A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of playing Upper One Games’ Never Alone, or Kisima Injitchuna. It was a relatively simple puzzle-platformer game that on the merits of gameplay doesn’t do anything too drastic from the norm. However, what the game did do incredibly well was teach me something new.
The game uses Alaskan indigenous folklore and storytelling as a narrative. Following the adventure of a young Iñupiaq girl named Nuna and her fox companion, the two go on a journey to stop a brutal blizzard that threatens her village. Between chapters and various story segments, we are introduced to “Cultural Insights”, brief documentary-like clips that explore the culture behind the setting for the game and the developer’s explanation for them.
This particular method of exploring a culture really struck a chord with me. The combination of traditional storytelling in a modern medium is something that I believe can be used for greater educational purposes. The format in which the game introduces the bits of information that fill us in about the stories of the people is particularly key to this. By intersecting gameplay with documentary style footage, the player is actively being engaged with the subject at hand.
Functionally educational games such as Math Blaster use the notion of twitch game mechanics to teach math to children. Where Never Alone shines is by using the mechanic of progress to encourage learning in a decidedly more social studies based environment. I believe this style of game could be applied to any type of cultural study and captivate the interest of the player. By tailoring the art style, game mechanics, and genre, it would be possible to elaborate on the history and stories of so many different cultures, using informative videos to hold it all together.
Put a game like this in a classroom setting and have them take turns on the gameplay segments while taking notes during the videos. Or better yet, put them in a computer room and have them each play through the game on their own, then ask for a paper or presentation of one aspect of the culture at the end. There are many opportunities here for engaging learning, and I think it would be a shame to let the practices and themes of Never Alone go to waste.
By specifically using video games as the platform for stories like this, we’re also preserving the culture of people the game is about. Generational stories are hugely important in many cultures because they pass down the beliefs of the people to the next-in-line. Crossing the border of word of mouth in to electronic medium not only gives the stories newfound relevance by keeping up with ever-evolving communication methods, but allows these stories to be accessed by people all around the world.
Playing this title taught me about the Iñupiat people and the stories they tell, something that I may not have ever heard of otherwise. While the game itself may have been a bit buggy and rough around the edges, what the game tries to do goes far beyond what the vessel for it is. I would put Never Alone and games like it in the classroom, and I am sure it would be more than memorable.