After months of lead-up, E-Line Media’s Never Alone video game centered around a young Inupiaq girl named Nuna launched on Tuesday, November 18. The following Friday, representatives from Cook Inlet Tribal Council, E-Line Media, and Upper One Games hosted a launch party at Anchorage Makerspace. Gamers got an opportunity to play the game and ask its developers questions during a remote interview.
The tone was hushed inside the main lobby of Anchorage Makerspace. Players, children and adults alike, stared intently at a half-dozen screens. Lights were kept low and people talked quietly, offering advice to other players if they were stuck at a particular level just playing silently. Organizers from Cook Inlet Tribal Council (CITC) set up a laptop to accommodate patching in Never Alone’s developers from California using Skype.
Energy drinks, water bottles, and a variety of pizza boxes were lined up along one side, though the only offerings left were covered with pineapple and Canadian bacon. Parents talked quietly with each other or took turns playing with their kids.
Creative director Sean Vesce, art director Dima Veryovka, director of consumer marketing Andrew Stein, artist Aleksey Gil, senior engineer Darren Schoen, animator Adrian Sairin, and sound engineer Brendan Hogan from Impossible Acoustic participated in the just-over-an-hour interview. Vesce facilitated on the California-end of the dialogue, and the group answered questions ranging from technical challenges to the soundtrack to art design. At one point, Vesce started to play the game to demonstrate some of the game elements he was explaining, making the occasional “Whoops!” interjection when he made a mistake while playing.
One of the biggest takeaways from the interview is that Vesce and his team were very enthusiastic about integrating traditional Alaska Native stories and history into gameplay. Members of the development team traveled to Barrow to meet with and get inspiration from Inupiaq people. After one visit, Vesce said one of the artists made a bola, the same weapon that Nuna uses in the game. Adrian Sairin chimed in, “We had this foam bird and we hung it off a tree branch and we all took turns trying to hit it. I don’t think any of us were very successful, but we got the general idea of what it takes to get this thing going.”Image courtesy of E-Line Media
Interviews with Alaska Natives are included with the game’s special features, listed as “Cultural Insights.” Vesce encouraged players to watch the videos to get a better appreciation for the people that inspired Never Alone.
Standing near the back of the room, CITC village liaison Eric Watson looked happy. After three years of research and development, Never Alone had finally launched and was available for play. “This is definitely a wait and see moment to see how the game turns out and what the reception is like,” Watson said.
While not directly involved in the game’s creation, Watson’s role was to provide feedback to game developers from Alaska Native CITC staff on the playability and art design of Never Alone. He said he sees the game’s launch as an opportunity.
It’s a way to promote our culture and provide education to our people. At the same time, something like video games and technology is really progressive, and so it spurs interest with all of our youth who may not have the same interest in their culture. This is a nice way to really reengage them. There’s a lot of different reasons for [the game], but it’s really exciting and we’re nervous, for sure, at this moment. But I think everything’s going to be fine. It’s been a fun journey.
Many of the people attending asked the developers if there were plans for a sequel or if E-Line Media had plans to develop games based off of other Alaska Native cultures.
Ready for that question, Sean Vesce said, “This game really is a kind of a test, a trial to see, number one if this theory of inclusive development, you know, working together with a community on a game could work, and also a chance to see whether the gaming audience wanted a game, would enjoy a game like this.” He beamed, adding: “I think, overwhelmingly, that we’re getting a response that we collectively did a good job, that this is something people want to play.”
Having already been contacted by other indigenous groups over the past few months, Vesce explained the viability of future games would be a matter of seeing what the gaming market “had to say.”
Never Alone was released on November 18 and is available on the PS4 and Xbox One platforms. It is also available for download through Steam.