From inhumanly buff, tribally vague warriors in combat games to targets in cowboys-versus-Indians epics, video game representations of indigenous people have been spotty at best. This October’s release Never Alone — based on Inupiat culture — is planned to be the first of a series of game collaborations that give indigenous people a platform.
Colin Campbell at Polygon reported that Never Alone from E-Line Media, Upper One Games, and the Cook Inlet Tribal Council (CITC) is paving the way for the “World Games” initiative, which “will release games based on cultures that have hitherto struggled to find a voice.” A continued collaboration between E-Line and CITC, World Games has reportedly already attracted interest from groups in Hawaii, Azerbaijan, and Siberia.
Never Alone features a girl named Nuna who, with her arctic fox friend, navigates a landscape of puzzles, all while a blizzard pummels the way, and threatens to destroy her homeland. Upper One Games was launched last June by the CITC as the first games company in the United States indigenously owned, with CITC President and CEO Gloria O’Neill saying:
“As an organization we want to be able to chart our own destiny. This isn’t about the status quo; this is about pioneering a new approach to sustainability, as well as meaningful and scalable impact by creating a global video game brand infused with our values and culture.”
The representation of indigenous people in video games has long been more stereotype than sensitivity (you can get a rather dire summary from Elizabeth LaPensée’s 2011 compilation of them here). Even a recent title like Prey (2006) has a Cherokee named Tommy battling aliens with his mystical powers that allow him to detach his spirit, and Assassin’s Creed III (2012) reportedly had a scalping scene removed that featured its half-Mohawk protagonist. The characters are almost always some sort of spell-conjuring shaman — Nightwolf in Mortal Kombat— or tomahawk-wielding behemoth — Chief Thunder in Killer Instinct. Yet video games offer an immersive narrative able to embrace the complexities of diverse cultures and its stories, such as with 2013’s Year Walk that turned Swedish folklore into an eerie experience exploring traditional stories through the intimacy of mobile gaming. There’s also the educational Mission 3: A Cheyenne Odyssey that won Most Significant Impact from this year’s Games for Change festival, centering on relocation and loss of traditions, told in a choose-your-own-adventure structure.
Never Alone and World Games are promising to counter appropriation with collaborative games inspired by the rich art, legends, and history of indigenous cultures, and by showing that an engaging gaming experience can give indigenous stories a voice.
Never Alone from Upper One Games is available on Xbox, PlayStation 4, and Windows PC this October.
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