Never Alone – Iñupiat storytelling with spirit

Never Alone: Nuna's magical bola can clear the way forward / Image E-Line Media & Upper One Games
Never Alone: Nuna’s magical bola can clear the way forward / Image E-Line Media & Upper One Games

A young girl named Nuna aims carefully, flinging her bola at the shards of ice lingering in the windy sky above. The spirits answer. A crane appears: mysterious, beautiful, perhaps even sorrowful. Is it sorrowful for Nuna? I can’t say, but I know I’m entranced.

Nuna is the heroine in Never Alone, a game crafted to introduce aspects of Alaska Native Iñupiat culture to players across the world. Never Alone was developed in partnership between E-Line Media and the Cook Inlet Tribal Council’s (CITC’s) Upper One Games, the first indigenous-owned video game development and publishing company in U.S. history. The game was created over the course of two-and-a-half years, a process honoring continuous and strong collaboration between game developers and Iñupiat cultural ambassadors, ascertaining that Never Alone provides an accurate representation of Iñupiat Native identity. It resonates with Iñupiat culture worldview, values and customs. Giving a voice to the spirit of a people.

Never Alone in the Iñupiaq language is ‘Kisima Inŋitchuŋa,’ ’I Am Not Alone.’


The challenges inherent in this project appear manyfold. Native peoples’ cultures are living entities, alive and being experienced now. They are also historical: rich in experience and past, heritages which need to be chronicled and recorded.

Perhaps the investment of this game can touch the core of Native identity, encouraging younger generations to participate in the living culture. It might also reach audiences across the world who might not otherwise experience a heartfelt image of Alaska Natives. Too often portrayals of indigenous people are heavily stereotyped. In contrast this game– created with knowledge of 21st century game development techniques– is actually a kind of introduction to Iñupiat culture. It is a resource on Native life.

Never Alone: a school of fish in iceberg-strewn waters is one of my favorite spirit images from the game / Image E-Line Media & Upper One Games
Never Alone: a school of fish in iceberg-strewn waters is one of my favorite spirit images from the game / Image E-Line Media & Upper One Games


Never Alone’s plot is inspired by the traditional story of Kunuuksaayuka as told by Robert Nasruk Cleveland, master of the Iñupiaq language oral storytelling tradition. Stories like Kunuuksaayuka were passed down through time, told skillfully by indigenous Elders, and in time recorded on reel-to-reel tape recordings and paper.

“We eventually worked with the story of Kunuuksaayuka as a focal point of the game,” described Ishmael (Angaluuk) Hope, writer, storyteller and poet, and cultural ambassador. “Though it would require more deep investigation than one video game to fully understand,” he outlined, “This video game offers a tasty morsel, enough to know and to remember what we’ve been hungering for this whole time.”

Another of the cultural ambassadors recalled rich experiences learned in community houses called qargi where Elders share the wisdom of classic Iñupiaq language stories preserved over the generations. Ronald (Aniqsuaq) Brower, Sr, translator, voice over and cultural ambassador, wrote: “As a child disabled by rheumatic fever, I listened and learned many Iñupiaq myths, legends, history and stories from Elders that frequented my parents home. I would also be invited by Elders to listen and learn my peoples history and life experiences so I may be useful to our community in my adult years. How correct they were in choosing my life path!” He now “Carve[s] from memory about myths and legends and paint[s] portraits of Iñupiaq Elders.”

Robert Nasruk Cleveland’s daughter Minnie (Aliitchak) Gray helped transcribe her father’s stories. Many of the tales are archived in the book Unipchaaŋich imaġluktuġmiut: Stories of the Black River People. The Never Alone game website links to more stories from Alaska Native culture.

These mythological tales are vessels for Native knowledge: how to survive, and for Native values: how to live rightly.


