'Never Alone': Alaska Native culture and language enters the world of video games

Local writer Ishmael Hope helps adapt ancient Inupiaq story to modern platform

Among the myriad first-person shooters and survival horrors found in the medium of video games, it’s rare to find one that attempts to faithfully and authentically depict Indigenous cultures and languages. That all changes next week with the release of “Never Alone (Kisima Ingitchuna),” an atmospheric puzzle platformer with an Inupiaq protagonist and narrated in the Inupiaq language.

 

The game will have a digital launch on video game consoles and PC Nov. 18.

There is a long history of cultural appropriation and racist tropes in the depictions of Indigenous cultures in popular media, and video games are no exception. This is what sets “Never Alone” apart immediately. The project was conceived and launched by the Cook Inlet Tribal Council, a tribal nonprofit organization based in Anchorage, which created Upper One Games, the first Indigenous-owned and -operated video game company in the U.S.

CITC Executive Vice President Amy Fredeen, lead cultural ambassador for “Never Alone,” said the game was developed through the collaborative efforts of around 40 Alaska Native Elders, artists, storytellers and youth.

“What has been so exciting about this … is seeing how the community is embracing the game,” she said.

The cultural content for the players goes beyond just the beautiful onscreen renderings of the Arctic or Inupiaq language in the title (“Kisima Ingitchuna,” or “I am not alone”). There are characters based on Inupiaq stories, important lessons about interdependence and resiliency to be learned, and even unlockable videos featuring Elders discussing key elements of the game, as the players guide a young girl and her fox companion through an endless snowstorm.

“For any revitalization or preservation work it is important to bring the wisdom of our past to the present in a way that can inspire others to participate,” Fredeen said. “We definitely see ‘Never Alone’ as a way to spark that curiosity and inspire others to learn more not only about the Inupiaq culture, but their own culture, and other cultures from around the world.”

Given the recent popularity and commercial success of nontraditional indie video games such as “Journey” and “Limbo,” and the fact that it is being released on mainstream gaming platforms, “Never Alone” has the potential to reach a wide international audience with its lessons and stories.

“We see video games as a new medium for storytelling, really a way to expand these amazing stories,” Fredeen said. “All of us, regardless of our heritage, have grown up hearing stories, either through books our parents read to us or just simply sitting around the dinner table. This game really allows the player to both hear the storyteller as the narrator but also experience through gameplay.”

Juneau-based Tlingit and Inupiaq storyteller Ishmael Angaluuk Hope worked as a lead writer for the project, helping to guide the process of adaptation from concept to game. The story of “Never Alone” is loosely based on “Kunuuksaayuka” from early 20th century Inupiaq storyteller Robert Nasruk Cleveland. Hope said Cleveland’s skills are immense.

“You could look at Alaska Native stories on many levels, spiritual … a reflection of mastery of culture, reflection of a world view, or on a literary level,” he said. “And on a literary level, Robert Cleveland belongs with Shakespeare and Homer and Sophocles.”

“Kunuuksaayuka” tells the story of a boy’s journey to find the source of an unending blizzard. Hope is passionate about educating others about Alaska Native artists, and hopes that players will dig deeper and accept that there is more going on than their pre-formed image of the people and the storytellers of Inupiaq culture. It would be like if someone read a few passages from “Romeo and Juliet," he said.

“And then that would be people’s idea of … not only the individual playwright William Shakespeare, but Elizabethan theater and the Renaissance,” he said, adding that the game developers fostered this kind of dialogue in the game and in conversations about the project.

“Never Alone” came fully to realization when CITC and Upper One Games partnered with E-Line Media, an entertainment and educational game publisher. Hope worked with the developers throughout the entire process of bringing the game to life.

“The whole team in Seattle, they work extremely, extremely hard,” he said.

E-Line Seattle Creative Director Sean Vesce said his team wasn’t initially familiar with Alaska Native cultures or languages, but that they were “astonished” when they began to hear traditional Inupiaq storytelling.

“They were complex, nuanced stories that reinforced the culture’s strong values, traditions and worldview,” Vesce said. “The more we read and heard, the more understanding we began to have into the Inupiat culture.”

The game developers sought permission for use of the story “Kunuuksaayuka” from Minnie Gray, Inupiaq Elder and Cleveland’s daughter. Vesce said the opportunity to collaborate with the Alaska Native community has opened the development team’s eyes to the potential to connect audiences with more than just a gripping narrative, and that there is an enormous reservoir of knowledge and skills to be learned from Indigenous cultures.

“In our frenzied push toward modernity, it’s clear we’ve forgotten a tremendous amount of wisdom about what it means to be good people, how to support one another and be good stewards of our planet,” Vesce said. “The stories we were exposed to throughout this development explored many of the core values which I believe could serve to improve modern society.”

“Never Alone (Kisima Ingitchuna)” will release on Playstation 4, Xbox One, and PC Steam as a downloadable game on Tuesday, Nov. 18. People interested in more information can go online at www.neveralonegame.com.

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