“Games 10,000 years in the Making.”
-Slogan for Upper One Video Games, the first Indigenous Owned Video Game Company in the United States and creators of, Never Alone.
When it comes to Indigenous-made video games what is the “new” of New Media. The 2014 video game Never Alone has been lauded as cutting-edge gaming (Peckham) and identified as a new platform for Indigenous storytelling (Parkinson). All of the focus on technology, however, risks eliding the history and tradition that makes Never Alone legible as a uniquely Iñupiaq storytelling. This is not to say that tradition and innovation are mutually exclusive, however,—far from it. In this blog post I argue that Never Alone has seen such financial and cultural success because of the way it employs remediation, the refashioning of old media in the new. Turning to Keavy Martin and the Inuit notion of ikiaqtagaq (splitting or borrowing songs), I consider the local significance of remediation for the Iñupiaq and illustrate how to “read” this game as a vital and valuable contribution to Indigenous storytelling.
Never Alone tells the story of an Iñupiaq girl, Nuna, and her Arctic fox. Across eight chapters gamers must handle the two (at times toggling back and forth between them) to solve puzzles, leap gaps, and escape cranky polar bears in order to save Nuna’s village from a never-ending snowstorm.
The game is based on the traditional story “Kunuuksaayuka,” published in 1980 in the collection Unipchaanich imagluktugmiut: Stories of the Black River People transcribed from recordings by storyteller Robert Nasruk Cleveland, who is referred to as Nasruk in the game. Never Alone was produced by the Cook Inlet Tribal Council (CITC), Upper One Video Games, and E-Line Media under what Upper One President and CEO Gloria O’Neil calls the “double-bottom line” (Upper One Press Kit) of the company: generating profit for the Iñupiaq community and supporting and proliferating Iñupiaq knowledge.
Upper One Games, named in reference to Alaska’s position as the “Upper One” state above the Lower 48 states in the continental United States, is the U.S. first Indigenous owned video game production company and now a major player in the rising genre of “world games,” video games that “bring carefully-selected stories from indigenous cultures from around the planet to life in compelling, innovative ways” (neveralonegame.com).
A large part of what makes Never Alone such a dynamic intervention into Indigenous storytelling are the ways in which it deconstructs the tradition/innovation binary and brings video games to bear (there’s a pun there if you’ve played the game) as an important extension of Iñupiaq culture. On the development page of their website, Upper One notes that, “video games and other digital media are often perceived as distancing youth and young adults from their elders, their culture and even their language.” With this in mind, Upper One aims to “use the power of video games to present these stories in new ways and to new audiences in a way that celebrates the people to whom the stories belong and extends their culture into new media” (ibid). While video games are often perceived as “low art,” if not an outright mental sedative, in many cultural groups, Upper One works to capture their storytelling perspective in a way that responds to and supports traditional contexts while engaging young audiences.
In the way that it extends tradition into innovation by simply fore fronting the latter in the fundamental structure of the game, Never Alone is a thrilling example of the dynamic, fluid, and living presence of Indigenous storytelling in contemporary spaces and its ability to shift and adapt within new contexts and mediums without sacrificing meaning or faithfulness to the past. Audra Simpson writes, “tradition is profoundly contemporary” (qtd. In Martin 6). Never Alone not only confirms Simpson’s assertion, but also demonstrates how tradition pushes at the boundary between the present and the future and challenges how we think about technology and modernity.
The community anxiety surrounding video games quoted from the Upper One website above, is a prominent example of apprehension over the “new.” In the example Upper One cites, elders worry that digital media is distracting youth from “connecting with their history, culture and values”; that the digital is alienating them from the material. I dare say that very similar anxieties exist in the today’s academy (sometime with very good reason), insofar as video games are still largely conceived as a distraction from the more serious endeavours of reading and writing. For Upper One, the solution to quelling the anxieties noted in its own community is to produce games that draw tangible through lines across tradition and innovation, drawing culture, history, values, and language into the gaming platform while bringing elders and community members in to consult on every aspect of the game’s development.
