- Associated Press - Sunday, November 23, 2014

FAIRBANKS, Alaska (AP) - The video games released in the lead-up to the holiday season have something for everyone.

You’ll be able to steal a car on the fictional streets of Los Santos, go on quests with elves and dwarves by your side, or shoot up mercenaries in mountain villages. You can also play as an Iñupiaq girl named Nuna and her arctic fox sidekick traversing an endless blizzard on the tundras of Alaska, escaping hungry polar bears, navigating treacherous ice floes and exploring the traditional folklore and stories of Alaska Native communities.

The game is “Never Alone” and it is a unique and first-of-its-kind venture.

Developed hand-in-hand with the Alaska Native community, the game draws on the art, traditions, stories and language of the Iñupiat in a sincere and sensitive downloadable game.

Never Alone is the product of the first Native American games studio, Upper One Games, a joint venture of the Cook Inlet Tribal Council and E-Line Media. After more than two years of development and numerous trips to Alaska, Never Alone was released Tuesday.

Game developer Sean Vesce said the project was pitched by Cook Inlet Tribal Council President and CEO Gloria O’Neill, and he said he and the other developers were enthralled by the opportunity to have a community involved in the development of such a game.

“A lot of us experienced game developers are used to working in tubes with other game designers, and so this is really the first time where we had an opportunity to get out into other communities, understand the culture and bring our experience to help further the community’s goals,” he said.

It quickly became clear that the game would need to closely involve the Alaska Native community if it was to get anywhere close to meeting goals set by the developers and the Cook Inlet Tribal Council.

“One of the things that was clear in those initial conversations, it was clear that we needed to make sure that all of the creative decisions were done in partnership with folks from these communities,” Vesce said. “There was no way we could come up, have a conversation, go back to our studio (in Seattle) and make a game that was worth anything.”

The development included more than a dozen trips to Barrow and Anchorage to meet with elders, artists, storytellers, craftsmen, youth and “regular folks.” Each time they returned, the development team members would bring examples of the in-game artwork and playable demos to get input on the direction of the game.

Never Alone also includes short video documentaries unlocked throughout the game that feature real-life community members telling their own stories about living in the Arctic. The videos have a quality documentary feel, but because of the many visits to the community, they are friendly and personable.

The game is voiced by James Nageak in Inupiat in a warm and rich performance that captures the personal nature of oral storytelling. It includes all the asides and humor you might expect when hearing a story told by a grandparent or elder.

The game has an added level of care that has gone into its mechanical crafting. The animations are smooth and lifelike, and the game eases the player into puzzles that become more challenging but never impossible.

Never Alone can be played in single player, with the player switching between controlling Nuna and her fox friend, or by two players, one controlling each character.

Vesce said the initial response to the game has been overwhelmingly positive from gamers and non-gamers alike.

“That’s been tremendously rewarding for us, to see young people play and be delighted, to see hardcore gamers be delighted and the people who never played a game pick up the controller and be delighted,” he said. “But the most important thing for me, and what’s been most touching, is to see the people from the community actually saying ‘this is something I’m proud of.’”

Eric Watson, the Cook Inlet Tribal Council village liaison, said the game has already had a meaningful impact on the Alaska Native community. The game was showcased at the Alaska Federation of Natives annual convention and the Youth and Elders conference earlier this year. He said that being able to see your own culture represented in a video game in a way that’s accurate means a lot, especially to Alaska Native youth.

“It’s a project of passion and pride,” he said. “It’s an outlet that has allowed us to share our culture and share it with the world.”


Information from: Fairbanks (Alaska) Daily News-Miner, https://www.newsminer.com

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