Grant Roberts is the Lead Game Designer on Never Alone at E-Line Media. He got his start in the business as a writer and editor for Next Generation Magazine back in 1997, and has been in game development for over fifteen years.
When you think about how a game first gets started — that moment where someone says "we should do THIS" — you probably don't think of a nonprofit organization helping the indigenous people of southcentral Alaska. In fact, you probably don't think "Alaska" at all. But that's where our story begins.
For the past 30 years, the Cook Inlet Tribal Council (CITC) has been a leading provider of social, educational, and employment services to Alaska Native people of the region. But in 2012, they resolved to do even more. CITC wanted to share Alaska Native culture with new audiences globally, and use the power of games to celebrate and extend cultures throughout the world. That led to Gloria O'Neill, the CEO of CITC, conducting an extensive search of possible development partners. During that process, she met Alan Gershenfeld, the co-founder and president of E-Line Media.
E-Line already had a long history of using games to educate, engage, and empower players — but they were also interested in creating more traditional consumer-focused products. To do this, they brought aboard industry stalwart Sean Vesce, whose long list of credits includes MechWarrior II, Interstate '76, and many of the Tomb Raider games. Sean assembled a leadership group of other AAA veterans who were also eager for a transition from the world of hardcore action games into uncharted territory — then filled out the studio with a mix of seasoned developers and eager young faces.
The development team in August 2014 — Not pictured: animator Adrian Sairin, engineer Chris Eng, artist Kayl Myers, QA tester Nick Huntington
Not everyone on the core development team was familiar with Unity. Few of us had any experience making a platformer, puzzle or otherwise. And there was no precedent for the kind of relationship we developed and cultivated with members of the Alaska Native community over the course of the two and a half years between that first Gloria-Alan meeting and the game's launch in November of 2014.
It wasn't easy — Alan actually tried to talk Gloria out of the idea at that meeting, due to the risky nature of the games industry — but somehow, E-Line and CITC pulled it off. With a very small team, we shipped Never Alone on three very different platforms simultaneously on launch day, fully localized into ten languages. We've been nominated in nearly every major video game award program. We're on over fifty "best of 2014" lists. And most importantly, we made something that the Alaska Native community is proud of — which is a success on a completely different axis than what you usually find in this business.
What Went Right
1. Inclusive Development
One of the key things we discovered early on is that we neither wanted nor would have been able to make Never Alone without intensive collaboration with the Alaska Native community. The responsibility to the community was more rewarding (and demanding) than any relationship with a publisher that any of us had experienced.
The collaboration started in July of 2012 with a spirited, multi-day roundtable discussion in Alaska. There were elders, youth, artists, storytellers, and historical advisors from the Iñupiaq, Tlingit, Yup'ik, Tagish communities present, along with representatives from CITC and E-Line Media. There were many goals on both sides, but the most important objective of what would become the Never Alone development team was to earn and sustain the trust of the Alaska Native community by articulating our role as students, not borrowers.
From there, the team spent weeks meeting with Ishmael Hope, an Alaska Native storyteller. His involvement would continue throughout the project, and he was invaluable as its writer and most frequent creative collaborator. Ishmael shared hundreds of Alaska Native stories passed down through generations — many of which would make fantastic games! We eventually narrowed down the candidates for adaptation to a handful, and then chose Kunuuksaayuka as the framework for the game.
We could have stopped there. And indeed, one of the reasons we wanted to work so hard to establish trust and be careful stewards of Alaska Native culture is the several groups in the past who didn't even get that far. But choosing the story wasn't enough. As we learned through Ishmael, Robert Nasruk Cleveland was one of the greatest indigenous storytellers ever, and was acknowledged by the elders of his time for his immense knowledge. So once we picked Kunuuksaayuka as told by Nasruk, we met with Minnie Grey, his daughter and oldest living descendant — and received permission to adapt that version for Never Alone.
Minnie Aliitchak Gray (daughter of Robert Nasruk Cleveland) and Creative Director Sean Vesce
The process wasn't easy. The team relished the challenge of making a game based on a culture different from our own — and we all grew over the course of its development. We learned to rethink how we thought of stories. We learned how to let go of internalized stereotypes, both seemingly innocuous and otherwise.
It was also important for everyone to see the world through each other's eyes. Members of the core development team made frequent visits to northern Alaska to meet with people from all over the Iñupiaq community, from elders to preschoolers. And we were lucky enough to be visited in Seattle by Alaska Native elders and storytellers, some of whom appear in the Cultural Insights we feature in the game. I can personally vouch for James Nageak and his wife Anna — in addition to providing wisdom from multiple generations and James starring as Never Alone's Iñupiaq narrator, the two of them are amazing dinner companions.
