The Mak­ing Of… Never Alone

How com­mu­nity mat­ters and cre­ative con­straints helped Up­per One make the break­out cul­ture videogame


Kids’ ex­po­sure to videogames has raised a num­ber of con­cerns in so­ci­ety at large, but con­tract­ing ra­bies is not tra­di­tion­ally one of them. For a brief win­dow early in Never Alone’s de­vel­op­ment, how­ever, that worry was very real in the Alaskan Na­tive com­mu­nity, and it nearly made Up­per One’s cul­tur­ally rich puz­zle-plat­former a wildly dif­fer­ent propo­si­tion.

Art di­rec­tor Dima Very­ovka re­calls that green­light meet­ing vividly: “We came to Bar­row – it’s a ma­jor city in the Inu­piat world; around 5,000 peo­ple live there – we get in there and we show the game [pro­to­type]. Ev­ery­one re­ally likes pretty much ev­ery­thing, but one lady ap­proached us and said, ‘Do you re­ally think the fox is the right char­ac­ter?’ And we say, ‘Oh, is there any­thing wrong with that? We like it a lot.’ And she said, ‘Yeah, we like it too, but one of the things we’re teach­ing our kids is not to play with the foxes, be­cause they have ra­bies.’”

It sparked three months of ex­per­i­men­ta­tion. The de­vel­op­ment team was def­i­nite on a girl as the lead – that much was stip­u­lated by Cook In­let Tribal Coun­cil CEO Glo­ria O’Neill, whom sto­ry­teller and cul­tural ad­viser Ish­mael Hope cred­its as hav­ing come up with the idea of mak­ing a game to com­mu­ni­cate Alaskan Na­tive cul­ture at all – but which an­i­mal would best com­ple­ment her? A dog, wolf and owl were all tried in the com­pan­ion spot, but none quite fit it. “The wolf is too strong of a char­ac­ter,” ex­plains Very­ovka, “and you re­ally don’t know who is more im­por­tant then, who is lead­ing… And, for ex­am­ple, if it’s a fly­ing char­ac­ter, it would be re­ally hard to com­bine both de­signs.”

The bar­ren Alaskan ice floes not be­ing over­abun­dant with suit­able an­i­mal side­kicks, the team even­tu­ally came back to the fox as the best pos­si­ble match. This time, they pre­sented it along­side the other op­tions they’d con­sid­ered. “They ba­si­cally said, ‘Yeah, we un­der­stand. You guys tried. OK, use the fox,’” says Very­ovka. “That’s why it’s very in­ter­est­ing to work with the com­mu­nity, be­cause ev­ery­one had a lit­tle bit of a dif­fer­ent per­spec­tive on that. We also worked with Ron Brower, [an el­der] who told us he used to have a fox as a pet, and said it was to­tally fine for him to see one as a sec­ond char­ac­ter.”

Three months to close that loop could easily be read as three months wasted. But while Never Alone faced all the hur­dles of be­ing de­signed by com­mit­tee, both the de­vel­op­ment team and the cul­tural ad­vis­ers see that process as in­ex­tri­ca­ble when cre­at­ing an au­then­tic show­case for thou­sands of years of cul­ture. For Up­per One, formed in a col­lab­o­ra­tion be­tween CITC and E-Line Media be­fore be­ing ab­sorbed by the lat­ter in mid 2014, the game had to be made in ser­vice to the Inu­piat her­itage, not sim­ply dressed up in its furs-and-ice aes­thetic.

It was a mam­moth chal­lenge for a dev team that started out with just four mem­bers and had to ex­pand to 26 to cope, even if that core did in­clude such in­dus­try vet­er­ans as for­mer Crys­tal Dy­nam­ics gen­eral man­ager Sean Vesce as cre­ative di­rec­tor, ex-Next Gen­er­a­tion mag­a­zine editor Grant Roberts as lead game de­signer, and Very­ovka, who had worked at Sony as a char­ac­ter artist for al­most seven years. They picked Unity for its ease of use, de­spite lit­tle fa­mil­iar­ity with the en­gine. They chose to build a puz­zle-plat­former be­cause it best com­mu­ni­cated the val­ues that they sought to present, de­spite back­grounds in shoot­ers and ad­ven­ture games. But while Never Alone was a risk, that was pri­mar­ily be­cause ev­ery facet of it had to be shaped around un­com­monly com­plex sub­ject mat­ter, and there was no tem­plate to fol­low.

Ini­tially, there was some scep­ti­cism among the na­tives – af­ter all, they had seen their cul­ture mis­ap­pro­pri­ated by out­siders be­fore. But the supreme ef­fort to make Never Alone au­then­tic has in­stead forged pow­er­ful bonds. Very­ovka talks of be­ing re­ceived like part of the com­mu­nity it­self in post-game vis­its, but maybe it’s Hope’s in­dige­nous per­spec­tive that’s most telling.

