserves to be appreciated without the need to cede its spotlight to the background of Upper One Games. It’s a fantastic, moving game in its own right, and deserves to be held up as a great game without any caveats or additional strings.
Animals are, after all, universal creatures. Though the arctic fox may be a pet exclusive to extremely cold climes, there are few corners of the globe where the companionship of a pet is not cherished. We have all been Nuna at various points in our lives.
Pets can keep us going. Pets are always there for us. Nuna faces various adversities across the game, but her fox remains, stalwart and loyal. We might not have had Nuna’s experiences, but we’ve all come home to our pets after a bad day. They’re there for us after a break up. After your parents get divorced. After a loved one dies. They’re always there for us. We’re never alone.
This all links to the game’s key theme, one which cannot be separated from the Inupiaq influence, although it deserves to be appreciated in isolation. Never Alone is ultimately about the transfer of wisdom and guidance. Told as an oral tale, the repeated rhythm of the story focuses on the ways knowledge is passed down from generation to generation. This though is mere surface level, used to keep the structure of the story solid. It’s also about what we can learn from nature, and what the land can teach us about how to survive. Never Alone lacks the traditional enemies of platformers, instead showing Nuna overcoming and understanding her environment, not as a thing to be defeated, but a land to be known more fully.
This is where pets come back into the equation, because both Nuna and her fox must teach the other various skills in order to make it out together. The fox couldn’t make it through the storm without Nuna, but likewise, Nuna relies on her fox to survive the storm. The two of them may be stranded, but they’re never alone.
Though many players will not know the traditional Inupiaq folk tale, nor will they relate to being lost in a frosty blizzard, everyone who plays the game will understand the bond of having a pet who makes you feel like you’re never alone. More diversity in the game development field should be lauded, and Upper One Games’ roots shouldn’t be swept under the carpet, but they also mustn’t overshadow the fantastic job they’ve done at distilling a lifetime of love for a pet into a tight, three hour journey.
Stacey Henley has written for TechRadar, EGMNow, Fandom, Polygon, Fanbyte, The Huffington Post, Into The Spine and more. She can often be found exploring vast, exotic terrains, but only in video games. In real life, she mostly stays home. Catch her on Twitter @FiveTacey