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'Game changer': First Native-produced video game 'Never Alone' brings culture to the console

  • Author: Mike Dunham
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published October 31, 2014

On Oct. 20, the upstairs room at the Hard Rock Cafe filled with happy, festive, noisy video gamers. Adult video gamers. They included corporate presidents, foundation heads, the mayor and other politicians. People laughed and squealed as they guided a plucky girl and a friendly fox through ice, monsters and other perils of ancient northern lore.

The event was the preview party for "Kisima Ingitchuna" -- "Never Alone" -- the first Alaska Native-themed video game ever produced.

It features striking artwork, a story based on old legends and a main character named Nuna who, with the help of an arctic fox, must overcome the obstacles or use the assistance of mythical characters from the spirit world to save her village from an unending blizzard. Narrated in Inupiaq with English subtitles, the "story" consists of eight game "chapters" that tie into life lessons and video of real elders explaining the cultural and ethical aspects of the saga.

"It's a great way of transferring our culture to the younger generation," said Gloria O'Neill, president and CEO of Cook Inlet Tribal Council. CITC established Upper One Games, the first indigenous-owned game company in the country, specifically to produce the game.

CITC hopes that "Never Alone" will help young people pick up information about Native traditions and life ways. But there's also the hope that it will make money.

CITC has a broad mission, O'Neill said, providing educational, occupational and legal assistance among other things. Such services rely heavily on government funding, but the council is concerned that such funding could change or disappear over time.

"About six or seven years ago, our board decided that we needed to figure out how CITC could be more self-determined," O'Neill said. "Not so dependent on federal money. We needed to look at ways to determine our own destiny, to produce our own unrestricted funds so that we could come up with programs that were not dictated by funders."

The board considered assorted money-making opportunities, including real estate and funeral homes. At some point, the idea of marketing a video game came up. Sales of video and computer games in America reached $7 billion in 2012, according to The NPD Group, a national consumer market research company. Clearly, someone is making a profit.

Video gaming seemed to speak to several concerns, O'Neill said. "We were looking at how we can connect with our young people, how to use the gifts we have and use the power of technology, how to be progressive."

CITC personnel researched companies and individuals who are making an impact in the industry and partnered with E-Line Media, whose resume includes participation in various editions of "Interstate '76," "MechWarrior," "Tomb Raider" and "Rage."

Finding the right team was crucial, O'Neill said. "It's a very messy, very risky industry." And, until CITC's initiative, no Native American group had ever made a major investment in video games.

Pita Benz, CITC's vice president of social enterprise, contacted Sean Vesce, E-Line's creative director, and asked, "Do you think we can make a game true to who we are and be financially successful?"

Vesce, who admits that most of his projects are a lot more, well, violent, was immediately intrigued.

"There's never been a game based on Native culture," he said. "They want to connect with young people in an entertaining way and games are the perfect media for that."

"We sent him all these books about Alaska Natives and he devoured them," O'Neill said. The E-Line team made trips to Barrow. They gathered input from elders and got feedback from high school and college students.

The "main frame" story was created by a team that included actor and author Ishmael Hope, who is of Tlingit and Inupiaq heritage. He incorporated a number of Inupiaq tales into the narrative. The voice work was done by Inupiaq James Nageak.

Dima Veryovka, the project's art director, consciously employed motifs from Native art. "When I was a student in St. Petersburg, I was fascinated by indigenous art. This is like a second date; I fell in love with this art 15 years ago and now I have another opportunity to become familiar with it."

Mask and doll forms and designs from scrimshaw are among the details woven into the artistic vision of the game. But there's also a mystical feel to the artwork, the background and key characters. Veryovka said the look was inspired by his first trip to Barrow. "It was snowing. My impression was that everything had a really soft feeling, a fog feeling."

Gamers unlock "treats" as Nuna and the fox encounter frightening and benevolent forces -- clashing blocks of ice, "little people" and so forth. Some are items that will help the characters on their quest, like a rope to make it possible to climb to the top of an iceberg. Others consist of video bits in which elders talk about values, traditions and the lessons woven into the narrative. These lessons include practical matters like how to navigate (or stay put) in bad weather and broader concepts, like "Silla," the Inupiaq word for the universe including celestial bodies, the land, water and the air, a universe with a consciousness, a person.

Among the most important messages are interdependency and cooperation. The game can be played by one person, or two players can work with each other to achieve the objective.

"Never Alone" will cost $14.99 to download when it becomes available on Nov. 18. "My stretch goal is to sell a million units," said O'Neill. That would cover the $3 million investment from CITC, the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation, the Rasmuson Foundation and other nonprofit partners and give the for-profit Upper One Games a nice bottom line.

But even if everyone in Alaska buys it, it won't be a million units. To hit that stretch goal the game will need to reach consumers in the national and international markets.

Vesce is confident that will happen. "The entire gaming community is inspired by this story," he said. "It appeals to a broad audience. There's a lot to be learned here. Stories of survival still have a resonance in modern society."

The game has had a good reaction when trotted out at international game shows and conventions, said Benz. "We've been to England, to Germany, to Tokyo. We're going to Australia next week."

O'Neill spoke of hearing excited young Europeans in Germany "talking about how they worked together to solve problems."

The first release will include subtitles in 10 languages including English, she said, with as many as 100 languages available in a second release.

"We're getting requests from people around the world who want to learn how we did it," she said. "From the Hawaiians, from Ireland. They want to know how they can create a video game that will impart their cultures.

"I think it's inspiring a whole new genre of games. We call it 'world games.'

"For us at CITC it's a real game changer. No pun intended."

NEVER ALONE will be available for PS4, Xbox One and PC on Nov. 18. The cost is $14.99. More information is available at neveralonegame.com.

Correction: An earlier version of this article misspelled the game's name. It has been updated to reflect the accurate spelling.

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