Your heroine and game avatar is Nuna, a young child whose home is beset by a string of blizzards that makes hunting impossible. She sets out into a dangerous and mysterious land to discover the source of the blizzards. The natural environment is a challenge in and of itself. Its inhabitants are often helpers, sometime neutral, and occasionally foes who must be defeated with clever action. This is a puzzle platform game: Nuna must use every ability at her disposal to make her way forward. She’s certainly capable (in an opening scene she is returning from a hunt with a seal) and strong. At the same time she demonstrates vulnerability; Nuna tumbles, breathes hard, struggles, fights the wind, and mourns. I love the determination and vulnerability combined in this young female protagonist.

Never Alone: escape the aurora borealis / Image E-Line Media & Upper One Games
Never Alone: escape the aurora borealis (Nuna, pull up your hood!) / Image E-Line Media & Upper One Games

The atmosphere is often bleak: blizzard winds and poor visibility can make for an almost melancholy world containing so much snow ice and frigid water. It should whisper words of loneliness, isolation, and insignificance. But of course, Nuna is never alone. A very special Arctic fox is her constant companion (I was surprised to learn that Arctic foxes have indeed served as pets in Native communities over the years). As the long and taxing journey increasingly develops, their companionship strengthens and– without words– you come to care deeply for Fox. This game subtly explores survival, interdependence, and resiliency in an expansive and indeed harsh world. The world is not posed as the enemy, despite its challenging nature. No, the world is very alive. It’s breathtaking.

You can overcome the game as a single player, embodying the roles of Nuna and Fox in turn, switching at will between the two. Alternately, play two-player with each player controlling a single character. Since Nuna and Fox have different abilities, it takes both working as a team for the story to progress. There are elements of cooperative and collaborative learning activities embedded in the game.

Storytelling is a way of passing on knowledge. The option for two-player mode seems to encourage families and inter-generational groups to play together. Many of the cultural ambassadors involved in the project expressed eagerness to play the game with children or grandchildren. The linear nature of the game lets the player progress through the chapters of the narrative tale, solving puzzles and gaining skills that will serve well in subsequent story-line.

Cultural Insights!

Never Alone: unlock Cultural Insights, short videos to further illuminate Native culture / Image E-Line Media & Upper One Games
Never Alone: unlock Cultural Insights, short videos to further illuminate Native culture / Image E-Line Media & Upper One Games

Frontier Scientists is a National Science Foundation- funded nonprofit in science communication which features scientists’ work through short videos. We’ve worked with archaeologists documenting ancient petroglyphs and with modern-day Native basket weavers. It was exciting to see how Never Alone approached adding content in the form of short videos: supplementary learning experiences called Cultural Insights. Elders and other Native cultural ambassadors illuminate aspects of their peoples’ lives. The videos are unlocked during game progression through gaining proximity to a series of owl watchers, and can be viewed at the player’s convenience. The content of the videos is educational and relevant to what’s going on in Nuna and Fox’s tale. They might describe Subsistence Lifestyle, Sharing for Survival, The Heartbeat of the Community, The Month of Night, or stories about the Northern Lights.

One of my personal favorites of the Cultural Insights videos is titled Siļa Has A Soul. Watching it, you learn that siļa is weather, atmosphere, and anything between the land and the stars. You might encounter any number of spirit helpers as you move through siļa, and certainly Nuna and Fox’s journey was made more complete with the spirits’ heart-touching aid. Amy Fredeen, lead cultural ambassador, Cultural Insights contributor, conveys in Siļa Has A Soul an important part of the message: “It’s not one way of seeing things, it’s one way of knowing you’re connected to everything.”

Never Alone: spirits can provide a helping hand, or four / Image E-Line Media & Upper One Games
Never Alone: spirits can provide a helping hand, or four / Image E-Line Media & Upper One Games

Science thinking

Enmeshed in Never Alone are facts about Northern life, and principles of living in and interacting with the Arctic.

Brower (Tiġitquuraq) Frantz, Cultural Insights contributor, remembered the hunters of his community: “They take pride in teaching us everything they know. Now I’m a polar bear guard. We protect researchers who come up to do Arctic studies, protect them while they’re out in the field from ice conditions and polar bears. I’ve worked on more studies than I can count. This is the baseground for the Arctic thaw that’s going on, so a lot of researchers come up to learn about tundra, permafrost, melting sea ice, bromine in the ozone.” He’s a valuable ally on sea ice. “You have to have a lot of local knowledge to understand the ice and the ocean. In case the ice breaks off, you need to know the telltale signs. We have a lot of local knowledge as hunters.”

