Colin Lowther and Liz Waid look at how a modern video game is helping to preserve one traditional native culture in Alaska.
Welcome to Spotlight. I’m Colin Lowther.
And I’m Liz Waid. Spotlight uses a special English method of broadcasting. It is easier for people to understand, no matter where in the world they live.
A computer screen shows a cold land. It is covered with snow and ice. A young girl walks through the snow. She is wearing clothes made of animal skins. An arctic fox walks beside her. This dog-like animal is white, like the snow. Suddenly, the ice under the girl and fox begins to move. They run and jump to escape. They climb mountains. They run away from huge polar bears. They talk to the wind and the stars.
The girl, Nuna, and her fox are the main characters of a new video game. The game is named ‘Kisima Ingitchuna’. Its English name is ‘Never Alone.’ It is the first video game based on an indigenous, or traditional native culture. Today’s Spotlight is on the video game Never Alone.
The Inupiat people live in Alaska, in the far North. It is a cold and snowy place. Yet people have survived there for thousands of years. The Inupiat have many ancient cultural traditions. However, their way of life has changed. For example, people now have video games and television. Young people often prefer these to their cultural traditions. Now, the customs and traditions of the Inupiat are disappearing. But people are finding ways to continue indigenous traditions in Alaska. One of these groups is the The Cook Inlet Tribal Council.
The Cook Inlet Tribal Council wanted to teach young people about their traditional stories and cultural history. So they decided to make an educational video game. But they wanted it to be a good quality game that was fun to play. They began work with Sean Vesce of E-Line Media. He had worked on many successful video games. Vesce and the Cook Inlet Tribal Council created the world’s first indigenous video game. They called this game Never Alone. Vesce describes the game to the news organization NPR:
“The main story is based on a traditional story called Kunuuksaayuka. It is the story of a snowstorm that never ends. This blizzard is causing problems for a family. In the traditional tale, the son wants to find what is causing this unusual weather. The story goes that this boy goes out. After some time, he comes to the cause of the blizzard. Using his intelligence, he finds a way to stop the blizzard. And I will not tell about everything that happens but that story offered many ideas that were great for a game.”
Members of the tribal council and video game experts did a lot of research to make Never Alone. They talked to many community members. They especially talked to older people, artists and story tellers. They wanted to hear traditional stories. Then they wrote a version of the Iñupiat stories for the game. They made written subtitles in ten languages. These words appear at the bottom of the screen in a player’s native language. But the voice in the game always speaks the traditional Iñupiaq language. On the website Kotaku Evan Narcisse reviews the effect of this spoken story:
“The voiceover words in Iñupiaq makes it feel real and special. Even those who do not understand Iñupiaq can understand the humor, importance and sadness. It is more meaningful than simply reading words at the bottom of the screen. I felt like I had traveled somewhere. I felt I was learning about the people and history of southwestern Alaska while playing Never Alone.”
But Never Alone is not just educational. It is also fun! It is a platformer game. Gamers move Nuna or Fox up and down different platforms or levels. They jump from platforms such as clouds, mountains of ice and wooden buildings. They have to solve questions and problems to keep moving. In the game, Nuna uses a weapon called a ‘bola’. The bola looks like a stick. It is a traditional wood weapon. She can throw or spin the bola to protect herself and Fox.
The Cook Inlet Tribal Council and Sean Vesce wanted to be sure that the Iñupiat people thought it showed their culture correctly. They also wanted local people’s opinions on playing the game. So they tested the game in Iñupiat communities. Vesce told NPR about their good results:
“Our trips to Alaska really changed us as game developers. We went to a school with an early version of the game, that kids could play. Kids were really excited. You could see their body language; they were leaning forward. They had a lot of great ideas about what we should include and what we should be careful about.”
Soon afterwards, the game was launched. People all over the world could now play Never Alone. It won many awards. And many gamers gave Never Alone good reviews. They said it is beautifully designed and interesting to play. But the game is also reaching its goal of connecting people to traditional culture. Daniel Starkey wrote a review of Never Alone for the website Eurogamer. Starkey is a Native American. He wrote about how powerful it felt to play an indigenous game:
“I have learned this belief inside of me that there is no point in trying to keep traditions alive. I feel that in a few generations they will be lost, no matter what I do. Never Alone is different. The fact that it exists challenges me. It does not make me feel sorry for myself. It stands against everything that I have grown to be. It tells me to be better, and it also shows me how.”
Amy Freeden works with the Cook Inlet Tribal Council. She says that reviews like this make her cry with happiness. The Iñupiat way of life may change, but the stories of their people will always be real and important. As Freeden told Eurogamer:
“This is a new way of storytelling for our people. Storytelling has been this important tool for Alaska Natives to pass on wisdom to the next generation. Before Western influence we did not have written language. It was all a spoken tradition. We had storytelling and this artform called scrimshaw - the art of drawing stories on animal bones. Never Alone brought these to life on screen. It was completely emotionally moving. These are our stories, presented in a new way.”
The writer of this program was Rena Dam. The producer was Bruce Gulland. The voices you heard were from the United States and the United Kingdom. All quotes were adapted for this program and voiced by Spotlight. You can listen to this program again, and read it, on the internet at www.radioenglish.net. This program is called, ‘Never Alone: A Cultural Video Game.’
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