We were continually surprised over the course of Never Alone's development by how...extreme the stories could be. These aren't G-rated tales with a plucky hero and a jaunty musical number at the end. A lot of them are short, some of them are brutal, and a few are downright shocking — like the story of the razor-toothed big-mouthed baby that chews through its entire family and then terrorizes the surrounding village.
The art of Alaska Native people is similarly striking, whether it's sculpture, paintings, or scrimshaw carvings on baleen. When it was time to create the visual style of Never Alone, we knew it would be a challenge to faithfully represent the unique nature of its source material. To solve that challenge, I enthusiastically recommend employing an Art Director who studied the culture of the indigenous people of the Arctic Circle in his youth.
Dima studied indigenous art and culture at the St. Petersburg Academy of Arts
Much of Dima Veryovka's early artwork was influenced by Inuit art and mythology, so it was a natural fit for him to create the look of Never Alone as a mix of the world of Alaska Native stories and the real world that the Iñupiat live in today. The wall next to his desk is a collage of the familiar, the exotic, and the indescribable.
Dima created the first Never Alone concepts using a lot of pastels and desaturated colors, which helped to create the ethereal, dreamlike visuals that appear in the final game. At the same time, the ghostly green Aurora lights, the crystal blue glow of the ice, and orange Arctic sunsets added some much-needed saturation to the visual style — and helped to create contrast and punctuation throughout the experience. The look of the game evolved a lot over time as Dima was able to make more frequent trips to different parts of Alaska to experience the art of the Iñupiaq firsthand.
Subtle vignetting and heavy use of depth-of-field help to draw you into the Arctic winter, and the ever-present snow and howling winds keep you there. The blizzard was nearly as much of a character in Never Alone as Nuna and Fox — the story of Kunuuksaayuka is all about the endless blizzard that threatens the survival of Nuna's world.
Dima's visits to Alaska helped refine the game's award-nominated art style
Of course, the audio was just as important to get right. After all, it's hard to believe that the Arctic winds are howling without it. Our partners at Impossible Acoustic were up to the challenge, though — they hiked up icy mountains, raided snowy parking lots, and even visited the mystical land of Home Depot to buy a bunch of wood that they gleefully destroyed to provide the sounds behind the collapsing structures in Never Alone's coastal village chapter. Next time, we'll bring Jamie and Brendan into the process even earlier to make the audio an even bigger part of the experience.
3. Local Co-Op and Iñupiaq Values
There are many values that members of the Iñupiaq community related to us as being core to who they are as a people. Values like subsistence, practicality, and a surprising amount of humor. But the three that we chose to focus on for Never Alone were resilience, intergenerational exchange, and interdependence.
It's easy to see how resilience features in our design of the game. Life in the Arctic is harsh even without an endless, debilitating, supernatural blizzard to deal with, so Nuna and Fox have to be resilient to survive. It's not just physical resilience, either — Never Alone starts out simple and quiet, but by the time Nuna reaches the end of her journey, players have to show the same resilience as their avatar.
One other thing that went right: we made an underwater level that no one hated
We tried to make the other two values reveal themselves in the game, too. Nuna must perform an act of kindness and respect for an elder in order to receive two keys to her quest: the bola she must keep safe from the man who destroyed her village, and the wisdom of the elder who rewards her. And interdependence plays a huge part in the narrative, as well: Nuna and Fox need to depend on each other to find the source of the blizzard, but they also need to live in harmony with the land around them.
Interdependence and intergenerational exchange also found their way to the experience of playing the game. We knew early in development that online co-op was something that other games had featured, but it never felt like the right fit for us. We worked hard to create a real sense of immersion in the world while you're playing the game, and knew it would be tough to maintain that if you had to talk through solving puzzles over a headset. Plus, making online co-op work in a game that requires such specific timing would have significantly affected our schedule.
So we focused on local co-op instead. That enabled us to reinforce the theme of interdependence through playing side-by-side with another person, something we saw firsthand a lot at trade shows and other public events. We also frequently got to see intergenerational exchange in person when parents would play with their kids. Nuna and Fox play very differently, so it was great to see people with different skill levels working together.
There aren't many puzzle platformers that feature local co-op, and it's understandable why: it was a big challenge to make the experience fun for both single-player and multiplayer playthroughs. But local co-op was a big success for us — especially compared to one of the things that Went Wrong.