Bringing Iñupiat culture to video games

In a warm corner of the crowded gaming expo floor at PAX Aus, Upper One Games invited players to step into the cold and experience Never Alone. In this game you play as an Inuit girl and her friend, fox, as they traverse the harsh Alaskan landscape.

We spoke to the developers at PAX Aus about how this game is being developed in partnership with Iñupiat elders based in Anchorage, Alaska. The story goes that they were contacted by the tribe and asked if they wanted to make a video game based on who they are as a people. Upper One saw an opportunity here to positively and appropriately show who these people are.

This partnership went beyond an advisor role and became a cross-cultural collaboration. They conferred with Iñupiat elders on the script and game mechanics to make sure they resonated truthfully. For instance, the game is a co-op game whereby a young girl and her fox combine their different skills in order to survive, which reinforces the cultural importance of interdependence. “They live in Alaska. It’s freezing cold and finding food is one of the most dangerous and hardest things to do.”

An early version of the game had villainous spirits that would attack the players, but these were cut when Iñupiat elders explained that those kind of evil spirits don’t exist in their culture. “You only have helping spirits or neutral spirits. There’s not necessarily intentionally malicious spirits.”
But you will still find spirits that represent dangers of the environment. “There are these spirits of dead children who come down during the Aurora looking for any child who doesn’t have their hood on. Spirits like to games and these spirits really like to play football. So they take the heads off of children who aren’t wearing their hood. They seem malicious, but they’re not. It’s a story the elders tell their children about the importance or wearing their hood in the cold.”
As you play, you unlock short videos that explain cultural insights just like these, which are voiced by an Iñupiat elder – who also provides narration for the rest of the game. Because that’s what Never Alone is about: letting the Iñupiat people speak for themselves and allowing players to immerse themselves in a distant culture.
Never Alone is out now on PS4, XBox and Steam.