“I would say this is the first time I’ve ever had this ex­pe­ri­ence with fully in­te­grated deep lis­ten­ing and trust, and this kind of level of col­lab­o­ra­tion, which is kind of amaz­ing for a big­ger pro­ject,” he says. “I have a lot of back­ground in theatre, and I’ve just never had that kind of col­lab­o­ra­tion un­less it was to­tally con­trolled and made by only in­dige­nous peo­ple. So it’s just re­ally amaz­ing to have this kind of thing hap­pen, and hope­fully it is an ex­am­ple to peo­ple. It helps to make a bet­ter game, and it helps the process to have this col­lab­o­ra­tion. You can’t just ap­pro­pri­ate other peo­ple’s cul­tures.”

Mak­ing games this way im­poses a lot of de­mands. The team would com­mu­ni­cate with its cul­tural ad­vis­ers at least once a week over Skype, but ev­ery mile­stone meant climb­ing on a plane to travel from Up­per One’s Greater Seat­tle base to Alaska. It’s a pal­try 1,447 miles from Seat­tle to An­chor­age by air, whereas Bar­row, which sits at the very north­ern­most tip of the state and above the Arc­tic Cir­cle, is closer to 2,000 miles, and took over seven hours on a plane to reach. Very­ovka made that trip three times along with cre­ative di­rec­tor Sean Vesce, and over 12 to Alaska in to­tal. As with ev­ery­thing in­volved in the process, their ef­fort was re­cip­ro­cated, with Hope and oth­ers com­ing out to Seat­tle to ad­vise as well.

The cul­tural au­then­tic­ity of Never Alone among videogames is al­most un­par­al­leled as a re­sult, with just a hand­ful of works able to claim nearly so rich a rep­re­sen­ta­tion of re­al­world be­liefs and sto­ries ( Okami, En­gare), and none with any­thing near the com­mer­cial suc­cess. And Up­per One team has seen the rip­ples of its ded­i­ca­tion stretch as far as in­dus­try awards, earn­ing a BAFTA for best de­but as well as a nom­i­na­tion for an SXSW In­no­va­tion Award.

Still, you get the feel­ing that mat­ters less to them than how Never Alone has gone down with in­dige­nous Alaskans, es­pe­cially chil­dren. “I’ve heard from li­brar­i­ans – and of­ten li­braries are at the cen­tre of many vil­lages; the school li­brary, ’cause that’s the place you can get In­ter­net – there were li­brar­i­ans that were telling me that young na­tive peo­ple in the vil­lages of


Alaska are go­ing to play our game at the li­brary, and they’re play­ing it more than Minecraft, which is so amaz­ing to them,” says Hope. “It gets [kids] to con­nect and to talk to their par­ents, to their grand­par­ents, about who they are.”

Very­ovka echoes that: “Last Oc­to­ber, we went to a Youth & El­ders Con­fer­ence in An­chor­age, and it was awe­some. We met a lot of kids there play­ing the game, and some said, ‘I’m re­ally ex­cited; I’m re­ally proud to be Alaskan Na­tive. This game makes me proud about my cul­ture.’”

That was al­ways part of the point. In a world where the In­ter­net ex­poses chil­dren to count­less in­flu­ences, Up­per One was tasked with up­dat­ing an oral tra­di­tion that stretches back thou­sands of years to face the chal­lenges of mod­erni­sa­tion. In ad­di­tion, it was meant to share Inu­piat val­ues with the world by merg­ing me­chan­ics with theme.

One of the key con­cepts for Hope was in­ter­de­pen­dence, a trait de­manded by one of Earth’s most ex­treme cli­mates, but Never Alone’s val­ues are far more sub­tle than mere prac­ti­cal ne­ces­sity. “We need to rely on each other when we’re out in the Arc­tic,” Hope says. “The Nuna and fox char­ac­ters re­ally have to work to­gether to get through all that ter­rain, to get through the game. And then it’s re­ally the Inuit spirit, the voice of the el­ders, let­ting that re­ally come out as much as pos­si­ble. So peo­ple can feel a sense – they hear the lan­guage, hear the Inu­piaq el­der talk­ing – that it’s based on di­rectly the el­der’s words. Which, to me, is ut­terly beau­ti­ful, even spir­i­tual.”