In new media and visual culture studies, this act of drawing the “old” into the “new” is referred to as remediation, what Marshall McLuhan famously identified as the process in which one medium becomes the content for another (Mirzoeff 3): “the goal of remediation,” Jay Bolter and Richard Grusin argue, “is to refashion or rehabilitate other media” (56), providing both a point of access for an audience who may be wary of new technology while positioning the “new” medium as a more faithful, complete, or engaging representation of the real world: “what is new about new media is also old and familiar: that they promise the new by remediation of what has gone before” (Bolter & Grusin 270).
Never Alone remediates by refashioning a traditional story, “Kunuuksaayuka,” in an alternative storytelling space, but it also incorporates
“old” forms of Western media into the game as a means to upset formal stereotypes. For instance, Never Alone incorporates (remediates) documentary filmmaking into the structure of the game as “cultural insights.” By rendering the mini-documentaries as collectables, similar, say, to the coins in Super Mario Brothers, Never Alone incentivizes learning and makes knowledge an active and engaged pursuit. The mini-docs also push back against a widespread distrust in the learning potential of video games by bringing in a reliable form of enlightenment knowledge dissemination—the documentary film—to bear the formal weight of knowledge dissemination and interrupt the “low art” stereotypes associated with video games.
Similar to the ways in which it remediates Western forms, Never Alone also incorporates unique elements of Iñupiaq culture into the game. Of particular note in these regards is the use of scrimshaw, images engraved on baleen or ivory. Amy Freden and Ronald Aniqsuaq, who narrates the “Scrimshaw” cultural insight in Never Alone, explain that it was traditionally used to tell stories, to document hunting trips, and to record wars. Scrimshaw, “gives you a timeline of history through etching,” Aniqsuaq tells us, and elders could interpret the etchings, he continues, much “like reading a book.”
Never Alone remediates scrimshaw not only by casting it as a primary topic in the Cultural Insights series, but also by basing the game’s appearance and tone around the aesthetics of the traditional art form. As demonstrated in the “Scrimshaw” mini-doc, both the prelude and the epilogue scenes are specifically modeled after that form of artwork, capturing its strong lines, geometric shapes, and interconnected frames. In remediating scrimshaw, Never Alone facilitates the continuance of traditional media in new technologies by enacting what Kristen Dowell call visual sovereignty: “the articulation of Aboriginal peoples’ distinctive cultural traditions, political status, and collective identities through aesthetic and cinematic means” (2). Never Alone evokes visual sovereignty by establishing the core of its gameplay not on the back of Western video games and the side-scroller tradition, but out of Iñupiaq aesthetics and storytelling practices found in scrimshaw. To put it differently, Never Alone does not simply piggyback “Kunuuksaayuka” onto Western technology; it relies on distinctly Iñupiaq media and traditional storytelling practices to share and proliferate that story. Jodi Byrd argues that, “in contemporary digital media native stories might have found a new environment where they can thrive.” By locating traditional storytelling and art at the centre of its gameplay and narratology, Never Alone offers a space deeply conducive to the growth and development of Indigenous language, culture, and epistemologies.
In Stories in a New Skin: Approaches to Inuit Literature, Keavy Martin writes that, “Indigenous peoples have always adapted useful concepts and technologies without fear that their cultural purity might be compromised” (6). For Martin, “tradition” does not mean “stagnant” and it is certainly not, despite the way it is loaded in the English language, defined by the past. In Stories in a New Skin, Martin focuses on the adaptability of Indigenous culture and the ways in which Inuit tradition makes itself anew in present and future moments. One of the most powerful ways she does this is through at exploration of the concept ikiaqtaq, which means, “it’s another person’s song I am using but I am creating my own words” (80). In the terms of the metaphor that Martin frames her book in, ikiaqtaq is the skin of a story: the DNA out of which a storyteller (re)tells a narrative. Ikiaqtaq is highly adaptable, and can travel comfortably across time and space, but it is always connected to a very specific genealogy of storytelling, which must be acknowledged in the adaptation.
