Alan Gershenfeld was already skeptical that this January 2012 trip to Alaska would yield a video game. The blizzard wasn’t helping.
But his business partner, Michael Angst, was insistent. “[He] said, ‘We have to go! I’ve been to 49 states but not Alaska.’”
For the Alaskans awaiting Gershenfeld’s arrival, this two-day business adventure carried much more weight than whether a video game executive completed a travel bucket list.
The Cook Inlet Tribal Council, an Anchorage-based nonprofit supporting eight tribes in the region, wanted to launch a for-profit arm. The goal? Make money and be less dependent upon government assistance. The big plan? At one point it was funeral homes. This month it was a video game.
“They were looking at a lot of businesses — real estate, resource extraction — but they wanted something that could empower their youth. They kept asking if there was something they could do with video games,” says Gershenfeld, a former executive at video game powerhouse Activision.
“Honestly,” he continues, “we were trying to talk them out of it. It’s risky. These are hard-earned dollars.” After all, why use council funds that could have gone to scholarships or job training?
Instead, Gershenfeld was the one who was talked into the plan. “Never Alone,” a game that delves into the myths and tales of the indigenous Inupiat people, was released this month for the Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and home computers.
See, the Cook Inlet Tribal Council was always going to make this video game. The group was ready to invest between 40% and 50% of its unrestricted reserves in one. It just needed to decide on a partner.
“If you wanted to make this game, then you had to come to Alaska in the middle of winter,” says Amy Fredeen, an Alaskan native and executive with the Cook Inlet Tribal Council. “We wanted to see if they could handle the winter and connect to our community. We wanted to make sure that we weren’t a token for their meetings.”
Taken by the council’s passion, Gershenfeld and his partners at New York-based E-Line Media agreed to invest in a three-month “research project” to see if there was an opportunity for a video game.
The result is “Never Alone,” the story of a young female heroine and the fox who loves her. To play through the puzzle-based side-scrolling adventure (you avoid peril mainly by running and jumping) is to experience the sensation of stumbling upon a long-lost fairy tale. Its core story, in which an adolescent woman sets out to save her village by finding the source of a never-ending blizzard, is one that’s been passed down orally from generation to generation.
“Never Alone’s” narrative is credited to 19th century storyteller Robert Nasruk Cleveland. E-Line Media sought out his surviving ancestors in the remote northern city of Barrow, Alaska, to help gather details for the game that are alternately familiar and fantastical.
Players can switch between the girl and the fox (or play cooperatively with a friend), and they will explore a world in which nature becomes a living and breathing entity.
In the game, it’s not quite clear, for instance, if that helpful man was actually an owl in human form or a man wearing an owl mask. Later, if players outsmart a polar bear, don’t be surprised if a school of fish wants to return the favor.
Crystallized sprites swirl in the sky — imagine if constellations could dance to life — and mischievous troll-like people emerge from elaborate underground caverns. Be especially careful at nightfall, as the “sky people” will descend from the shadows — they have their eyes on human heads, preferably those of young boys and girls.
“The aurora borealis are intimidating,” says Fredeen, referring to the northern lights and how they can appear to shape shift into the “sky people.”
One of the joys of “Never Alone” is the way in which it uses Alaskan terminology, as the game is narrated in Inupiat with English subtitles.
“There are gruesome stories about sky people,” Fredeen continues. “There’s a story about how one child witnessed them using the head of someone else they had caught for a game. Part of that was to keep kids close so they didn’t get lost on the tundra.”
It’s tales like this that ultimately persuaded Gershenfeld and his E-Line team — a group that includes creative director Sean Vesce, a veteran of the “Tomb Raider” series — that there was a game to be made.
“In every medium we were seeing this really interesting commercial mash-up of indigenous cultures being shared, celebrated and extended,” Gershenfeld says. “Why not games?”
Yes, but why the Cook Inlet Tribal Council?
“Knowing that we will always have a special relationship with the federal and state government,” says council President Gloria O’Neill, “we wanted to create our own destinies.” Never mind the funeral homes, the video game project became a way to focus on the living rather than the dead.
Upper One Games, the council’s for-profit arm, sought out E-Line for its commitment to games with an educational bent. “Never Alone,” however, with a budget Gershenfeld said this summer would finish in the low seven figures, was never meant to feel like homework.
That made the venture a greater gamble, at least in the still-young video game world. But the success in recent years of independent games such as the creepy side-scrolling title “Limbo” and the time-shifting puzzle adventure “Braid” were enough to show E-Line there was a market for “Never Alone.”
“People are hungry for the new, for the powerful, for the provocative,” Gershenfeld says. “We call this game a gateway. It’s a gateway to new ideas, to new themes, to new cultures. If this is successful, there are so many cultures that can be explored.”
Indeed, there’s another, even bigger adversary than the most uncommon of foes in “Never Alone” that the newly merged E-Line Media and Upper One Games has in its sights: cultural stereotypes.
Forget about encountering any of the customary imagery often associated with Native American culture, such as the colorful accessories or warrior paint that may come to mind when most of us think of Thanksgiving.
Don’t feel guilty. So prevalent are such tribal clichés that even those who worked on the game were fearful “Never Alone” would fall victim to them.
“I was nervous when we settled on the area of the Arctic,” Fredeen says. “I was nervous because what I had seen in the media had not always been what I would call appropriate.”
So no, there are not any cutesy igloos and adorable fishing holes.
Where “Never Alone” succeeds most is in its ability to explore a largely untapped heritage. It’s like stumbling on a heretofore unknown collection of Brothers Grimm tales.
Perhaps that’s why “Never Alone” never feels like a learning experience, unless one pauses the game to watch the short accompanying documentaries about Alaskan culture.
“The Western stereotype says, ‘Oh, maybe this is edifying. This is good for me. I’ll do this like I’m eating broccoli,’” says Ishmael Hope, a native Alaskan who contributed to the game’s narrative.
“There is not an either/or,” he continues. “You’re not deciding between something that’s marketable and something that’s so-called authentic. Our ancestors knew what they were talking about.”
In the game, there’s a dark, mystical edge, where ice can become villainous, wind can became nefarious and an owl’s hoots sound like musical notes. It’s this mix of light and dark that is like classic Disney films. Although the use of the word “Disney” may make some members of the “Never Alone” team cringe.
Early drafts of the game’s female lead, Nuna, had her looking more like a traditional Disney princess. Gershenfeld admits it was a misstep.
“They were open to the fact that we did not necessarily want this to look like the traditional animation from Disney or Pixar,” Fredeen says. “We wanted this to be more representative as to how we are as people.”
E-Line’s art director, the Ukraine-born Dima Veryovka, studied the indigenous art of the Arctic Circle while attending college at Russia’s St. Petersburg Academy of Arts, and once hired he drastically shifted the direction of the game. He worked closely with a team that at one point included three dozen Alaskan natives.
The game gradually took on a more paint-on-canvas feel, with some scenes told in a scrimshaw style — that is the look of engravings on everything from ivory to driftwood. In “Never Alone,” these are animated scenes that bring an old-world style to interactive entertainment.
“We have always said that we are not a museum piece,” Fredeen says. “We are a living culture, a living people, and we have living values. What this does is it take our storytelling, which is how we’ve passed on knowledge, to a new medium.”
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