Feeling Alone with “Never Alone”

Many games are guilty of this, but Never Alone is more so than most: Who is this for? It’s an educational documentary crushed into a video game based on a flimsy Inupiaq fable. The punchline is absurd: something to do with caribou shoes. The game is clearly for those who enjoyed the brevity and simple aesthetic charms of Limbo, but the controls aren’t as responsive.

Never Alone is also designed for co-op play, which is how I experienced it, roping in my girlfriend to play through the entire (two-hour) campaign. One player controls Nuna, who has to awkwardly throw a bola to shatter various ice-based obstacles; the other controls a nimble Fox who, early in the game, can scrabble up walls, and later in the game can float through the air, manipulating objects from the spirit realm. But “Never Alone” is filled with loneliness; Nuna is the device that must be brought into position, but there’s little that she has to do on her own–in fact, several of the key boss encounters are played almost entirely from the Fox’s perspective (especially during a polar bear encounter). You don’t feel as if you’re playing so much as you’re tagging along, and that’s essentially how I’d summarize the game itself. You can spend almost as much time watching the 24 interviews unlocked throughout the game as you can playing it.

For accomplished gamers, Never Alone won’t ever make you break a sweat. Every puzzle is crushingly obvious, and difficulty lies in the hands of the controls, not the execution. Consequently, novice gamers, the ones who might be charmed by the childish story, won’t be able to progress. A parent wouldn’t be able to help their child through, either, as each character has their own tasks to complete; they’d be better off simply reading a bedtime story to their child, creating their own unique interactions as opposed to being tethered to the puzzle-platforming of Never Alone. As with Aaru’s Awakening, there seems to be a trend of cashing in on cultural stories to justify awkward controls, and in truth, the game itself must always come first. That’s why Journey, which has no dialogue, works so well–it hasn’t gotten lost within itself, or, in Never Alone‘s case, swallowed by a blubbery whale.

A game must be enjoyable, even an educational one, and I can name several good Learning Company classics, to say nothing of The Oregon Trail (or the new 80 Days mobile game) or Carmen Sandiego. Even Cloud Chamber, which was essentially just a series of videos and texts that you could comment upon–nothing more than a forum–at least knew who it was targeting: a generation of tweeters and paranoid conspiracy seekers. Gone Home isn’t really for anybody; at best, it succeeds by raising awareness for the Inupiaq people . . . but hell, I’d rather play something like Second Son.

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