Martin’s appeal to ikiaqtaq is particularly useful in addressing concerns of appropriation and the decontextualization of Inuit language and culture—an issue that is amplified through the high-traffic and capital-driven world of video games. In terms of appropriation in Inuit culture, Martin distinguishes between “hard” and “soft” objects, the former being knives or guns, something that could cause death, and the latter being meat or stories. The theft of hard objects is to be met with punishment, but soft objects are meant to be shared. Quoting Uqsuralik Ottokie, Martin writes, “we are told not to be stingy… Don’t keep it to yourself. If you are generous it comes back, and it will be a bigger amount” (86). In Martin’s estimation, sharing stories—much like sharing food—is a system of nourishment in which “ownership” of the story is far less important than the health and well-being of the community. In this sense, “soft” items like stories are not subject to the same rules and regulations of appropriation, as might be applied to “hard “objects and thus travel much more easily across families, communities, and continents.
Upper One adheres to this tradition in its double bottom line approach to Never Alone and Indigenous game production: looking to the ways in which gaming supports the community both financially and culturally through the proliferation of stories and Inuipiat culture. Upper One CEO, Gloria O’Neill, illustrates the ways in which sharing her community’s stories through Never Alone has literally helped to sustain those families, putting food on the table, while reasserting the power of Inuipiat storytelling:
We needed innovative programs that would create jobs, bolster education for our youth and bridge generation gaps. Moreover, as Alaska Native people, we were looking for a voice in the world at large, particularly with the younger audience so important to our legacy. For too long, we have been either ignored or stereotyped as “eskimos in igloos”—it is time to change that. (“Games 10,000 years in the making”)
It is adaptation, Martin argues, “that keeps the songs in the service of the community—even if that means sending them away from time to time” (97).
I chose to use “remediation” here, rather than “adaptation,” as a means to think through ikiaqtaq because it speaks more directly to the ways in which Indigenous communities are employing new media and digital technologies to (re)tell and share traditional stories. Both “adaptation” and “remediation” speak to the notion of making things fit within a new or changed environment (OED), but “remediation” is directed more specifically towards the process of doing so within the multifarious and interlocking systems of digital representation. In this sense, “remediation” is more congruent with the rapid growth of what Valerie Alia calls the “new media nation,” the “explosion of Indigenous news, media, information technology, film, music, and other artistic and cultural developments” (7) that have been on the rise since the mid-1990s. While “adaptation” is still useful, the technological focus of “remediation” is more suited to Never Alone and a post-Idle No More world, where technology and digital media have become the norm for sharing (and re-sharing) stories and information.
Via the notion of remediation, it is not too much of a stretch to see ikiaqtaq at work in Never Alone. As mentioned above, the video game is based on “Kunuuksaayuka,” a story told by Robert Nasruk Cleveland and recorded, along with twenty-three other stories, by Don Charles Foote in 1965. In 1979, Nasruk’s daughter, Minnie Gray, transcribed Foote’s tapes to be published as part of the Iñupiat literature collection for study by students in Upper Kobuk (Pulu iv). Those stories were published, in both Iñupiaq and English, as Unipchaanich imagluktugmiut: Stories of the Black River People by the National Biligual Materials Development Center at the University of Alaska in 1980.
Upper One was given permission to use “Kunuuksaayuka,” by Gray, who also gave permission to alter key details in the story—most notably the gender of the protagonist, who is male in Nasruk’s telling (and who’s name is also the title of the story), but female (Nuna) in the game. Upper One explains that, although the story Nasruk told featured a boy, the change to Nuna has little impact on the message of the narrative: “Inupiaq stories are filled with boys and girls, men and women, and the gender of the characters is much less important than the wisdom and learning contained in [them].” In the same blog post, the production company explains that by transforming the protagonist into a girl, Never Alone addresses the egregious gender disparity still found in contemporary video games and represents a strong, intelligent, and independent female character to the community and the outside gaming world. In the wake of gamergate and the proliferation of violence against women in online spaces, this is not an insignificant gesture. By remediating the story for modern gaming contexts and the cultures that surround them, Never Alone makes tradition accountable to the current moment, while maintaining the integrity and structure of the story as it was shared with them by Nasruk and Gray.
The deep principle of acknowledgement that Martin identifies at the basis of ikiaqtaq is also present in Never Alone. Martin notes that “the importance of naming a song’s history: namely, the identity of the song’s composer (or adaptor)” (80) is a fundamental part of how that song, or story, is shared and passed on, from person to person, community to community, and generation to generation.
