Updating Centuries-Old Folklore With Puzzles And Power-Ups : Code Switch The developers of the video game Never Alone hope it can teach people about Native Alaskan folklore and traditions while still being fun to play.

Updating Centuries-Old Folklore With Puzzles And Power-Ups

The story in Never Alone is based on a Native Alaskan legend about a quest to end a never-ending blizzard. E-Line Media hide caption

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E-Line Media

The story in Never Alone is based on a Native Alaskan legend about a quest to end a never-ending blizzard.

E-Line Media

Never Alone, a new video game by E-Line Media, has been generating a lot of buzz in recent months. Its developers teamed up with the Cook Inlet Tribal Council, a nonprofit that works with Native Alaskans, creating Never Alone as a way to help transmit traditional tribal stories to younger indigenous kids.

So far, reviews for the game have been strong. I spoke to Amy Fredeen of the Cook Inlet Tribal Council and Sean Vesce of E-Line Media about this unlikely collaboration, about representation in games, and whether video games can have a larger purpose and still be fun to play. Our conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

Interview Highlights

AMY FREDEEN: As a tribal nonprofit, we tend to rely heavily on government funding, and that funding ebbs and flows, and so the opportunities we can offer people ebb and flow. We were looking for a way to sustain what we do. We looked at many businesses — anywhere from child care to burial services — and none of them really resonated with us. And one day we were sitting around the lunch table, and all of a sudden Gloria [O'Neill, who heads the tribal council] said, "Well, why not video games?"

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SEAN VESCE: When we originally started speaking with Gloria and her team, we really tried to talk her out of doing a game because of the inherent risk — of development, cost, how competitive [the industry] is.

My career path led me to work on some kind of large-scale action games, like the Tomb Raider series based on fictional universes. I got really disillusioned with the state of the video game universe on a large scale — we tended to be pretty insular in our references, we tend to lean on gratuitous violence and other kinds of things to attract players. And as a new father I was looking for projects where I could invest my time and skill and energy into something that could have some kind of lasting impact. That was a hard search. It took maybe two years before I met Gloria. I was really struck by her vision of using games.

GENE DEMBY: Was there a tradition you were directly pulling from for the universe of this game, or did the Tribal Council just take everything and throw it in the pot to be considered?

VESCE: In that initial box of books, it was a big range — from transcripts of master storytellers to folks who had taken stories that they had heard and put their own spin on it, in some cases trying to sugarcoat or sanitize the work for children's coloring books and activity books. And from there, [we met with] a gentleman named Ishmael Hope, who is a Inupiaq and Tlingit storyteller from the community ... and several other artists and storytellers. Ishmael was really instrumental in helping guide us to the most authentic stories — things where someone literally recorded elders talking without any editorial additions.

Is the player-character new or retelling an older story?

VESCE: The main spine of the story is based on a traditional meta-story called Kunuuksaayuka. It's the story of an endless blizzard that's plaguing a family that's leading a nomadic lifestyle. They're out in the wilderness, and a blizzard comes and starts to disrupt the hunting patterns, and that blizzard never stops. In the traditional tale, the son decides to go out, despite the wishes of his parents, and find what's causing this aberration in the weather.

The tale goes that this boy goes out and eventually comes to the source of the blizzard. Through his cunning, he eventually figures out a way to stop the blizzard. And I won't give away details ... but that story to us offered a bunch of universal themes that were great as an arc for the game. It also touches upon climate change and man's relationship with nature and balance with nature. But it's also about the enduring spirit of somebody who against their own personal well-being and the good of the community does something above and beyond to try to help.

Early concept art from Never Alone. E-Line Media hide caption

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E-Line Media

Early concept art from Never Alone.

E-Line Media

In the course of researching the story, we found all these cool elements and characters and situations and recurring themes that we thought would lead to good gameplay mechanics and situations for gamers.

[We found] that the last living person to tell the story was a master storyteller named Robert Cleveland. Amy and her team did an amazing job, and they located the oldest living offspring of Robert — a woman named Minnie Gray, who is in her 80s, I believe. They discovered that Minnie lived just a few blocks from the Cook Inlet Tribal Council headquarters. And we brought her in and we were able to start a series of conversations with her. We introduced her to the team and what we wanted to do. And we were delighted when she really was encouraging us not only to use her father's story for inspiration, but to adapt it and evolve it for the game context. One of the things she taught us was that storytelling is not a fixed act. Different storytellers bring their own sensibilities and their own attitudes, and they change a story based on the context and the situation. So she said that based on the work we had done so far, she felt that it was clear that we were handling this appropriately and that we were doing what we needed to do.

I was just floored, for an 80-year-old to have that attitude.

Right, she's saying that you can remix it. Now that you've said that she said this, it sounds intuitive — when people tell stories, they tell it differently. When you see a play, different directors emphasize different aspects.

VESCE: I think a lot of people think about indigenous cultures as ancient or backward. But what I've found is that Inupiaq culture — think about how innovative that culture was to be able to survive to now. So we think about remixing as a modern convention, that's as old as time.

But we were able to evolve it. We changed the male character to a girl and then we introduced this companion character, a fox. And we took liberties to put them in situations and introduced them to characters along the way that weren't in the original Kunuuksaayuka story but were appropriate for the canon of Alaska Native folklore.

So when you play the game, you get this mosaic of elements. And I think the coolest part is the story is told by an elder, a guy named James Nageak who worked as a translator and as voice talent.

Can you walk us through just how you wrote and edited the narration?

VESCE: So Ishmael [the storyteller] and I wrote a script that was our version of Kunuuksaayuka for the game. We went through several iterations directly with Amy and her team that involved all the different scenes. And then as we got to the script, we reviewed that with our team members here to make sure that we had the right cadence, that we had the right elements. And that went through several iterations where we had certain lines that just didn't read right or were inappropriate. It was very hard to excise our Western sensibilities for writing, but through that process, I think we got closer and closer.

