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
“YOUNG NATIVE PEOPLE ARE GOING TO PLAY OUR GAME AT THE LIBRARY, AND PLAY IT MORE THAN MINECRAFT”
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