James Mumigan Nageak, a community member and Iñupiaq language teacher narrates Never Alone, but, following from storytelling tradition in that community, Nasruk, as the one from whom the story was heard, is also identified in the story itself. Nageak begins: “I will tell you a very old Story. I heard it from Nasruk when I was very young”. The game then concludes with another acknowledgement of Cleveland, confirming the storyteller’s presence in the game. As punctuation and bookend, the final words in the narration firmly establish Nasruk’s importance to the story and its remediation in a digital space: “I have heard Nasruk tell the story that way,” finishes Nageak in the last piece of narration before the credits. In acknowledging Nasruk, Nageak, and the Upper One honour a tradition of ikiaqtagaq, which incorporates the previous storyteller into the story itself and generates a lineage of telling that gamers, scholars, and community members can map out.
Indeed, tracing Nageak’s telling back to Nasruk, we learn that Cleveland ends and begins his own telling of “Kunuuksaayuka,” recorded by Foote, in the same way as Nageak, drawing the ones who told him the story into his own telling and setting a narrative genealogy for his audience: “I have heard my grandparents tell the story of Kunuuksaayuka that way” (104), Nasruk begins. The remediation of the previous storyteller into the current telling is, as Inupiat literature scholar Lawrence Kaplan puts it, a kind of oral copywriting, which identifies the ways in which stories are transmitted through families and villages. Tracing the “splitting” of the story, to borrow Martin’s language, tells us about the tradition that the story belongs to. Nageak ‘s acknowledgment of Nasruk identifies a genealogical trail that the gamer can follow out of digital space into text and oral history. This trail illustrates both how the story has been remediated within a new medium and also the history (or skin) it is rooted in.
Moving back just one step from the game to Nasruk’s own telling, we learn another important piece of this history that connects the story to the land and its people. Nasruk begins “Kunuuksaayuka” by identifying himself and the place he is telling the story:
This is Nasruk about to tell a story at Umagluktuq, or Black River. It isn’t long but it is an unipchaaq, or legend…. I heard them from my grandfather and grandmother. They often told me stories like that whenever they put me to bed. This was many years ago when I was just a boy. However, I was quite aware of life around me. (101)
An unipchaaq is “a story that tells about a time far removed from the present, of people and beings not directly remembered by anyone alive today or their parents and grandparents” (Kaplan 130). Nasruk’s reference to unipchaaq gives the story a long and distinguished history, which predates the teller and his family and emphasizes the fidelity with which the narrative was remediated by storytellers across generations. An important element of Nasruk’s telling is how he very carefully identifies the soundness of mind with which he received the story from his grandfather and grandmother (“I was quite aware of life around me”). Kaplan writes that storytellers “often will not tell a particular story if they doubt their own knowledge of it. Highly regarded storytellers [which Nasruk was] do not tell stories they have learned incompletely” (131). This small piece of framing (which Upper One interestingly does not include in the blog post that shares Nasruk’s telling) connects “Kunuuksaayuka” to a specific place and lineage of Iñupiaq storytelling and assures readers (or listeners) of the fidelity with which it reaches into tradition while remediating that narrative in the present.
Never Alone and Upper One are rightly celebrated for the innovation they have made in video game design and production. Nuna and Fox do much to decolonize a digital space that has traditionally been quite hostile to women and people of colour. However, with innovation we must not forget the tens of thousands of years of storytelling that Indigenous video games remediate, nor the strong traditions, of sharing and adapting, such as ikiaqtagaq, that it reaffirms.
I will conclude with Mohawk theorist Steven Loft who, quoting artist Jimmie Durham, illustrates how Indigenous New Media extends “century old customary practice” (183) and reestablishes Indigenous peoples as dynamic, futuristic, thinkers. Loft’s reflections, and the sentiment of Durham’s remarks, best capture the primary takeaway that this paper offers, what Durham refers to as “change-adaptability”:
traditions exist and are guarded by Indian communities. One of the most important of these is dynamism. Constant change-adaptability—the inclusion of new ways and new materials—is a tradition that our artists have particularly celebrated and have used to strengthen our societies. (182)
See the Novel Alliances New Media reading list here