Once we had a script we were happy with, we brought that to James and his wife, Anna Nageak, and in their translation, they tuned it up even further. And we finally had an Inupiaq version that the community was happy with and the game development team was satisfied with. Then James came down and we basically recorded the script and that got translated into 10 languages for the game. We made the creative decision to keep the only [spoken] audio in the game in Inupiaq, and it's presented in 10 languages for subtitles.

What we were looking to do was re-create the experience of being told a story by an elder in their own language. It's hard to describe that sense, but we wanted to try to re-create that for players so they got a sense of how powerful it would have been to hear one of these stories back then.

You can use metrics and decide that you have certain sales goals. Or you can have some sense of how you want the game to operate mechanically. But how do you measure this other thing you're trying to accomplish — getting people to be more aware of this culture and these traditions?

FREDEEN: For me, what is amazing is going to read the reviews. People are really connecting with the mission of the game. But they're also people who are out there, maybe they're Native American and they're connecting to the idea of sharing and celebrating a culture. I saw a review today in Eurogamer that actually moved me to tears. [The Eurogamer reviewer wrote: "I'm American Indian, and the fact that my culture and my people are moving closer to extinction all the time isn't something I often forget. As I grow, a fatalistic phrase has come to summarise my relationship with the modern American Indian experience. I've internalised complacency, this casual belief that there's no point in trying to keep traditions alive, because in a few generations they'll be lost no matter what I do. It's a mentality I've seen echoed a few times in games ... Never Alone (Kisima Ingitchuna in Iñupiaq) is different. Its very existence challenges me. Instead of eliciting self-pity, it stands in absolute defiance of everything that I've grown to be, not only telling me to be better, but showing me how."]

We write a lot on our team about the pressures of representation. This is going to be the most contact people have in popular culture with Native Alaskan traditions. How are you going to navigate those pressures?

VESCE: Working for big publishers in the past, I always felt pressure because there was a lot at stake, but never in my career have I kind of felt a community relying on us to do a good job. We felt that every day — both the pressure and the sense of support. That caused the team to go — not just the game development team but the 40 or so members of the community who supported the project throughout — to think hard about certain decisions.

Is there a template for a game like this — [charged with representing a cultural legacy] on top of being, you know, entertaining?

VESCE: I don't think there has been, and that's part of what made this game project such a great challenge. On the game side, we were heavily influenced by games like Limbo, games like Ico and Shadow of the Colossus. ... And even further back, Out of This World and some of the earlier platformer games were big influences. So there were certainly beacons on the game side. With the mission side, we really didn't find anything that we felt was a model. What we did find when we look back, and we did an exhaustive search, was a game that used indigenous themes in history as part of their creative work. What we found was a lot of appropriation, a lot of stereotyping, a lot of misinformation and really a lack of authenticity.

Do you have any sense of what the reception to the game has been like inside the community? And among young people in particular?

FREDEEN: We had a pre-launch celebration in Anchorage, Alaska, right around the time of our Alaska Native Youth and Elders Conference. And what we saw was that everyone saw themselves up on the screen, and it wasn't seen as something that was appropriated.

VESCE: [Our trips to Barrow, Alaska,] were really transformational for us as developers. We went to Ilisagvik College, which is in Barrow. At that time it was much more drawings, but we had an early, playable version of the game. Kids were really inspired, and you can look at their body language. They were leaning forward, and they had a lot of great ideas about what we should include and what we should watch out for.

What kind of stuff did they tell you?

VESCE: They were very interested in making sure the environmental conditions were right. That survival in this climate ... is very difficult to do. There was the idea of the blizzard gameplay, for instance, or the wind-assisted jump — [that came from] a lot of contextual information that we had already been planning, but it was clear that they wanted to make sure those characters felt grounded in that environment. They were really intrigued by the notion of a companion character, so we had a really good debate that lasted several months [about what a] companion character should be. Should it be a fox? Should it be a wolf? Should it be an owl? I remember having amazing conversations about it — the truth of that companion character, and it was so important that we choose it based on its backstory. Was the character related in some way to Nuna [the main character]? Was it a human in animal form? The kids were referring to books that we also read. They would give me a list — read this particular book or that particular author.

We went back this past May with a much more complete version of the game to Barrow High School, and we spent the day there. ... We had them play, and I recorded footage from the play sessions. There was an auditorium, and there were two kids playing on this giant projection screen. You have to imagine there's probably 40 to 50 kids in the auditorium. Kids were just hooting and hollering and screaming. I ended up sending that video around the community, and we just got the nicest notes from folks thanking us for the work that we were doing. So we knew we were on the right track.

I'm curious as to how you guys feel this game fits into the larger video game market.

FREDEEN: I know this may come across a little strong, but when we talked about creating the first indigenous video game company, we wanted to set the bar high. And we wanted to own this space around telling traditional cultural stories through video games. There will always be big-budget video games — that's not a bad thing; they're fun to play. But I think there's also an opportunity to play games like Never Alone, and they'll have fun but it will also spark their curiosity. Not just the Inupiaq community and the values we hold but their own background. ... We really think this is going to be a movement that's going to grow in the video game industry.

VESCE: One of the things I'm really proud of is the idea of inclusive development — the idea of working in lockstep with a community across the development project. It's a big challenge because there's no approving body. ... We think we can leverage that again to work with the same community or extensions to Never Alone or to work with other communities. Based on the publicity so far, we've been approached now by other people saying, "We have amazing stories that we'd like to share." So I think as the dust settles in the next few weeks, we're going to be looking at how to engage and how to move that forward.