“A Game 10,000 Years in the Making”: Never Alone /Kisima Ingitchuna and Adaptation as a Future-Oriented Technology

Abstract Inuit adaptation technologies, which have been in place for thousands of years, provide unique insight into the burgeoning field of Indigenous video game studies by advancing sovereign articulations of technology in digital space.  Grounded in the principles of ikiaqtaq,  an adaptation of a song, Never  Alone  /  Kisima  Ingitchuna (2014),  extends and nuances how  Indigenous stories translate into video games by foregrounding community sustainability and cultural flexibility. Addressing Iñupiaq video game development specifically, this essay demonstrates how ikiaqtaq, as demonstrated in Never Alone, generates the conditions for sovereign storytelling in the digital.

Full article available in Anglistica Aion Vol 25 No 1 (2021): Indigenous Resistance in the Digital Age: The Politics of Language, Media and Culture (no paywall). https://doi.org/10.6093/2035-8504/2021/1

Introduction

Inuit adaptation technologies, which have been in use for thousands of years, provide unique insight into the burgeoning field of Indigenous video game studies by advancing sovereign articulations of technology in digital space. Grounded in the principles of ikiaqtaq, “a song that has been adapted”,2 Never Alone / Kisima Ingitchuna3 extends and nuances how Indigenous stories translate into video games, foregrounding community sustainability and cultural flexibility. Never Alone is, at once, an eloquent extension of traditional Inuit storytelling and a nuanced articulation of new media.

The combination highlights how Indigenous peoples are mobilizing “technologies such as creation stories and ceremony” in future-oriented spaces.4 Working across multiple texts – oral, written, and playable versions of Never Alone (or “Kunuuksaayuka”) – I argue that the concept of ikiaqtaq contributes to our ability “to re-vision the intellectual history of technology”5 and with it the critical intersections of new media and Indigenous studies.

I foreground Never Alone as a case study for this work because it provides significant insight into a uniquely Indigenous process of adaptation. Janet Bushnell, Jonathan Tomhave, and Tylor Prather suggest that Never Alone, is “an exemplar of an Indigenous game”.6 Categorized as an “atmospheric puzzle platformer”,7 Never Alone tells the story of a young girl named Nuna who travels across a harsh Artic landscape with her pet fox to stop a never-ending blizzard. Indigenous literature and technology scholars have devoted significant thought to the game, including multiple essays in a special gaming issue of Transmotion, edited by Elizabeth LaPensée.8 Inger Lise Damli Lohne,9 Peter Keogh Williams,10 and Kandace Hawley11 have published entire theses on the game. In short, Never Alone has a demonstrated impact in the academic world across various fields and disciplines.

However, the existent literature all, in one way or another, looks at Never Alone through a cultural or ethnographic lens. This essay, in turn, approaches the game through technology — namely, the Iñupiaq storytelling technologies that make a home for traditional narrative in the often-inhospitable spaces of video games. This turn to the technological, which emphasizes Indigenous resilience and ingenuity, further clarifies Never Alone’s contribution to the burgeoning Indigenous video game market. Via a technological reading of Never Alone located in the contexts of Iñupiaq storytelling and Indigenous literary studies, I illustrate how Indigenous developers are re-homing traditional stories in the digital through community-specific adaptation techniques.12

The theorization offered in this essay is a small contribution to a larger field of study that is carving space for Indigenous video game development. I am a white settler academic, trained primarily as a literary scholar, who studies new media and digital storytelling from social justice perspectives. I also make video games with and for Indigenous communities using small game engines such as Twine and Bitsy to create platforms for community-based storytelling. Maize Longboat (Kanien’kehá:ka) is a key collaborator in this work, helping me and my students to think critically about “Indigenous-led creation”.13 He also leads in-depth workshops with my students on do-it-yourself video game development using open-source tools.

I also have the good fortune to collaborate with Jazmine Horne (Stó:lō), Sharon Desnomie (Stó:lō), Heather Ramsey and the Stó:lō Xwexwílmexw Government (SXG) on Kw’í:ts’téleq: The Video Game. Written by Horne in consultation with Stó:lō youth, Kw’í:ts’téleq adapts a series of comic books Stó:lō about governance into playable challenges set across six communities.14 SXG’s objective in creating the game was to produce a knowledge dissemination tool that would extend the reach of the comic book and engage a broader Stó:lō audience, including youth, during the final stages of their treaty negotiations with Canadian government.

My team, which operates out of CEDaR, the new media lab that Daisy Rosenblum and I co-direct, supports the SXG team by supplying the labour and digital infrastructure to adapt the storytelling into Twine, a narrative-based video game platform. Via regular Zoom meetings, user tests, and trips to visit the youth group and tour the community, the CEDaR and SXG teams come together to adapt, test, and revise a game that meets the needs of the community, both in its story and in its mechanics. The game and the research produced around it is shared with SXG through a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) that clearly identifies both as SXG’s intellectual property. My team is accountable  first and foremost to the  community, but the relationship is reciprocal. As researchers, we benefit from publishing materials, with SXG’s consent, that show other communities how to scope, develop, and test their own games.

The projects I work on with Longboat and SXG projects are relational endeavours, built out of Agile development processes that foreground multiple rounds of feedback, discussion, iteration, and community engagement.15 As a result of the cultural and financial successes of Never Alone, video games are no longer a fringe media for Indigenous storytelling. As I will demonstrate below, they have the potential to bolster cultural resurgence and galvanize community. The communities and Indigenous developers I work with are compelled by the ways in which games function as gathering sites, that is as baskets that can hold and connect multiple assets (audio, visual, text, etc.) and perspectives on those assets.