Native knowledge comes from a foundation more then ten thousand years in the making. People lived amidst natural sciences, and survived by living in harmony with ecological time. We can learn a lot from that knowledge base.

James Paul Gee, Mary Lou Fulton Presidential Professor of Literacy Studies, Arizona State University, defines a number of learning principles in his book What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy. One, the probing principle, describes a cycle of learning in which we interact with the world, reflect on the action and consequence, interact or ‘reprobe’ the world to test the hypothesis, and either refine or accept the hypothesis. Hypothesis thinking is a skill necessary for scientific practice.

Sasha Barab, assistant professor of Education and Associate Director, Center for Research on Learning and Technology, School of Education, Indiana University, and Chris Dede, Timothy E. Wirth professor in Learning Technologies at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, write: “We believe that a primary goal for science education is to help students develop the knowledge, skills, and epistemologies necessary for dealing with 21st century, real world scientific issues.” A game can provide “Rich inquiry-based contexts for engaging scientific issues.”

Encouraging the pursuit of science means harnessing curiosity about the natural world and cultivating it. That means promoting problem solving and systems thinking (considering how different parts of the world interact and influence one another). James C. Lester, Director of the Center for Educational Informatics at North Carolina State University and professor of Computer Science, and other authors write that simulations and games are “Enabling learners to see and interact with representations of natural phenomena,” like facets of the Arctic’s varied ecosystems and phenomena like the Aurora Borealis or the motion of sea ice. The experience might feasibly act as a foundation, facilitating future learning. It’s a curiosity-sparking environment that can promote STEM disciplines (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math education).

Leo (Oktollik) Kinneeveauk, Cultural Insights contributor, was one of many Native children who had to depart a home village to undertake schooling. “Education needs to be pursued.” He expressed a hope that Never Alone will encourage more people to pursue knowledge. “I hope this game will help not only the children but the adults in learning more of Our traditions and Our language.”

Being Nuna, together

Never Alone: puzzle out how to outsmart a polar bear / Image E-Line Media & Upper One Games
Never Alone: puzzle out how to outsmart a polar bear / Image E-Line Media & Upper One Games

There’s certainly value in interactive gameplay that fosters active social and effective learning, opening the window to further exploration. Barab and Dede suggest a positive learning outcome occurs when an individual is motivated to acquire knowledge and understand content. I think Never Alone’s ecosystemic settings, Native worldview, rich story and relatable heroine help inspire that learning.

Leo (Oktollik) Kinneeveauk also said that “When you go away to a different place, you get to meet different people;” encountering difference is a part of learning. Simulations like the Never Alone video game also encourage role play: putting yourself in the place of the protagonist, Nuna.

Research suggests that people playing as Nuna and/or Fox can experience ideas and emotions similarly to how other players experience them. Work by psychologist Carlos Mauricio Castaño Díaz, Ludwig-Maximilians-University of Munich, Munich Center of the Learning Sciences, and Worawach Tungtjitcharoen, Department of Psychology, Thammasat University, Pathum Thani, Thailand, presented in ‘Art Video Games: Ritual Communication of Feelings in the Digital Era’ illustrates that art video games serve as a way that game designers can transmit social representations to players. A social representation is a collection of values, ideas, metaphors, beliefs, and practices that are shared among the members of groups and communities. “The results of the research confirmed the possibility of accessing people’s social representations using a video game as stimulus. Cluster analyses depicted that these representations were emotionally linked and socially shared among the players.”

Further, “Videogames attract participation by individuals across many demographic boundaries (e.g., age, gender, ethnicity, educational status),” according to Mark Griffiths, psychologist, professor at Nottingham Trent University and Director of the International Gaming Research Unit.

So a wide variety of people can experience the game by inserting themselves into Nuna’s role, and this meaningful play can link gamers and cultural ideas in a shared experience that promotes shared values.

