Never Alone Review
Don't play Never Alone... alone. The title choice is purposeful, rather than a statement on the often stubborn, creaky AI when solitary.
Never Alone is designed for co-play and shared dependence. It's also a direct introspective of Northern Alaska's indigenous folklore - a sort of interactive equivalent to a subtitled foreign film without the abstractions. Family, bonding, community; these are crucial directives captured in the veins of gameplay.
Unaccompanied, Never Alone is frigid and troublesome. It should be. Death is a passing pseudonym for a year-round winter's hardship. As a young girl and her glistening white fox accidentally perish, the sting is real, even common.
Without names, the pokey adolescent child and agile canine march through a blizzard which has tormented her village. Their motivation is part curiosity and part desperation: find the bitter wind's unknown source and bring it to a close to protect the people. The two are born of local eccentricity and mythos, a cautioning fairy tale meant to teach values in a life unlike most of our own.
Inupiat are adaptable, an aspect of their livelihood peering through Never Alone via this young daughter, utilizing the harshness of surrounding nature to overcome obstacles. Helping winds propel jumps, floating bodies of ice grant progress. This medium is perfect for such adventure; it's just as adaptable.
Classification labels Never Alone as puzzle platformer. Gap leaping, logic tests, and crumbling ice blocks are venerable video game concepts. Wrapping it with such contextual beauty and doing so through authentic Inupiat dilemmas is intelligent. What seems inherently vintage is better representative of the modern indie developer's ability to examine tropes with avant-garde perspective rather than safeguarding the ordinary.
Perilous as it is, Never Alone uses background documentaries to swell with optimism. Their isolationism is friendly, even important. Unlike continental cultures which spread religions across considerable swatches of the globe, this is but a mere pocket of spiritual mysticism and oneness with nature. No wonder Never Alone is so intensely foreign and proud.
Upper One Games' work is notably messy, burdened by bumbling physics, unexpected glitches, and trial & error redundancies. Ragdoll death animations become unintentional, out-of-place, and vaguely morbid humor. Chapter geometry catches these characters without warning, frame rates stumble, and broad screen tearing is a constant. All of the supporting code work feels disheveled.
Often, nothing works as planned. In a way, it makes sense: Nature rarely contains itself to a foreseeable path. Are these flubs inexcusable given their consistency? Probably, yet getting too wound up in the awkwardness is to miss Never Alone's dripping beauty and attention to aesthetic caution.
Most of the landscape is covered in predictably dissolved whites and blues, with softened depth of field effects. When it breaks from that pattern, it's a sharp contrast. Fire-born oranges pierce the normalcy, with Northern Light children-snatching monsters emblazoned in smokey greens. Each color has meaning, and their use is more than simplistic dramatic effect. They are outsiders and unwelcome, thus treated as such in terms of character and with bombastic aural dynamic range intended to dilute the solitude of the wind.
What is amazing about Never Alone is the depiction of generational harmony. The intertwined documentary, split into fragments labeled “Cultural Insights,” offers a resounding similarity in upbringings. No one interviewed finds this story (or the reflective parts) foreign. Heritage is shared amongst all, and yet, while inherently strict in their codes of natural living, this video game never appears as fearful or unwanted. Instead, it's welcomed as an expression of themselves and an exposure of their values. As Never Alone states, while resting at night their elders would say, “It would be really nice to hear a story.” Now we can all share a story that is uniquely their own.