Thinking About “Never Alone” Game

Looking at reports about the “Natives in Game Dev Gathering” held last week in Santa Cruz, I saw reverences to a video game that came out last year (OK, I’m obviously not a gamer). “Never Alone (Kisima Ingitchuna)” is a pretty standard video game technologically. The content is somewhat unusual, created by a collaboration of “world class game makers with Alaska Native storytellers and elders to create a game which delves deeply into the traditional lore of the Iñupiat people”.

The story and art are “inspired by Alaska Native people”, the character is a young Iñupiat girl (and an arctic fox). They traverse an arctic environment alone, encountering natural and supernatural entities and events. The environment represents and depicts Iñupiat stories and teachings.

This game is interesting from several points of view. Almost as an aside, it is nice to have a protagonist who is human but not male or anglo. Naturally, Iñupiat elders are happy to have the xbox generation learning something about their traditional culture and language. (I can only take their word that there is educational content in the game.)

I’m sure that tribal leaders are also pleased by the economic opportunity for their kids. Game development can be done way out there, even in Alaskan villages. Even better, making video games does not have to require ditching ones native heritage, in favor of whatever is trendy in Japan and NYC.

The production team is an interesting collaboration of conventional game makers and cultural experts (i.e., Iñupiat elders and teachers and artists). The company indicates that they would like to replicate the pattern in a series of “World Games”. Well, maybe.

I had deeper interests in this idea, myself.

For many years I have been trying to imagine how to create totally new computer based games that are not military-sports-puzzle games, but tie into living a better life off the screen. Every time I talk with Native American friends, I am struck with the thought that I would like to somehow incorporate in a game some of the humane and grounded attitude they find in their heritage. Just as an example, for many folks, Bison herds mean so much more than money or even food.

I grant you, I haven’t got very far on this quest. But I do think it is important to think about how to tie video game experiences to deeper concepts (such as behaving morally) and away from silly scorekeeping and accumulating pictures of goods.  (Here, the Internet of Things has significant promise, letting us put real stuff into game scenarios.)

Given my own high flying hopes, Never Again was a little disappointing. It is a totally standard video game, “an atmospheric puzzle platformer”, as they say. Sigh. The graphics are beautiful, but they are still just pixels. The music is video game electronic music. That’s fine, but is it right for the story?

Now, I’m not going to gripe about a beautiful and interesting game that isn’t purely the same repulsive junk as most.  Never Alone is really neat, and very attractive.

But I don’t want to create nice, normal video games “inspired by” interesting cultures. I want to create totally different video games that inspire others to learn and act in different ways, and incorporate other cultural ideas to make their own lives better. Games that change cultures.

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