This interview was conducted by Mark Oppenneer and originally published  on the Ethnos Project website. An edited version is published here with permission.
Young people of every generation to some degree pull away from the mores, ideals, and traditions of their elders and redefine, refuse, and remix the culture. On one hand, youth want to cut their own rug and establish their own identities, and on the other, traditional culture bearers want to sustain and stimulate pride in a rich cultural heritage.
The Cook Inlet Tribal Council in Anchorage, Alaska, has responded to this age-old dilemma with a fresh strategy: the creation of Never Alone (Kisima Inŋitchuŋa)  a video game about a young girl who tries to save her people from an endless blizzard. Steeped in Iñupiat values, the game draws players of all ages into the heart of a traditional narrative through whimsical and engaging game play.
Never Alone will be released this fall. Mark Oppenneer spoke with the team behind the video game to learn more.
Tell us about the genesis of Never Alone. Who decided on a video game as a way to share Iñupiat culture? How was Kunuuksaayuka chosen as the basis of the game over other narratives?
Never Alone started as an idea from Cook Inlet Tribal Council (CITC) , a tribal nonprofit organization serving Alaska Native and American Indian people residing in the Cook Inlet region of southcentral Alaska. Located in Anchorage, CITC helps motivated individuals achieve their full potential through an array of support services including education, employment and training and services geared to helping build healthy families. CITC had three goals: to create a new source of revenue that could allow CITC to increase the level of services offered to Alaska Native people; to share Alaska Native culture with new audiences around the world; and to work to provide opportunities for Native youth to take pride in their history. […]
Gloria O’Neill, CEO of CITC, conducted an extensive search of possible development partners. During that process, she met Alan Gershenfeld and Michael Angst, co-founders of E-Line Media ; a company with a long history of creating games to educate, engage and empower. Together, CITC and E-Line realized there could be a great opportunity to combine expertise and create a compelling game based on Alaska Native culture. Alan and Michael brought on Sean Vesce, a veteran video game designer and creative director to lead the project.
The project began with a deep ethnography built over several extended visits with Alaska Native elders, research at museums and sessions with storytellers and youth. As the team discussed the many possible stories and characters and how they might be used to support the needs of game design, they began to focus on tales with strong characters and a clear narrative arc that could be adapted into the beginning, middle and end of a video game – and had all of the action and thinking ‘verbs’ that are at the core of good gameplay.
From the possibilities, the Iñupiat storytellers involved recommended the Kunuuksaayuka story as a potential narrative spine. After researching, the development team agreed that Kunuuksaayuka had great potential for providing strong storytelling in the context of a game and could allow the main characters to explore diverse and interesting environments.
To ensure that the game respected the wisdom, themes and learnings that are embedded in the Kunuuksaayuka story, the team worked directly with Minnie Gray, the Iñupiaq elder whose father, Robert Nasruk Cleveland, was first recorded relating Kunuuksaayuka. Minnie provided input and suggestions that the team incorporated into the game adaptation.
In the Never Alone trailer, the narrator states: “We have so much to share and now we have a way to share it.” Were previous modes of storytelling breaking down? If so, what do you feel video games offer that traditional storytelling doesn’t?
In the modern era, there has been increasing concern that the rapidly changing, highly complex and digitally infused nature of life in the 21st Century has resulted in youth becoming increasingly disconnected from these classic stories and the wisdom of their elders. Those voicing this concern often point to the rapid growth of computer and video games as one of the culprits of this phenomenon.
Despite their ubiquity among youth, digital games are a medium that is largely alien to most elders, creating a concern that the more time youth spend playing these games, the less time they are connecting with their history, culture and values. This is especially true since the depiction of minorities, indigenous peoples and other under-represented communities in popular commercial games is often caricatured, appropriated or inaccurate.
A clear question, then, is can this powerful new medium be harnessed as a new platform for passing along wisdom from generation to generation in a culturally appropriate, engaging format? We strongly believe that the answer is ‘yes’ – but that it won’t be easy. To truly leverage the unique power of this young medium will require multi-stakeholder partnerships among experienced, proven game designers, who fully understand the unique affordances and limitations of the medium, working closely with a diverse groups of elders, youth, storytellers, artists and social entrepreneurs who can collectively represent an indigenous voice in a new, interactive entertainment medium.
Unlike the transition from oral to written stories, digital games represent a fundamentally different and new form of storytelling. Digital games are interactive, participatory and player-driven. They enable players to step into different roles, confront complex problems, make meaningful choices and explore consequences of various choices and strategies. They are active, not passive. Well-designed games offer a delicate balance of challenge and reward that drives deep levels of engagement, enabling players to advance at their own pace, acquire critical knowledge, iterate based on feedback and use this knowledge to accomplish objectives for which they are invested.
You mention in a recent interview that the decision to feature a female protagonist was a bit controversial. Can you tell us more about those discussions and how you reached an agreement? Are female protagonists common in Iñupiaq storytelling tradition?
We feel that girl characters have been underrepresented in gaming, particularly girl heroes who are powerful and can survive and overcome incredible challenges. Since many of the team members have daughters, we really wanted to create an inspirational role model that could show girls that they can succeed at anything they put their mind to. […]
Iñupiat stories are filled with both boys and girls, men and women. The narrative arcs of stories generally downplay character specifics, like gender in order to focus on the important themes, knowledge and values that the story is communicating. […]