For me, playing the game was a moving experience. I explored a living history through play, and was wowed by Never Alone. Such a bold and inclusive platform for sharing Native storytelling and culture, so beautifully done. (Plus, even if you don’t have a gaming system, you can purchase Never Alone on Steam for your PC. I love my work and talk about Arctic science all the time; I actually got this wonderful game as a gift from a friend.)

Social thinking

Lester et al. explore narrative-centered learning in simulations and games. They record that when learners “Perform the narrative,” or engage in a series of connected events through a story, the progression allows the gamer to “Actively draw inferences and experience emotions prompted from interactions with the narrative text.” It allows the learner to enter and explore a different social role and cultural context. In the case of Never Alone we’re exploring Nuna’s role. That might not be the whole picture. Playing Never Alone, you enter the role of an Iñupiat hero: an everyday person who accepts and embraces the mysteries of the world, strives hard for balance, and does his or her best for the good of the community.

Writer, storyteller and poet Ishmael (Angaluuk) Hope says it better: “What this humble person will represent (who faces that manslayer) is a return to order, a return to true living in the community. And it just takes that one person. It can just be that one person who can help to change everything.”

The idea of community is echoed by many of the Cultural Insights contributors. Christopher (Tuniq) Danner, technology specialist, North Slope Borough School District, went out of state for his schooling but returned home to Barrow. “Because it is a small community, there’s a sense that everyone here is by extension one big family. That’s a trait and feeling we are brought up in because Our ancestors lived that way to survive.” Lived together to survive.

Gee describes that the learning action inherent in performing the narrative causes us to reflect on cultural models regarding the world, to incorporate or juxtapose that learning to our current models and identities. Through this process we gain more meaning and knowledge as we explore not only words but images, symbols, interactions, texts, sounds, and more.

The language

Never Alone is rich with sounds of the environment and with the story told in Iñupiaq. Beautifully narrated by James (Mumiġan) Nageak and subtitled in 10 languages, the game soundtrack provides a spark that might help cultivate students’ grasp of and interest in the Iñupiaq language

Cordellia (Qignaaq) Kellie, Cultural Insights contributor, works with the Alaska Native Heritage Center to facilitate language circles. “Imperfect Iñupiaq being spoken is still Iñupiaq being spoken. There is value in it! Within language is the entire spectrum of life,” according to Cordellia. She continually challenges herself to learn the language. “It’s really important to me to speak Our language. I drill myself on phrases. I listen a lot. I’m not afraid to ask questions, or say I don’t understand.” It’s an incredibly precise language. Anna Nageak, translator and Cultural Insights contributor, speaks Iñupiaq to her four year old grandson. She says “It’s different than the English language, where there’s synonyms—in Iñupiaq language, there’s a specific word for each thing. There’s also a perception of who you are, in both Iñupiaq and English.”

Fannie (Kuutuuq) Akpik, Cultural Insights contributor, attended schools where English was spoken, and where she was “Punished for accidentally speaking Iñupiaq in school.” She described that afterwards “I relearned the proper usage of our language,” and “I knew my parents’ spirits were with me, because they told me before they passed that they would always be with me and give me strength.” She became an Iñupiaq language teacher as a way of contributing to her people and of helping others become more culturally aware.

Never Alone: Nuna and Fox and the whale (scrimshaw carving-like artwork provides transition intervals) / Image E-Line Media & Upper One Games
Never Alone: Nuna and Fox and the whale (scrimshaw carving-like artwork provides transition intervals) / Image E-Line Media & Upper One Games


Part of the goal of Never Alone is to foster pride in Alaskan Native culture and cultural history. The team collected feedback from community members throughout the process. Dima Veryovka, Art Director for Never Alone, watched Alaskan Native school children play Never Alone. He recalled “The best part, by far, was when one of them told us that playing it made him proud to be an Alaskan Native. In my opinion, seeing our game have that effect on someone is the most rewarding feeling.”

Ishmael (Angaluuk) Hope wishes the game will empower Alaska Native youth. “I am hoping that this game will do its humble part to unlock centuries of oppression and colonization of indigenous people. We need more positive images of ourselves, and we need more equal collaborations and opportunities such as the one this game provides.”

