Never Alone and Gaming Educationally With Your Kids

My daughter turns six soon, and she’s finally reached an age where she and I can game together. She’s had her own gaming tablet, a LeapPad, for years, but these are really the first times we’re playing a proper, competitive game together. If you were one of those gamers who wondered why the Wii was so popular, play Wii Sports with a child and you’ll get it.

Aside from things that allow me to simulate playing baseball with her that do not require exposing either of us to the Yellow Hurty Thing that glares down from the heavens, judging Houstonians for their sins with sunburns and swamp ass, we’ve also gotten into Never Alone on PS4.

If you haven’t played it, it’s a sidescrolling puzzle adventure starring an Alaska First Peoples girl named Nuna and her spirit guide, an Arctic fox. You traverse frozen wastes searching for the source of a mysterious blizzard that threatens your village, outrunning polar bears and evil men.

The game was developed with the participation of the Cook Inlet Tribal Council, a group that works with indigenous Alaskans living in city settings. Playing through it unlocks short videos that tell players about the culture of the Iñupiaq people. In a way it’s like an interactive National Geographic special, but with a solid focus on traditional gaming mechanics.

From a strictly gaming standpoint, it’s not perfect. There are more than a few glitch areas you’ll have to restart if you don’t perform perfectly, the difficulty is uneven and controlling Nuna’s bola weapon is somewhat awkward. Also, it gets a little dark for a game I specifically bought to play with a first-grader, but then again she just sat through an episode about death in Lily’s Driftwood Bay and read The Velveteen Rabbit, so maybe I underestimate her mettle. 

So it’s a pretty if pedestrian sidescroller puzzler that’s never going to top The Swapper or Limbo, but what makes it so wonderfully unique is the reward system. Beating levels doesn’t just give you story progress, but information on a subject most of us don’t know much about. You can even seek secret areas for more videos. Both my daughter and I were always eager to get back to the game, but explorations of mythology and daily life for the Iñupiaq was fascinating. Everything from traditional hunting techniques to the effects of climate change to the creation of art gets explored.

It also gave me an experience I have never had with a video game before or since. The kid and I recently went to the Houston Museum of Natural Science. Our trips usually go butterfly garden, mummies, gem hall and then home. On the way to the Egyptian hall this time, we passed our really excellent and somewhat hidden Hall of the Americas, a place my daughter usually has no interest in. This time I asked, “Hey, do you want to see if they have any stuff about Nuna’s people?” I literally had to run to catch up with her, she did so want to see.

And there it was, right near the entrance. I found my daughter staring wide-eyed at a bola just like Nuna used. Over there were coats like Nuna wore, and masks and art like what appears in the game. It was also set against a backdrop of ice and snow that perfectly mirrored the background in Never Alone. She had me read every placard, confirming with me what was said in the game. It was as if she were stuck in a weird, wonderful place between game and reality. The game made a bunch of stuff that she used to think of as old junk into something almost sacred, and the artifacts turned her video game into something she played almost reverently when we got home.

I’ve always been a huge fan of the concept of educational gaming, but I don’t know if I’ve ever really thought about it this way. She does math with My Little Pony and word recognition with Cinderella, and she loves those games on her LeapPad, but Never Alone was able to move her with a story to be interested in an actual thing she could explore and learn about in real life.

Gaming continues to evolve as an art form beyond mere play and into deep emotional explorations. Watching how my daughter interacted with both Never Alone and its real-world inspirations in the museum makes me wonder if gaming’s version of something like Schindler’s List lies ahead. Can gaming as an art form not just tell stories, but tell them in a way that makes gamers see the world outside the screen and its history in a deeper way? I hope so because watching Never Alone’s effect on my daughter was magic. 

Never Alone's first expansion, Foxtales, is available now. 

Jef has a new story about robotic sharks out now in Lurking in the Deep. You can also find him on Facebook and Twitter

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Jef Rouner (not cis, he/him) is a contributing writer who covers politics, pop culture, social justice, video games, and online behavior. He is often a professional annoyance to the ignorant and hurtful.
Contact: Jef Rouner