Upper One Games: the culturally sensitive company hoping to build a new genre

How the gorgeous Never Alone was designed to educate, inform and entertain

Never Alone is a forthcoming puzzle-platformer, due for release on PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One this November. In it, you play both an Iñupiaq girl named Nuna and a friendly arctic fox, in a story based on indigenous Alaskan folk tales. It’s a project that has seen a new developer formed from a collaboration between publisher E-Line Media and the Cook Inlet Tribal Council, in an attempt to create a new genre of ‘World Games’, intended to contribute to the maturation of video games as an art form. We spoke to the developer ahead of the game’s showing at EGX to ask about Never Alone’s development and how it hopes to enlighten players about the culture of Alaskan Natives.

Can you tell us about how the collaboration between E-Line and the Cook Inlet Tribal Council first came about?

The genesis for Never Alone started with Cook Inlet Tribal Council (CITC), a leading provider of social, educational and employment, family and recovery services to Alaska Native people residing in the Cook Inlet region of Alaska. As one of the most forward-looking service organizations in Alaska, CITC was looking for opportunities to create new sources of revenue that could allow CITC to increase the level of opportunities offered to Alaska Native people; to share Alaska Native culture with new audiences around the world; and to inspire indigenous youth to connect with their traditional values and history. After evaluating many different types of business investments, the leadership of CITC determined that creating a video game based on Alaska Native stories and culture had the potential to accomplish all three of these goals in an innovative and fun way. Gloria O’Neill, CEO of CITC, and the full executive team, conducted an extensive search of possible development and publishing partners. During that process, they met Alan Gershenfeld and Michael Angst, co-founders of E-Line Media, a company with a long history of creating games to educate, engage and empower.

"We want Never Alone to be an invitation to the world to connect with a game that is true to the Iñupiaq culture and honors its values, but most importantly really enables players to have fun."

Together, CEI and E-Line realized there could be a great opportunity to not only create a compelling game based on Alaska Native culture, but also to explore the broader thesis of sharing celebrating and extending world cultures rarely represented in popular media through inclusively developed commercial games. In the modern era, there has been increasing concern that the rapidly changing and digitally infused nature of life in the 21st Century has resulted in youth becoming increasingly disconnected from their culture and the wisdom of their elders. Those voicing this concern often point to the rapid growth of digital games as one of the culprits. Rather than seeing digital games as part of the problem, why not embrace them as a part of the solution?

To help address this challenge E-Line Media and the Cook Inlet Tribal Council built a unique team of experienced game developers combined with indigenous elders, storytellers and artists to jointly explore, in a truly respectful and authentic way, the world of the traditional stories and culture of those people in video game form. Successfully exploring this new direction could only be done through a fully inclusive development process in which both game development team and indigenous community had equal seats at both the creative and publishing tables. So CTIC and E-Line worked together to help found Upper One Games, the first indigenous-owned game company in the United States, and E-Line established a development studio in Seattle to work together with Upper One Games and the Alaska Native community to create Never Alone as an example that great games could come from this inclusive development process.

Gloria O’Neill has said elsewhere that she was tired of the media stereotypes of the Alaska Native community and wanted a more accurate representation. What made you decide to use video games to help achieve this?

As we worked together with E-Line to research the presentation of Native peoples in various forms of entertainment media, it quickly became clear that, while negative stereotypes and caricatures abounded in all media, games seemed to use tropes even more frequently. We felt that there was a huge opportunity being missed - that games could be used to positively present indigenous people and share the culture and stories of those people with a global audience. However, to do this properly it would really have to be a truly inclusive development process. This would ensure that the game authentically captured the perspective of the people, communicated the important values of the culture and shared the stories in an authentic and faithful way - and was an engaging entertainment experience where the core mechanics were aligned with the themes and worlds explored. If we can do this successfully, we have an opportunity to create a whole new category - World Games! We want to set the bar high for World Games - we want Never Alone to be an invitation to the world to connect with a game that is true to the Iñupiaq culture, honors Iñupiaq values, but, most importantly, really enables players to have fun.

You obviously have a huge responsibility to the Alaskan Native community. How do you make sure you represent the culture appropriately?

Prior to beginning any core development work, the stakeholders met many times with Alaska Native and Iñupiat elders, youth and storytellers to discuss how Iñupiaq culture, stories and art could fit into a video game structure. A small group, including Ishmael Hope, a noted Alaska Native storyteller and Sean Vesce, the project’s Creative Director, reviewed hundreds of traditional Iñupiaq stories to find candidates that featured both a compelling story that had been passed down for generations and had a narrative structure that would be appropriate for a well-paced puzzle-platform video game.

Protagonist Nuna can pick up objects, and use her bola weapon to reach new areas, while her artic fox ally benefits from being quicker and more agile.

Together, the stakeholders reviewed the carefully curated story collection, doing a deep dive into the meanings and wisdom that the various stories contained, and eventually agreed upon the selection of the traditional story “Kunuuksaayuka” as the primary inspiration for the game’s narrative arc. This close partnership and inclusive development process has continued throughout the development. For example, as game design documents were drafted, they were reviewed with the Alaska Native team members and revised to reflect those team members’ ideas and input.

Over 30 Alaska Native team members have been involved during the course of development and Alaska Native members continue to participate collaboratively in critical roles on all aspects of development. This close, inclusive, partnership, particularly with a number of respected Iñupiaq elders, has helped to eliminate the risk of cultural appropriation and helped to ensure that the game is respectful and authentic to the culture and traditions of the Iñupiat people.