Protecting the land’s resources

Tommy Nageak, Cultural Insights contributor, served with the North Slope Borough’s Iñupiat History, Language and Culture Division as a cultural resource specialist ascertaining that Native cultural sites and archaeological sites were not threatened by development projects or ice roads. Similarly, Qaiyaan Harcharek, Cultural Insights contributor, serves as the subsistence research coordinator for the North Slope Borough’s Department of Wildlife Management. “I document subsistence animals harvested – where we go, what we get, and the frequency of land use, so if oil is found offshore and they want to build a pipeline, we can show where and how we utilize the land. That’s where my passion is: protecting Our land and ocean.” He wrote: “We’re living in this Western world, trying to balance the traditional and the modern. What’s really important about this game is having that accurate representation of ourselves.”

Tommy Nageak wrote: “I want people to know that we are rich in oral histories, and that we are at the forefront of the unfortunate climate change up here. I hope the game succeeds! I hope it picks up and people get to learn.”

Never Alone: blizzard winds scour a sometimes-bleak setting, but Nuna is never alone / Image E-Line Media & Upper One Games
Never Alone: blizzard winds scour a sometimes-bleak setting, but Nuna is never alone / Image E-Line Media & Upper One Games

The continuing story

As rapid change continues in the Arctic, indigenous people are experiencing unpredictable conditions. Ronald (Aniqsuaq) Brower, Sr., recalled: “When I was 9 years old we were hunting from ice that was about 25 feet thick.” “Now here it is 50 years later, we’re hunting whale from ice that is 18 inches thick. There’s no more thick ice.” He said: “Even before climatologists were noticing the change, Inuit were already saying, ‘Siļa allaŋŋuq[*]’ – ‘Our climate is changing.'” ([*] I’m not certain I transcribed this particular Iñupiaq word correctly.)

Our climate is changing. Arctic amplification means the Arctic is indeed at the forefront of climate change. Average Arctic air temperatures are warming more than twice as fast as temperatures in the rest of the world. The people of the North are forced to adapt. I imagine they will do so with as much aplomb, cooperation and bravery as Nuna and Fox use to face their challenges.

“Adaptation has been a cornerstone of survival for Alaska Native People,” wrote Amy Fredeen. “Never Alone is another way We can share Our values and culture with future generations and the world.” Storytelling is a vehicle for “Passing on wisdom and values,” and for “Bringing our traditional wisdom to a modern world that has changed the path of Our People forever.”

Laura Nielsen

Frontier Scientists: presenting scientific discovery in the Arctic and beyond

Petroglyphs project, Alutiiq Weavers project

Climate Change Watch project


  • ‘Art Video Games: Ritual Communication of Feelings in the Digital Era’ Carlos Mauricio Castaño Díaz and Worawach Tungtjitcharoen, Games and Culture, January 2015, 10: 3-34 doi:10.1177/1555412014557543
  • ‘Designing game-based learning environments for elementary science education: A narrative-centered learning perspective’ James C. Lester, Hiller A. Spires, John L. Nietfeld, James Minogue, Bradford W. Mott, and Eleni V. Lobene, North Carolina State University, Information Sciences (Impact Factor: 3.89). 04/2014; 264:4–18. DOI: 10.1016/j.ins.2013.09.005
  • ‘Games and Immersive Participatory Simulations for Science Education: An Emerging Type of Curricula’ Sasha Barab and Chris Dede, Journal of Science Education and Technology, Vol. 16, No. 1, February 2007, DOI: 10.1007/s10956-007-9043-9
  • ‘Never Alone Launches to Worldwide Audience’ Cook Inlet Tribal Council, press release, November 18, 2014
  • ‘Project Updates’ & ‘ñupiaq Perspectives’, Never Alone website, E-Line Media & Upper One Games, accessed January 2015
  • ‘The educational benefits of videogames’ Mark Griffiths, Education and Health, Vol. 20 No.3, 2002,
  • ‘What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy’ James Paul Gee, Palgrave Macmillan: New York (2003, Second Edition 2007)