Myself and many of my folklorist friends have been excited about the new game Never Alone, finally out now. The game was developed in tandem with Alaskan native storytellers, and as you progress you unlock short snippets of what is basically a documentary about traditional native Alaskan life. The game looks beautiful, the cut-scenes (and to a degree the overall side-scrolling character of the game) referencing the scrimshaw aesthetic of native Alaskan art, and I’ve been enjoying the narration (not in English–there are subtitles, don’t worry). Unfortunately my laptop is too aged to really play it, so I’ve only been able to get past a few checkpoints–I’m still not really out of the “tutorial” stage since my computer keeps crashing. I got it through Steam, but it is also available for Xbox 1 and PS 4 (I only have a PS 2 and Xbox 360, so no luck for me there… incidentally, I do need to buy a new computer, so if you want to help me out with that purchase go to Redbubble and buy some of my stuff! T-shirts are on sale today for Cybermonday!). I’ve also had some issues with the controls, but that may be my computer again–I am afraid I just can’t comment much on the gameplay itself so far, given my technical difficulties (or the story, since I haven’t been able to get very far yet). What I do know of the story is that it is based on a traditional tale of a never-ending blizzard that makes it so the hunters are unable to get food for their families. The protagonist is a little girl, who I assume will be resolving this problem. With her is a fox companion who grants her special access to the world of the spirits and follows along to help her on her journey. So far the story is more of a struggle with the harsh environment (and presumably a mystery as they try to get to the bottom of the never ending blizzard), rather than being centered around a conflict with a specific antagonist, but like I said, I haven’t been able to get very far yet. As you progress you unlock snippets of the documentary, and it gives you the option of watching these immediately–I recommend waiting till later to watch these, as it breaks up the action of the game, making it feel less like a game and pulling you out of the narrative. The context is nice for building up your understanding of the world you are engaging with in the story, so you should definitely watch them, but do it at the end of your gaming session, or better, at the beginning of your next session–or every half hour or hour, if you are playing for a long time.
I’ve been getting really interested in the narrative world of video games lately, partly thanks to a friend whose PhD deals with artificial intelligence and narrative in video games, so it is really fun to run across a game that attempts to bridge the gap between traditional narrative and video gaming in a way that is not simple appropriation and exploitation. At one point in the documentary portion of the game the native participants speak of the “authenticity” of the project. I know “authenticity” has become a bit of a dirty word in folkloristics (I’ve referenced Regina Bendix’s book on the subject several times), but we should note that the suspicion of that word comes out of the paternalistic attitude towards the “folk” on the part of early folklorists, as well as the appropriative, exploitative tendencies of the market–in other words, outsiders constructing the cultural products of the insiders as childlike, “ethnic”, naive, etc, making it acceptable to harvest it without credit or respect for the culture and people who made it, as well as serving to construct those people as “Other”, exotic, museum pieces rather than contemporary agents. In terms of these power dynamics, I think it is quite appropriate to think of “authenticity” in terms of who is doing the “speaking”, so if a native participant in the making of the game wants to sell its authenticity, I am all for it. Which is not to say that things might not be more complicated–from what I understand, this is to be the first in a series of “world games,” exploring traditional cultural material from all over the world, so obviously there is a bit of the usual mining of “traditional culture” for commercial commodities going on here. I think it will be interesting to see how they go about it, and how the populations they work with feel about the end result.
And below, the embedded trailer of the game! It seems great to me so far, despite my technical difficulties, so I recommend getting your hands on it!