“You wanna play as the Wolf for a bit?”
Eleanor navigated down a series of tree branches, the brisk wind on the tundra nearly sweeping her into the abyss below. As she landed on the lowest step, Dania flew above her, hoping to grab the ––
“What is this, exactly?” she asked.
“A snowflake cloud?” Eleanor peered at the screen, attempting to interpret the swirl of white spots. Dania, as the floating Wolf-Child, began to drag the cloud out from beyond the tree where it was stuck. Halfway through her flight, Eleanor pointed to the screen.
“You’re leaving it behind,” she said. “You must have let go again.”
“Come on,” Dania grumbled. She began to float back towards it.
“I can get it from here, wait,” Eleanor said. Swinging her bola around, she aimed towards the swirl and struck, activating the next series of spirit guides to amble across.
“I don’t know why you have to hold down the shoulder button to drag that thing,” Dania complained. “You didn’t have to earlier.”
“Wolves and wolf-boys operate by different rules, I guess,” Eleanor said. She hopped onto the ghostly bird, and waited.
“Come drag me.”
“Right, right,” Dania said, flying over to guide the spirit platform to the next section.
“How would you play this game with one person?” Eleanor mused.
“The other person is probably computer controlled,” Dania said. “Maybe its easier, they’d just automatically know where to go next.”
Dania and Eleanor continued to traverse the arctic forest, eventually reaching the next chapter. At the bottom of the screen, a notification popped up – “Cultural Insight Unlocked.”
“What’s that mean?”
“I don’t know, they keep popping up,” Eleanor said.
“”Press Tab to Watch,” Dania read. She reached over to the keyboard, sitting on the couch beside them, and tapped the key. A menu opened, showing a series of videos. The most recent, “Rebirth and Naming,” was selected. The two sat a moment, pondering.
“I think it’s a video.”
Dania pressed play. It was indeed a video – “Cultural Insights” from the Iñupiaq people who had inspired the game. The video discussed their belief in rebirth, and the continuance of the spirit in a life after our own. In a charming moment, one woman mentioned that when an adult met a child with the same name as their parent, it wasn’t uncommon for that adult to refer to the child as “Aaka” or “Aapa” – literally translated as “little mom” or “little dad.”
This made Dania giggle.
“I am not the reincarnation of my grandmother, I’m telling you right now,” she warned.
“It’s a nice idea, though,” Eleanor said. She scrolled through the page. “So I suppose one of these unlocks after important moments in the game.”
“Seems like it,” Dania agreed. “We must be close to the end, there’s only a few of them left.”
“I guess its as good a measure of progress as anything,” Eleanor said. She tabbed back to the game again, where the girl and her wolf-spirit waited in the snow. “I mean, I can’t tell how much progress we’ve really made here. Like, I assume we just keep going right until we can’t go right anymore. That’s the game.”
“There will probably be more platforms on the next stage,” Dania suggested.
“Well, it’s a platformer,” said Eleanor. “It’d be weird if there weren’t.”
“There weren’t for the first couple levels,” Dania recalled. “It’s mostly flat.”
“That’s, like, tutorial. It makes sense. You have to figure out how to use the wolf and girl together.”
“Maybe,” Eleanor said. She picked up the controller again. “Here, let’s get to the end of this section.”
The two focused on the screen for a moment, speaking only to chide each other into helping to make forward progress. The game’s controls were not difficult, in practice. Sure, there was a slight delay on some characters’ actions, but the goals of any given moment were, for the most part, clear: do whatever the game tells you to that will make forward progress to the right.
“You know, one thing I really like about this game,” Eleanor said as they reached the level exit. “Uh, enemy design. Really top-notch.”
The two laughed, unable to see any other obstacle besides the expansive terrain on the screen.
“It’s like, is this the whole game?” Dania asked. “Are we just – is it supposed to be a maze, like that’s the draw?”
“Gwen mentioned the culture,” Eleanor said. “She talked up the research process that went into making it. The gamemakers apparently developed the game in tandem with the Iñupiaq – like, the developers were out there researching their customs and culture, and then had them in on the game-building process. It wasn’t just taking a story and making the game out of it…I mean, they did that, but they did it more…you know, culturally.”
“With all the documentary pieces, I get it,” Dania said. “They seem cool, I like the name one.”
“Here, while we’re in between levels…” Eleanor tabbed out to the Cultural Insights, and, scrolling through, selected one called “The Heartbeat of the Community.” “I think this one is about the drum we got for that guy.”
The video discussed the importance of the drum to native Alaskan culture, with the beat of the drum sounding, literally, akin to a heartbeat. The video closed with one of the elder Iñupiaq members, caught up in ceremony, demonstrating the ritual of the drum for the camera. He sang in his native tongue as the camera zoomed in on the whale drawn on the drum head. As he ended, he held up the drumstick, now battered and split. “Man, I went at it and look what happens,” he smiled, as the crew off-camera were heard laughing.
“That’s super cool,” Dania said. “I kinda want to watch more of these.”
“Well, I think you’re supposed to,” Eleanor said. “Maybe you’re supposed to watch them as they come out, because this one was probably connected to getting that drum for the Owl Man. It would have made more sense contextually.”
“I guess,” Dania said. She scrolled though the other videos: one called “Scrimshaw,” likely related to the animated cutscenes that bridged the game’s narrative together between platforming sections; another called “Siḷa Has A Soul,” explained the inspiration behind the Spirit Platforms they had been jumping on during the game. A warm voice explained: “Siḷa has a soul in the same way we do as people…it’s the interaction you have with the air you breathe, the ocean that you gather resources from, the rivers from which you gather fish…”
Dania overlapped: “the platforms you jump onto, the floating snowballs you shoot at to summon more platforms, the creepy men who chase you for your Bola…”
“The wind that knocks you into a ditch when you forget to crouch down…” Eleanor added.
“I mean, that’s basically my thoughts on the game right there,” Eleanor said. “It’s like, here’s this video we made about all the complex research we put into designing a platform that appears when the wolf is next to it.”
“Yeah,” Dania agreed. “Here’s the deep cultural significance of the drum that you bring to one of the NPCs and then don’t hear him play.”
“I mean, to be fair,” Eleanor continued. “What would be the more culturally relevant way to include this in gameplay? How is researching the Iñupiaq history going to fundamentally change the gameplay of a platformer?”
“Maybe it wouldn’t have ended up as a platformer,” Dania said. “I mean, with all this stuff, maybe they could have built some open-world game like Breath of the Wild or something, you know? Give you options.”
“Maybe.” Eleanor texted Gwen: have you played Never Alone before or did you just hear about it
“Well, I could sit here watching Cultural Insights all day, but I’ve got an hour and this game is not going to end by itself,” Dania said, picking up the controller. “Let’s at least make it to the inevitable scene where you fight the guy who keeps trying to steal the Bola, and that might be the end.”
“Sure,” Eleanor said.
They had made it past that boss battle, and onto the shoulder of the ice giant, when Gwen texted back: I just heard about it, are you going to play it?
we’re playing it now, it’s not terrible, Eleanor texted back.
How’s the culture?
the best part of it, honestly
Eleanor quickly added another text: the gameplay is sort of frustrating but the animation is good and we got it for $2.99 on steam
I’ll have to play it later.
“Eleanor, get on the ghost rope,” Dania shouted. Eleanor looked up to find her character up against a wall, as the ice giant plunged his adze into the icy rock behind her. “We have to climb up the wall, I think!”
Eleanor put down her phone and returned to the game. She had wanted to see if the Cultural Insights were available for free on YouTube, but she would look for that later.
Image Credit: Kauai Tips