Never Alone is a game that everyone should be prepared to spend a little time with. It looks beautiful and promises to tell a tale like never before. With that in mind, we grabbed the game’s Lead Designer and their Lead Cultural Ambassador for a quick Q&A.
Please introduce yourself. What is your role on Never Alone?
Grant Roberts, Lead Designer for Never Alone, E-Line Seattle
Amy Fredeen, Lead Cultural Ambassador for Never Alone, Cook Inlet Tribal Council
So…sell it to us. Why should gamers buy Never Alone on Xbox One?
Experience a masterful atmospheric puzzle platformer infused with the stories and culture of Alaska Native people and built in partnership with those people for true authenticity. Hear the story of Nuna and Fox in spoken Iñupiaq as told by a master storyteller, a first for a commercial video game!
Where did the idea of Never Alone come from? Were they any other games that you took inspiration from?
The original idea for a video game based upon Alaska Native culture actually started with Cook Inlet Tribal Council (CITC), a leading provider of social, educational and employment services to Alaska Native people residing in the region.
CITC was pursuing three objectives:
- to create new sources of revenue through its for-profit subsidiary, CITC Enterprises, Inc. (CEI) in order to allow CITC to expand the opportunities offered to Alaska Native people and to become more self-sufficient as an organization;
- to help strengthen the connection between Native youth and their cultural heritage;
- to celebrate and share Alaska Native cultures with new audiences around the world.
After evaluating many different types of business investments, the leadership of CITC and CEI determined that creating a video game based on Alaska Native stories and culture could successfully accomplish these goals in an innovative and fun way.
Gloria O’Neill, CEO of CITC, conducted an extensive search of possible development partners. During that process, she met Alan Gershenfeld and Michael Angst, co-founders of E-Line Media, a company with a long history of creating games to educate, engage and empower. Together, CEI and E-Line realized there could be a great opportunity to combine expertise and create a compelling game based on Alaska Native culture.
CEI and E-Line worked together to help found Upper One Games, the first indigenous-owned game company in the United States, and E-Line established a development studio in Seattle to work together with Upper One Games and the Alaska Native community to create Never Alone.
The team has been inspired by beautiful atmospheric puzzle platformers like Fez, Braid, Limbo, Journey, Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, along with many other examples of great game craftsmanship.
There’s a very fine line between telling a good story and making a good game. Sometimes one or the other is neglected. How difficult has it been to get the story you wanted across whilst still making a game that everyone will want to play
This has actually been the most exciting part of making Never Alone!
The oral storytelling tradition of the Iñupiat people is incredibly rich and vibrant with stories filled with fascinating characters and timeless wisdom. Many of these stories transition very well to the interactive video game experience and we can’t wait to share them with the world.
Selecting the stories to use was a lot of work however; prior to beginning any core development work, the stakeholders met many times with Alaska Native and Iñupiat elders, youth and storytellers to discuss how Iñupiaq culture, stories and art could fit into a video game structure.
A small group, including Ishmael Hope, a noted Alaska Native storyteller and Sean Vesce, the project’s Creative Director, reviewed hundreds of traditional Iñupiaq stories to find candidates that featured both a compelling story that had been passed down for generations and had a narrative structure that would be appropriate for a well-paced puzzle-platform video game.
Together, the stakeholders reviewed the carefully curated story collection, doing a deep dive into the meanings and wisdom that the various stories contained, and eventually agreed upon the selection of the traditional story “Kunuuksaayuka” as the primary inspiration for the game’s narrative arc.
The stakeholders then worked with Minnie Gray, the Iñupiaq elder most closely associated with the Kunuuksaayuka story, to ensure that the adaptation of the story to video game form still remained faithful to the importance themes and values of the traditional story.
How does the game aim to educate people about Alaskan culture? How important is it to tell this story to a worldwide audience?
Through Never Alone, we are striving to deliver a world-class game experience that builds upon the stories and culture of Alaska Native people. The game celebrates and shares Alaska Native culture with the world through game play.
We do this in many ways.
