Words About Video Games

Never Alone and Sharing Games with Non-Gamers

First off, if you haven’t read this piece about Never Alone, do it. I am not a member of any native community, so I can only imagine what it’s like to struggle against cultural currents to preserve your culture, tradition, and language. But I can imagine, even if poorly, and Never Alone and the above linked article have helped me imagine it better.

The thing with Never Alone is, I find myself wanting to recommend it wholeheartedly to everyone I meet, but something stops me.

At first I thought, like many of the both professional and armchair critics who reviewed the game in some form, that it was because sometimes the controls were a sometimes a little less fluid than the ideal, or the level design a little unclear.

But the more I thought about that, the more I realized that was a load of crap. There are some wonky bits in Never Alone, but then at least 10% of my Dark Souls deaths were due to their stupid mechanic where you can have a tiny menu open in the upper right corner and keep walking around the world but not actually attack or use any of your skills while doing that. If that’s not a 7/10 design decision, I don’t know what is. No, if I think seriously about my game-paying career, even my favorite games have featured more than their share of stupid, pointless failures due to a poorly-designed user experience element, or an under-explained feature, or just plain bugginess.

Compare the metacritic scores of Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag (84) and Never Alone (72.) Black Flag is a game where the slightest misinterpretation of your button presses results in you leaping from the top of a mast and going splat on the deck of your own ship. And you climb a lot of masts in Black Flag. Never Alone never asks you do to anything so arduous and its controls are nowhere near so fidgety. Sure, it’s not as long as Black Flag, but most of Black Flag is padding–activity for activity’s sake. By contrast, Never Alone’s setpieces and activities are all in service to a clear, well-executed vision–to transmit a slice of Iñupiat culture, to translate an example of the oral storytelling tradition into a video game. In this respect, Never Alone is extremely successful–at least as successful as Black Flag is at transmitting its pirate fantasy.

No, the reason I hesitate to recommend Never Alone to everyone I see is because the people I want most to recommend Never Alone to are not gamers. I would never think to recommend Black Flag to someone who doesn’t already play games, but when I play Never Alone I think, “This game is a real gift. Everyone should see this, should play this.”

The problem is not Never Alone. The problem is games. Most games are built around victory and loss, around mastering systems, understanding rules, testing simulations, solving puzzles. They are often complex and obscure, and even those with relatively straightforward rulesets can be inaccessible in other ways–by requiring extensive hand-eye coordination, or the ability to navigate in a pseudo-3d space.

I think that is perhaps why the critics are harsher on Never Alone. They want to share it. They know its audience could be bigger, so the minor problems seem much bigger, as the audience is not so likely to be tolerant of the game’s foibles as the Black Flag audience is of that game’s rough edges. Unfortunately, I think this critical reaction may come from a good place, but it only serves to limit the audience further–ensuring that even people who could play and enjoy it will pass it over for something less valuable.

As a creator, I struggle with this question of how to reach my desired audience. I am disheartened to think that to try to say something using a game is to limit my audience only to people who enjoy that type of game, or who have the skill to see it through to the end. I am disheartened as well to see games like Never Alone attract criticism that is not weighed as heavily against games with similar problems but less to say. But then I go back and read Daniel Starkey’s piece (the first piece I linked in this post–seriously, read it) and I am encouraged in equal measure, by being reminded that even if a game doesn’t reach a vast audience, it can still mean the world to a few people.

All of this is to say, Never Alone is a gift. If you enjoy platformers and would like to play a lovely game that doesn’t pad out its experience and that has a lot to say, I recommend you play it. If you’re not much of a gamer, I still recommend you seek it out. The documentary videos and much of the game can be viewed online on Youtube. And if you find that you got a few hours enrichment out of watching those, I encourage you to buy the game and support the developers and their continued collaboration with native peoples.