Never Alone: When Inuit oral tradition meets 21st Century technology

The vast emptiness of the Arctic tundra is no place for a little girl. But Nuna is no ordinary child. The Alaskan native, a skilful hunter, has sneaked away from her village to find the source of a persistent blizzard threatening her home.

Not long after setting out, alone and exhausted from trudging through the snow, she awakens a ferocious polar bear. Bracing against the wind, she runs her fastest, leaping over snow banks and ice floes. Her escape looks certain until, abruptly, she’s stopped in her tracks by an unscalable wall of ice. The bear rears up, showing off its deadly teeth and claws, and lets out a gut-trembling roar.

These are the opening scenes of an ancient Inuit folktale, adapted for pioneering new video game Never Alone (Kisima Ingitchuna), the improbable collaboration between a New York game developer and the Northern Alaskan Inupiaq tribe. Inspired by traditional Alaska Native art, Never Alone is a visually-stunning tribute to Inuit culture, retelling the stories that define them in a way today’s youth, in their own community and beyond, can relate to.

Part fairy tale, part documentary and part side-scrolling adventure game, you unlock videos and interviews featuring insight into Inuit traditions and values as you progress through the levels. Although, as PC Gamer rightly puts it, “Unlocking is too bleak an unfeeling a word…what you’re doing is reclaiming, rescuing the fragments of a way of life that’s melting away into the ocean, in order to shore up the sense of fellowship that’s boldly insisted upon by the game’s title.”

The game’s heroine is indeed never alone, as she’s soon befriended by a snowy white arctic fox. Working as a team—you can either switch control between Nuna and the fox, or play cooperatively with a friend—they face a series of icy adventures and challenges. There’s a surprising amount of tension and heart-racing fear, but the mechanics of the game compel you to advance carefully and never leave your companion behind, as if you were actually stranded in the tundra.

This is a lesson the Inupiat learn from a young age. Growing up in a harsh, remote landscape they’re taught to love and respect nature and each other. Their environment and community provide shelter, warmth and wisdom. Stories passed down orally across generations and millennia teach them they’re connected to everything, part of something bigger than themselves

Although the animation focuses on folklore and the live action on traditional customs, both tell the same story. You want to take care of this brave little girl and her sweet, loyal friend as much as you want to protect this resilient culture and its soft-spoken people from the damages wrought by climate change and other forces threatening their way of life.

In the end, Nuna, her creators and all of us are fighting a common enemy—that which would extinguish a quietly proud culture well worth saving. Atmospheric and enchanting, with its delicate visuals and haunting soundtrack, Never Alone goes some way toward preserving and promoting Inuit ways. The fact that it does so using the modern language of gaming makes the end result, much like that which inspired it, a real thing of beauty.