Since the publication of his book in 2020, I have more recently begun to build a theory of digital gathering based on Richard Van Camp’s articulation of the idea. Van Camp (Tłı̨chǫ Dene) is instructive in how he frames gathering as both a verb and a noun, and therefore as a relational interface (as opposed to the more traditional academic process of “collecting,” which is often unidirectional and extractive). In Gathering, Van Camp writes about the power of bringing people and stories together as a means for initiating healing and cultural resurgence: “Through our stories and traditions and languages we are reclaiming ourselves, coming together, gathering, and gaining strength through our love and connection – remembering and recalling our stories and passing them on for medicine and strength and love and healing”.16

In the video game work I do with community, I strive to follow Van Camp’s methodology to foreground cultural sovereignty and accountability, both in the game itself and in the development practices we build around it. As a verb, ‘gathering’ is the collective act of assembling stories, memories, songs, language, photographs, artwork, etc., that are needed to build the content of a video game: its setting, characters, mechanics, quests, visuals, audio, etc. As a noun, however, ‘a gathering’ is the sense of community and collaboration that is built around and nourished through a game’s development. In her discussion of Indigenous filmmaking, Kristin Dowell refers to gathering as a social relationship galvanized through “the act of production”.17

For Dowell, Indigenous screen sovereignty, the articulation of community-specific knowledge, traditions, and politics into film, is always in excess to the content. Sovereignty is articulated in the content of a film, but it is enacted in the Indigenous-led creation that produces that film. Gathering around a media project, be it a film or a video game, is, therefore, an active process negotiated out of off-screen relationships, maker sensibilities, and thoughtful engagement of protocol and governance. In developing community-based video games that centre gathering, we use accessible, low-tech content platforms, such as Miro and Figma that allow collaborators to collect assets in communal spaces. We then use those spaces as the gathering sites for team meetings and collaborative prototyping.

Starting a new community-based video game development project means identifying and establishing processes that onboard that community as developers. That means developing clear and easy-to-use systems based on iterative development driven by collaborative feedback. Because storytelling should be the focus, technology is useful only inasmuch as it safely and effectively gathers stories and storytellers. Agile processes and digital collaboration tools make the development processes transparent and invite ongoing feedback and discussion. Since game development is an active process of determining or adapting the story, the relationships through which we negotiate those gathering processes become foundational to the game itself.

Adaptation, which I argue is a future-oriented storytelling technology, offers an exciting and dynamic space to further a conversation in which Indigenous communities are gathering stories in video games. Building on work established in Indigenous literatures, I foreground the ingenuity of Indigenous storytelling by illustrating not only the significance of Indigenous adaptation into the digital, but, stretching back 10,000 years, the technological proficiency implied in Indigenous foresight for this adaptation. That is to say, Indigenous storytelling often projects into the future by building space for the next generation of storytellers – and storytelling platforms – into the mechanics of the original narrative. As such, Indigenous adaptation is a dynamic integration of traditional wisdom and the techno-social present, folding past and present, tradition and innovation, storyteller and story gatherer in unique and impactful ways, which, as I demonstrate below, extend and sustain Indigenous sovereignty and ingenuity.

1 Centre for Games and Impact, “Never Alone. Parent Guide” (n.d.), www.gamesandimpact.org, accessed 9 November 2022. 2 Keavy Martin, Stories in Another Skin. Approaches to Inuit Literature (Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2012), 101. 3 Never Alone. Kisima Ingitchuna (Upper One Games, 2014).

4 Lou Cornum, “The Space NDN’s Star Map”, in Sophie McCall et al., Read, Listen, Tell. Stories from Turtle Island (Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier U.P., 2017), 384.

5Angela Haas, “Wampum as Hypertext. An American Indian Intellectual Tradition of Multimedia Theory and Practice”, Studies in American Indian Literatures, 19.4 (2007), 78.

6 Jeanette Bushnell et al, “How Do You Say Watermelon?”, Transmotion, 3.1 (2017), 56.

7 “Never Alone”, www.neveralonegame.com, accessed 9 November 2022.

8 Transmotion, 3.1 (2017).

9 Inger Lise Damli Lohne, “Never Alone. A Study of Articulations of Indigenous Religion in the Video Game”, (UiT The Arctic University of Norway, 2020).

10 Peter Keough Williams, “An Analysis of the Ethnographic Significance of the Iñupiaq Video Game Never Alone (Kisima Ingitchuna)” (Florida State University, 2018).

11Kandace Hawley, “Videogames as a Platform for Learning. Self-Case Study. The Videogame Never Alone” (University of Oulu, 2016).

12 In this article, “Iñupiaq” refers to Inuit people from the North Slope region in Alaska. “Iñupiat” is singular; “Iñupiaq” is plural. I use “Inuit” to refer to the broader context of Indigenous peoples across the Northern Circumpolar.

13 Maize Longboat, “Terra Nova. Enacting Videogame Development through Indigenous-Led Creation” (Montreal: Concordia University, 2019).

14 You can see the Kw’í:ts’téleq comic books here: www.sxta.bc.ca/comic/, accessed 9 November 2022. Read more about the video game in the Stó:lō Signal Magazine, 2.1, https://www.sxta.bc.ca/multimedia/magazine, accessed 9 November 2022.

15 Rebecca Pope-Ruark, Agile Faculty. Practical Strategies for Managing Research, Service, and Teaching (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017), 57-72.

16 Richard Van Camp, Gathering. Richard Van Camp on the Joy of Storytelling (Regina: University of Regina Press, 2021), 76.

17 Kristin Dowell, Sovereign Screens. Aboriginal Media on the Canadian West Coast (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2017), 2.

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