The first documentary released on film was Robert Flahnook’s Nanook of the North, an ethnography filmed more than ninety years ago that shows the struggles of an Inuit family in the Canadian Arctic. It is an odd, but pleasant coincidence that the first video game documentary you get to play through revisits this region, telling a short tale that has its roots in the Alaskan Iñupiat people.
Never Alone is, more than anything else, a documentary – not only in its Cultural Insights segments you can find throughout the game by locating the sometimes hidden owls, which are short, filmed clips of Iñupiat people (with care to interview both old and young people) talking about topics ranging from their customs, nature, family and tradition – but in the way the game’s own story is told. Adapted from Robert Nasruk Cleveland’s retelling of Kunuuksaayuka, Never Alone’s story follows a girl named Nuna and her pet arctic fox on their journey to find out the cause of a never-ending blizzard – a journey where they, and you, will meet creatures of Iñupiat myth and lore, and the events will be described to you by a man in Iñupiat language, as if you were hearing an elder tell you a story of his people.
The bridge that connects the player to the proper documentary Never Alone is is the gameplay. You’ll traverse multiple levels, each with their own theme but all in the Alaskan permafrost, alternating between Nuna and her fox. Nuna is capable of dragging and pushing things, as well as using a bolas you find early in the game to break things and call spirits. The fox can fit in smaller places and climb vertical walls, as well as jump from one wall to another and bring forth any spirits that might be hidden in the levels. These spirits offer help by means of serving as platforms, dangling ropes and climbing creatures that can bring Nuna to places she alone can’t reach.
Sadly, said bridge is closer to a makeshift creation rather than a proper, strong one. The game is easy throughout its entirety, but you’ll often find yourself being sent to a previous checkpoint because it failed to register you grabbing a spirit’s edge or a jump of yours glitched at a ladder’s corner. Playing alone I also couldn’t help but feel that certain segments were made for co-op play and poorly optimized for the single-player experience: at one point you’ll have to evade ghosts who want to use your head for eskimo football, and having to restart a section will happen often, as the character you don’t play as will always follow you and will always lag behind. It’s a bridge you’ll still be able to cross, but most of my failures would be better defined as the game’s failures.
The game’s graphics work well to flesh out the frozen beauty of northern Alaska, with a detailed foreground that stands against the looming vastness of its varied background, where you’ll see from the frozen wastes of the arctic to its starry nights and northern lights. The game’s soundtrack is properly downplayed, enhancing the feeling of solitude in frosty Alaska, but what really adds character to the game is the Iñupiat voiceover telling you the story as you play it.
It took me a bit more than six hours to finish the game, and I felt satisfied with what I played. There’s little reason to come back if you’ve already gathered all the cultural insights, though I say that not as a flaw – the game is about conveying a story and introducing you to the Iñupiat’s culture, and to tack anything else on for the sake of replayability or length would feel like unnecessary filler, specially because the gameplay doesn’t hold itself as a main reason for playing Never Alone.
Never Alone would be better called an interactive documentary than a game. While the gameplay is a weak foundation and alone would not be able to uphold Never Alone, its narrative and documentary aspects strike out as solid pillars, and made me want to go through the game’s middling gameplay just to hear more about the Iñupiat from the Iñupiat, and have their stories told to me as they tell to their own. I left the game knowing a bit more about a different people and its traditions, and plenty of curiosity to learn more about them – and that’s what I thought Never Alone was about, something it delivers exceedingly well.
Never Alone was played on retail code provided by the publishers.