First, we’ve incorporated core cultural values into the gameplay. For example, one of the core cultural values of Alaska Native people is interdependence – the concept that one must rely upon the skills and abilities of the entire community to survive in the incredibly harsh Arctic. We express that by designing Never Alone to require Nuna and Fox to work together, each relying on the other’s abilities, to solve puzzles and challenges and progress through their adventure.
Hearing spoken language is important and the team (game developers and community members) made the choice to record all spoken narrative in Iñupiaq, the language in which the Iñupiaq traditions and stories have been handed down for thousands of years. Players will learn what it’s like to hear a master Iñupiat storyteller bring a traditional story to life.
We’ve also complemented the game by adding in over 20 unlockable “Insights” – short video vignettes of elders and storytellers which provide optional additional background and context for important things that players experience within the game.
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”).
Can you tell us more about each character and any unique skills they may have?
Players will begin the game in control of Nuna, a young Iñupiat girl. Nuna can run, jump, and brace against wind. Nuna can also climb ladders, swing on ropes, and move heavy objects. During her adventure, she will gain a bola, a traditional thrown hunting weapon, which she uses to solve puzzles and fight off enemies.
Nuna quickly meets up with her old friend, Fox, a small but smart and faithful companion. Fox can also run, jump, and brace against wind — but he can also access areas that Nuna can’t reach by scrambling up sheer surfaces and jumping backward from walls.
Nuna and Fox must work together to progress through the game
One of our favourite Xbox One games is Max: The Curse of Brotherhood and it’s intuitive twin stick controls…..Is it possible to move both Girl and Fox at the same time using both sticks on the Xbox One controller?
No – we experimented with many different control schemes and the varied moves that each character can perform would not work effectively with that particular scheme (although it did work well for Max and also Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons).
The option to allow a second player to jump in looks a good choice but is there a reason that it has been kept to local multiplayer only, not giving Never Alone the chance to utilise the power of Xbox Live?
A core value of Alaska Native culture is enabling people to build personal connections and share stories and wisdom with each other. The team felt strongly (and this is borne out by our many playtest sessions) that this bonding happens most effectively when players are together in the same room and can share laughs and action together. You just don’t get the same type of experience when playing over the Internet, connected only by a headset.
And with the second character theme in mind, will we see each player fixed to either Girl/Fox or could characters be switched even when two are playing?
When playing in one-player mode, the player will be able to switch between the two characters at any time with the press of a single button.
We’ve found through playtesting that enabling character-switching while two players are playing can become confusing and frustrating. So in 2-player mode, each character is ‘locked’ to a single controller but, of course, the players can always swap controllers at any time if they want to play as the other character.
What are we saying about the difficulty? How hard should the average player find the puzzles and would a novice gamer find things simple enough? Has it been tricky to strike a balance between the two?
Balancing the difficulty has been one of the biggest challenges for the team. We’ve had innumerable playtest sessions to see how both experienced gamers and novice gamers find the puzzles and gameplay. Our goal is to make a game that is fun and accessible to as many players as possible – we want everybody to finish the game! It’s less Antichamber-like hardcore puzzling and more about the experience – more Journey than Limbo.
Will we be seeing any Kinect features included? Voice commands or the like?
Our focus is on making a great game and we didn’t see any points of natural integration for specific Kinect features – for this particular title, voice or gesture commands just felt gimmicky and didn’t add to the experience. We do support standard Kinect features like “Xbox, Pause,” etc.
How long should the game take to finish and once the story is completed, will there be anything to entice us to relive it all over again?
We expect first time players to take between 4 to 6 hours to play. Once the story is over, we think players will still enjoy journeying forth into the Arctic to replay Nuna’s and Fox’s adventure and unlock any Insights that they missed the first time through.
And finally….Team Girl or Team Fox? 😉
Does it have to be one OR the other?
We’re all about interdependence – Team Girl AND Team Fox – together forever!
Many many thanks go out to both Grant and Amy for spending some time to give us such a fabulous response. Never Alone will be playable at EGX and will then be releasing on Xbox One, PS4 and PC on November 4th.
We can’t wait and hope you’ll join us on the Alaskan tale.