Could you give a few examples of how the culture has inspired the game – both in terms of the game’s aesthetic and the mechanics or puzzles?

The team has innovated and approached development in new ways to highlight the cultural inspiration and partnership with Alaska Native people. Never Alone is inspired by the traditional Iñupiaq story “Kunuuksaayuka.” The game is introduced by an actual Iñupiaq storyteller who begins to tell this timeless tale of an endless blizzard which threatens the survival of an entire village. As the player begins to bring the story to life through gameplay, the narrator reappears from time to time to speak and advance the plotline at key intervals.

In consultation with key Alaska Native team members, the team decided to record all spoken narration in Iñupiaq with subtitles for the player’s specific language; we feel it’s incredibly important to actually hear the native language because the Iñupiat people passed their stories from generation to generation solely via the spoken word for thousands of years. The spoken Iñupiaq brings both authenticity and helps to connect the game to the traditions of the Iñupiat people, even as it introduces the stories and cultures to a global audience.

“The team has loved games like Limbo, Journey, Braid, Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, and is striving to create a title that can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with them.”

We’ve also tried to express some of the core cultural values of Alaska Native people through gameplay. For example, interdependence is incredibly important as one can’t survive in the Arctic without being able to rely on the skills and abilities of all community members. We’ve integrated that concept into gameplay by featuring two unique characters, Nuna and Fox, each with special skills, who must work together and rely on each other to solve puzzles and progress through the game. We also believe that enabling two players to play cooperatively through the game helps to promote a personal connection and dialog - we see players talking and laughing as they work together to advance. This delivers on another key cultural value whereby people can come together to build shared stories and experiences and pass wisdom down the the next generation.

It’s a beautiful looking game – how have you found the Unity engine to work with?

The Unity3D engine has been fantastic! It has enabled the team to build on existing and proven technology so they can spend their time and energy making a game instead of reinventing the wheel. Unity3D is extremely robust, powerful and flexible and really has allowed the game to capitalize on the full creative vision for Never Alone.

Are there any other games or media you’ve been particularly inspired by?

The team has been inspired by examples from many media - from movies to music to games. In particular, we’ve been impressed with films such as Whale Rider which successfully integrate indigenous themes and culture into broadly appealing popular entertainment. Participant Media has also been successful in creating socially impactful films that are still appealing to broad audiences. In the music space, groups like Putamayo have been able to do an amazing job of curating music from indigenous and under-represented people and surfacing the best content to present to people who would otherwise never have the chance to explore these new genres and cultures. In the games space, we’ve been inspired by games that do a great job of presenting powerful worlds in elegant and unique ways. The team has loved games like Limbo, Journey, Braid, Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, and is striving to create a title that can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with these great examples of craftsmanship.

Do you think the current industry climate – with the recent rise to prominence of indie games - has only now made it possible for a game like Never Alone to be made? The availability of robust 3rd party middleware and openness of digital distribution platforms certainly has ushered in a golden age of indie game development. While we believe that the quality of Never Alone would make it stand out no matter when it came to market, it is certainly the case that the team could be more daring and take more risks in development in the current industry climate.

The game has eight chapters, each of which is based on a folk tale from the indigenous culture.

Creating a video game based on the traditional stories and culture of an indigenous people and doing it in an inclusive way that enables that indigenous community, which has never made a game before, to contribute equally to the creative vision and design of the game, is a daring project that is fraught with huge potential risk - from irreconcilable creative differences to inability to ‘find’ a great game in traditional stories. It’s unlikely that a traditional publisher would ever have greenlit such a game and only the openness and self-publishing capabilities of digital distribution platforms such as Steam, PlayStation Network and ID@Xbox enable such risk-taking. Additionally, the availability of middleware like Unity3D enables a fairly small, experienced team to create Never Alone at reasonable cost with incredibly high production standards - standards that would have required large, expensive, dedicated teams only a few years ago.

You naturally want to ensure authenticity and to educate people, but obviously you want to make an entertaining game at the same time. Has it been a challenge to balance those two ideals?

Inclusive development, while extremely rewarding, requires a huge commitment from all sides to build a foundation of mutual trust and respect, and common vision as this is the foundation upon which everything else is built. In this case, the team members came from very different worlds, so developing a common vocabulary and understanding took time. We all still continue in the role of student in the other’s world, but it has been a wonderfully enriching experience.

The process of alignment on creative direction and decision making is always delicate, requiring patience and empathy -- we need to find what ‘feels right’ to all stakeholders. Each decision, from the main character’s gender to the type of companion-animal character to the selection of stories for the narrative arc, involved spirited discussions. As with any complex project that involves input from a collection of actively participatory stakeholders, it takes time to work though that input to arrive at solutions and directions that both yield strong creative ideas for the game and still authentically represent the people and culture upon whom the game is based.

Is your ultimate hope that this has the potential to change the way people see Alaska Native community? What other aims do you have for Never Alone?

Through Never Alone, we are striving to deliver a world-class game experience that builds upon the stories and culture of Alaska Native people. The game celebrates and shares Alaska Native culture with the world through game play. We believe that, through inclusive and participatory development, we can extend this model of games based on the traditional stories of unique human cultures to new stories, new cultures, and new types of game genres; Never Alone represents the first of what we hope will be many products in this exciting new category of entertainment (“World Games”). We would also like to couple the release of games like Never Alone with opportunities for youth and young adults all over the world to explore, share and extend their own culture and heritage through making games and other media - and are actively planning how to help make this possible.