Spir­i­tual. It’s an odd word to con­nect with games, where mat­ters of real-world faith are paid about as lit­tle mind as an­cient cul­tures, un­less you count the ‘mul­ti­cul­tural team of var­i­ous faiths and be­liefs’ tal­is­man that hangs around As­sas­sin’s

Creed neck to ward off of­fence. But be­ing based on a tra­di­tion that views the spirit world as suf­fus­ing the one we share meant the spir­i­tual be­came in­te­gral to Never Alone, and another tricky patch to ne­go­ti­ate for the de­sign team.

As Very­ovka ex­plains, at first Up­per One overgam­i­fied it. “That was the most chal­leng­ing part: for us to fig­ure out what the spirit world would look like. Be­cause at the very be­gin­ning, we had a de­sign where you press a but­ton and go into the spirit world, and then you press the but­ton and you go back into the nor­mal, the real world. And that kind of worked out as a de­sign, but when we went back to our ad­vis­ers and to Ish­mael, it just didn’t re­ally feel right, be­cause [they see it as] only re­ally one world, and spir­its co­ex­ist in this world. So for us it was, on the de­sign and on the artis­tic side, kind of how to cre­ate it lightly.”

His so­lu­tion was to lis­ten and then seek out arte­facts to in­spire the spir­its that would be­come pro­lific through­out Never Alone. They come in many forms – and dis­tinct roles, some spir­its of­fer­ing help­ful plat­forms, oth­ers pre­sent­ing a hin­drance – but in the fi­nal game, all draw on a com­mon em­bod­i­ment of how the spirit world is in­ter­wo­ven with ours. “It re­ally res­onated with me,” Hope says, “Dima’s choices on the spir­its – you know, those help­ing spir­its in the game that the fox brings out and then they ap­pear, and [the play­ers] are able to jump on and get to the next part? Those spir­its that come out are inspired by masks. The North­ern Lights that swoop down and they’re try­ing to take the peo­ple away, that’s inspired by the mask tra­di­tion, too. And that ab­so­lutely res­onated with me, be­cause those are spir­its [as well], and I’ve heard a few el­ders talk about how masks are the in­car­na­tion of spir­its. It’s a vis­ual rep­re­sen­ta­tion of how the spir­its are seen by the peo­ple. So that was a nice choice, that fit, that you can only make by hav­ing that depth of col­lab­o­ra­tion and that amount of re­search.”

While Up­per One’s at­tempts to truly un­der­stand another cul­ture in­volved many false starts, they would also pro­duce a serendip­i­tous by-prod­uct: the game’s lauded cul­tural in­sight videos, un­locked as you progress through the story. From Very­ovka’s per­spec­tive, while the in­tent was al­ways there, these came to­gether al­most or­gan­i­cally. “The ini­tial idea was hear­ing the voice di­rectly from the com­mu­nity,” he ex­plains, “and we were try­ing to find a way to put some­thing like that in the game. At the very be­gin­ning, we cre­ated re­ally ba­sic vi­su­als and in the back­ground we put some lady talk­ing in the Inu­piaq voice and we thought, ‘That’s fas­ci­nat­ing; that’s com­plet­ing the world...’ Dur­ing the whole de­vel­op­ment, we in­ter­viewed so many peo­ple. We recorded around 40 hours of doc­u­men­tary, and not shar­ing these doc­u­men­taries, be­cause that’s the gems, it would be al­most crim­i­nal.”

For all that Never Alone’s de­vel­op­ment process pulled it in many dif­fer­ent di­rec­tions, and through some awk­ward phases, Very­ovka be­lieves build­ing this re­la­tion­ship re­ally is the only way to make a game with cul­tural im­port. Much like sur­viv­ing in the Arc­tic, only mu­tu­ally ben­e­fi­cial col­lab­o­ra­tion will see vi­brant cul­tures emerge from the de­vel­op­ment wilder­ness in­tact. E-Line has al­ready stated its in­tent to cre­ate more ‘world games’ via Up­per One, but Very­ovka wants to see oth­ers fol­low the stu­dio into the ter­ri­tory he and his team have only just be­gun to chart.

“I per­son­ally feel there should be more de­vel­op­ers do­ing the kind of work that we did, be­cause it’s such an im­por­tant work,” he says. “The only thing, as ad­vice: don’t take a short­cut. What I per­son­ally don’t want to see is peo­ple just re­search­ing on Wikipedia and vis­it­ing once or twice to cre­ate games, be­cause it’s not go­ing to be a truth­ful rep­re­sen­ta­tion. If you re­ally want to make a game about the cul­ture, this kind of col­lab­o­ra­tion is ab­so­lutely es­sen­tial.”


For­mat PC, PS4, Xbox One, Wii U

Pub­lisher E-Line Media Devel­oper Up­per One Games Ori­gin US Re­lease 2014

Kunuuk­saayuka isn’t the only tale Nev­er­Alone adapts, but it is the game’s back­bone. It was once just one of four threads

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