Never Quite Right: A Review of Never Alone

by Jed Pressgrove

Note: This review was made possible by a review copy of Never Alone from E-Line Media.

Never Alone shoots itself in the foot with its best part: the inclusion of brilliant documentary footage of Iñupiat people and land. In this traditional game of jumping and character switching, you gradually unlock mini-documentaries about the Alaska Native group/culture that inspired Never Alone. In fact, the game encourages you to suspend play to watch the segments rather than relegating the videos to main-menu content. This admirable structure has the unintentional effect of exposing Never Alone’s lack of sophistication, pleasure, and beauty as a game.

While the documentaries, along with fantastic in-game narration by James Nageak, connect the audience to an overlooked culture, the game reconnects us to the frustration of platforming banality. The boring action in the first half of Never Alone does not serve the goal of cultural authenticity. Instead, the effort resembles a Yoshi’s Island-meets-Lost Vikings novelty without the classic charm or challenge.

The girl protagonist is Yoshi, opening new passages through the art of throwing. Her arctic fox companion is more interesting to play as, but most of his tricks are by the books: scrambling up walls and untying ropes for the girl. The fox’s most unusual ability is spirit summoning, a double-edged sword. While this ability grants more of a unique platforming identity to match the cultural lesson, the more precarious second half of Never Alone underlines the shoddy game design that is present from the beginning.

Never Alone suffers from Secret of Mana syndrome. Like Secret of Mana, Never Alone has single-player and multiplayer options but would’ve been better as a multiplayer-only game if judged by the (un)intelligence of computer-controlled companions. A single player can only control one character at a time in Never Alone, so the companion character shouldn’t hinder progress, especially since the game restarts from a checkpoint if one character dies. Unfortunately, the computer-controlled companion in Never Alone will inexplicably commit suicide in various situations. For example, you might jump over a pit with no problem before your companion, instead of following suit, incorrectly judges the distance of the pit and falls to its death.

This poor design is complemented by the game’s ugly visuals. While the game claims to be based on a classic Iñupiat story, the documentaries show that the game mostly fails to capture the beauty of Alaska and this native culture. Granted, the story is intended to be dark and tumultuous, but the warm personalities and natural grandeur in the real-life footage are far more satisfying. The documentary induces awe with the green Northern Lights; Never Alone reduces awe with the lights as green obstacles. The documentary emphasizes the sense of community and selflessness in Iñupiat culture; meanwhile, Never Alone protagonist finds her village burned yet doesn’t display any emotion about this loss or being separated from the family/community, despite the narrator telling us that she does! Without the documentary bits, Never Alone would be never appealing.

Tearing Down the Levine/Bioshock Idol

by Jed Pressgrove

Some games media couldn’t resist worshiping developer Ken Levine after he announced the closure of Irrational Games, the studio behind the Bioshock series. This cultural elitism — cute at best and misleading at worst — has no place in reports or editorials, particularly when one considers the history and art of video games.

Perhaps this cultural elitism received its purest and most condescending expression from Gamasutra’s Leigh Alexander when she reminisced about talking with Levine: “I felt it was refreshing to go talk to a game developer who really understood literature, history, theater, who was so obviously fascinated by culture. In my work I talk to man after man who loves to say ‘badass’ or whose scope of references doesn’t extend beyond the Aliens trilogy.”  The smug implication is that most game developers don’t “get” literature, history, or theater — the cultural capital that makes Alexander a privileged human being — making Levine a special breed worthy to worship. Alexander’s intentions with her description might seem innocent, but her spill indicates and reinforces the myopic mindset that Levine is a lonesome intelligent creature in a video game world that lacks cultural understanding and meaning.

Gamespot’s Tom McShea made a similar mistake when he, under the heading of “Bad News: One Less Artistically Minded Developer,” equated the closure of Irrational Games with the gradual disappearance of “emotionally difficult experiences” (?) and “subversive games” from big-budget studios. (One wonders if McShea is familiar with the emotional difficulty involved in playing, say, Castlevania III.) In reality, most developers are mindful of the “art” behind video games. To imply otherwise is inaccurate and maybe even insulting. But who cares about those people who say “badass” anyway?

And how is Bioshock “subversive”? It’s one thing for Boston Magazine to publish ahistorical nonsense like “[Bioshock] was one of the first games to offer the player a moral choice.” But when Alexander types with wonder, “you as the player character make choices and study whether you think they mattered,” one wouldn’t be out of bounds to question whether some experts are driven by hype.

The gross suggestion is that Bioshock provided insight into “choice,” the most tortured term in gaming. How did Bioshock surpass or even meet Fallout, Planescape: Torment, or even Street Fighter II in regard to the consequences of choice? Bioshock has more in common with a movie like The Usual Suspects. Through its devious plot twist, Bioshock favored manipulation over choice — not that I ever cared, as I found the game’s environments and violence to be the main points of interest.

The anti-game history and anti-artist worship of Bioshock and Levine presents a serious intellectual sickness. People are well within the boundaries of reason to love Bioshock, but its cultural reach is relatively limited, unless we define “depth” as a narrow set of philosophical concerns. Criticizing Ayn Rand doesn’t make you an artistic genius — it simply means you know how to pick an easy target. After all, the failed American Utopia has been snatching our morbid curiosities for decades upon decades. Video games have more impressive cultural stories, but the way Street Fighter II brought together people of different backgrounds for friendly competition is a forgotten legacy. The story’s not smug enough.