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Alaska Natives share their stories, culture through commercial games Exclusive

July 21, 2014 | By Leigh Alexander

July 21, 2014 | By Leigh Alexander
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More: Console/PC, Indie, Serious, Programming, Art, Design, Production, Exclusive, Video

Sean Vesce left Crystal Dynamics after 20 years in commercial games, with a few goals not uncommon to veterans of the triple-A machine: He wanted to collaborate with small, focused teams, aimed to create social impact, and wanted to create games he could play with his young daughters.

Never Alone (Kisima Ingitchuna) seems to fit the bill: Its trailer presents a dreamlike, beautiful and playful experience, starring a young Alaska Native girl, Nuna, and her arctic fox friend as they solve puzzles together. First shown during E3, the $15 PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One game favorably caught the attention of all the big consumer sites, and received an Editor's Choice award from Polygon.

Vesce is now creative director of E-Line media, which has been tasked with this very interesting project: to make a game that will benefit Alaska Native people. The region's Cook Inlet Tribal Council provides social, educational and employment support to Alaska Natives, and was looking for a way to share its culture with new audiences throughout the world -- while creating a revenue source that would help provide more services to its people.

Cook Inlet Tribal Council CEO Gloria O'Neill chose E-Line Media among possible development partners; though the company, founded by Alan Gershenfeld and Michael Angst, has a history of working with charitable foundations on educational games and games for social good, Never Alone is to be the company's first commercial project -- with cultural celebration and social good as a main corollary.

E-Line formed subsidiary Upper One Games in direct collaboration with Alaska's Inupiat people; the company says it's the first example of a Native-owned game development business in the United States. Inupiat elders and storytellers are working as part of the development team: Never Alone is based on Kunuuksaayuka, a traditional Inupiat story, and the company says it's collaborating with Inupiat elder Minnie Gray. Her father, Robert Nasruk Cleveland, was the first person on record telling the story, which had been handed down through generations. E-Line says it acts as a "licensor" of a traditional Native story, versus as appropriator.

"The journey of discovery that we’ve embarked on with the Alaska Native community has been unbelievable," says Vesce. "Along the way, we discovered there is this incredibly rich mosaic of cultures in Alaska,- with very deep storytelling traditions. I began to understand that these cultures are not well known outside of Alaska beyond the caricatures and stereotypes that we’ve been fed through television and film."

"We wanted to create a very different experience from the games like Tomb Raider, SOCOM, Quake Live and others that our team had worked on previously."
"Our team recognized a real opportunity to explore the rich Indigenous thought world through games as a means of expanding audiences’ understanding and at the same time providing avenues for players to reconnect to their own cultures," he says. "It has been a huge honor and privilege to be a part of such a special project and to have been entrusted with helping the Alaska Native community create a game that appropriately reflects their rich traditions."

Although the aim is to create a commercial game, Vesce says the team has tried to ensure that every element of Never Alone's design reflects a core set of traditional values as communicated by the collaborators from the Alaska Native community. "We’ve set a very high bar for quality considering our small team, and we wanted to create a very different experience from the games like Tomb Raider, SOCOM, Quake Live and others that our team had worked on previously -- something more reflective, atmospheric, deliberately paced and thoughtful," Vesce says. "The game is based on stories from real people, and we hope to open players' eyes to the fact that there are amazing people and stories right around them."

The story of Kunuuksaayuka is about an endless blizzard that imprisons a small village, keeping them from hunting or gathering food. Explains Vesce: "Together with Ishmael Hope, a talented writer with both Inupiat and Tlinget heritages, we sought Ms. Grey’s permission to create an updated version of Kunuuksaayuka. Ms. Grey taught us that even in the old days, with each storyteller, the stories change and were adapted."

"Her perspective was that with this project we could adapt the old story to work in the context of the game," he continues. "So we set out to create an adaptation, but do so with the utmost care and respect to Nasruk to preserve the essence of the story. For example, the story will be told in the Inupiaq language. We have taken care to present the story in the manner in which stories were traditionally told, including spending countless hours with Inupiat elders in the translation of the final game script to maintain the rich meaning that the stories contained."

The protagonist of the original story searches bravely for the blizzard's source to try to save the village. "In our adaptation, the girl meets a curious Arctic fox and they form a bond and work together to solve the myriad of challenges and obstacles that nature throws in their path," says Vesce. Nuna and her companion will encounter characters, locations and situations inspired by stories the team learned while researching the project.

"Our hope is that as players play, they begin to develop an appreciation for some of the core values of Inupiat culture."
"Our hope is that as players play, they begin to develop an appreciation for some of the core values of Inupiat culture - including interdependence (mutual reliance on each other), resiliency (the ability to persevere through seemingly insurmountable challenge), and respect for wisdom and knowledge that is passed from one generation to another," Vesce says.

The game's writer, Ishmael Hope, describes the feeling of hearing stories from an elder as "like being truly fed," Vesce cites. "I believe players are hungry for this kind of thing."

Working with the Alaska Native community has been "the most deeply gratifying and challenging experience" of Vesce's 20-year career in games, he says. "It's been inspiring to... become students of their culture and to use our skills and knowledge as game developers to help meet their goals."

"We have been consistently amazed by their perspective, their wonderful sense of humor, their level of adaptability and resilience, and of course their incredible history," he continues. "They are trying to share and extend their traditions in a world that makes this extremely difficult, and are willing to take huge risks, like working with a bunch of guys from Seattle to make a video game based on their culture, to be able to share their culture with the world."

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