Barrow is a town of 4,300 people situated on the northern tip of Alaska, twice as far away from the continental US as it is from the North Pole. So when the team from Seattle-based E-Line Media arrived to demo a game based on Alaska Native stories, there was considerable excitement in the community.
“There was a line of people who wanted to play,” recalls Dima Veryovka, the concept development director for the game, Never Alone. “One of the kids after playing the game was like, ‘After playing this, I’m proud to be an Alaska Native. That’s a game about us.’”
Never Alone draws heavily on Iñupiaq themes, having been designed in collaboration with the Cook Inlet Tribal Council (CITC). The project began as a way for the CITC to share its stories, generate revenue and opportunities for Alaska Native people, and provide a means of connecting the youth to their own traditions.
“Why not use gaming?” said CITC president Gloria O’Neill at the time, according to Veryovka. O’Neill and the CITC became integral parts of the game design process, and soon, Never Alone was born, the first cultural storytelling video game to be designed in partnership with an indigenous organization.
Iñupiaq elder Minnie Gray and developer Sean Vesce try out Never Alone during a community visit. (Photo: E-Line Media)
It was important for everyone involved that the game remain as true as possible to the culture it was representing. That meant extensive involvement from Iñupiaq artists and storytellers, consultations with youth and elders, and many visits to the community.
“They taught us a lot about their culture, their beliefs, how they see the world,” says Veryovka, who spent long sessions in the cultural centre carving bone with local artists, learning about Iñupiaq motifs and stories. “It’s not some kind of fantasy world, it’s actually a game about a real people.”
The game’s development involved numerous visits to Alaska Native communities to learn about local art (Photo: E-Line Media)
The story follows a preteen girl and her friend, a fox, through an atmospheric Arctic world of muted colours and blowing snow. They encounter creatures from the northern wilderness as well as from Iñupiaq culture, an experience intended to immerse players in a roundly Alaska Native world.
“You’re actually making decisions similar to those that Iñupiaq people would do, or based on Iñupiaq values,” says Veryovka.
If the game is successful, E-Line Media intends to work with other indigenous peoples around the world that are not often given a voice in video games, or on any mainstream platforms. Having now coined the term “world games”, E-Line has already heard from numerous groups that want their culture turned into a playable world.
Before Never Alone the standard Aboriginal person in video games was nearly always one-dimensional. As one documentary writer put it, “at worst, they’re killed for points; at best, they’re the half-breed hero in Red Dead Revolver and GUN.” By putting game development in the hands of the people who are being represented, the new model of game design pioneered by Never Alone may open the doors for new representations of traditionally marginalized groups in games.
Setting up a girl as the protagonist is also rare in games. Boys and men far outnumber women as playable characters, yet women are actually the majority of PC gamers. Still, changing representations of women has been an uphill battle, with online battles raging this fall over Gamergate, a scandal ostensibly directed at video game journalism but which has often resulted in the harassment and persecution of anyone who openly criticizes gender representations in games.
“We believed that girls in games are under-represented,” says Veryovka, who has previously worked on first-person shooter games like SOCOM that his own daughters were never interested in playing. He and many others on the senior development team – many of whom also had daughters – noticed that gender is not emphasized in Iñupiaq stories and decided that their game would work best with a female protagonist.
The timing of Gamergate may have worked in favour of Never Alone, which is released on Xbox One, PS4 and PC on November 18th. Despite monster blockbuster titles like Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 and Destiny being released this year, Never Alone became one of the most anticipated games this year after it made an impression all out of proportion with its budget at the annual E3 conference. It could be a sign that after the recent feverish attention on identity politics in gaming, audiences are looking for something fresh.