The story behind the first indigenous-owned developer Upper One Games

Develop learns how the Native Alaska people are making Never Alone
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Few games have a story behind them like Never Alone.

The puzzle platformer’s creation is a tale of the indigenous people of Alaska turning their hand to games development, a gathering of Activision vets and peers braving a subarctic winter for a meeting, a studio consultant aged 84 – or maybe 86 – and the birth of the ‘inclusive games development’ concept.

And that such a tale should underpin Never Alone is especially fitting, for this is a game that hopes to continue the storytelling tradition of the Alaska Native people, and particularly the communities in the Cook Inlet area in the state’s south-central region.

BEYOND REAL ESTATE

How Never Alone came to be starts with the Cook Inlet Tribal Council – a non-profit organisation that strives to support the Alaska Native people in the region, focusing on employment, education, family support, addiction recovery and community development; hardly a familiar start to the tale of a game’s conception.

The CITC, spearheaded by CEO of 17 years Gloria O’Neill, decided the organisation needed to look to new places to continue its work. And it needed to generate enough money to enjoy some autonomy from its federal and state funders. It would continue to maintain close partnerships with both, but simply put, the CITC’s for-profit Enterprise department was looking for a project that would make an impact relative to their body’s goals, and make money.



“We looked at a number of potential investments,” reveals O’Neill. “We looked at everything from funeral homes to real estate. Nothing really suited us in terms of taking us where we wanted to go making that money for CITC’s mission, and making that impact.”

That inspired O’Neill and her team to start considering the opportunities a little closer to home.

“We started to look to ourselves and wondering what it was we have that we could share with the world,” she explains. “And what we have is amazing stories and amazing culture. At the same time we were looking at what was going on in the world and what are growing industries. And we were also really thinking about how to be progressive, and about how we could use technology and media.”

Something technology-driven, progressive, perfect for sharing stories and not unable to make cash? It was at this point that video games leapt into a lightbulb in the CITC’s collective conscience.

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CULTURAL VALUES

But the CITC needed to move carefully. In Alaska Native people’s communities, storytelling can be of invaluable cultural worth, and as such they can’t be trivialised or carelessly capitalised upon. Of course, that would never be the CITC’s intention, but picking the right partner was everything.

Games, in this context, offered the perfect opportunity to pass on these stories to a new local generation, and share them with the rest of the world. But if they were to be harnessed as the vehicle for the cultural artifacts of the Alaska Native people, they’d need to be handled with the upmost care.

It was at this point O’Neill and her colleagues found E-Line Media, a Seattle-based entertainment and educational publisher formed by some of Activision’s earliest staff members. One of those was E-Line co-founder and president Alan Gershenfeld, who, having joined Activision in 1992, went on to chair the vast Games for Change organisation before his work at the outfit.



“We were looking for a partner who shared our values,” says O’Neill.

“We found that with E-Line, so we said to Alan and his partner Mike Angst, if they could come to our state in the coldest part of the winter, in January, I’d have a conversation with them. They came, and we started the conversation about two-and-a-half years ago. We took around four or five months, where we learned about the video games industry, and started to look for the right place and way to make an investment.”

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MOVING ON UPPER

After much work considering the best options, with support from E-Line the CITC established Upper One Games; the first ever indigenous-owned games company in the United States. The mission remained the same: make money, make an impact, and share the culture of the Alaska Native people of the Cook Inlet area.

But now there was something else to be made; the game itself. And so Never Alone was conceived, with its Iñupiaq-language subtitle Kisima Ingitchuna.

The game was also brought into being with something else new; the concept of ‘inclusive development’, itself a process whereby the Alaska Native people would have input, involvement – even the final say – in every part of the game’s creation, from design and narrative to marketing and distribution.

Never Alone was high risk. We almost advised against it but we felt there could be a major opportunity.

Alan Gershenfeld, E-Line Media

The reason was simple. If this was a game to share Alaska Native culture with not just the next indigenous generation, but the whole world, and to make money for the local community, it had to get it right.

Over 35 elders, leaders and others from the community worked alongside a team of development specialists from several different nations, considering the best way to tell a story, integrate it with game mechanics and interactions, and correctly capture every detail of local life, from the detailing of the hem of a coat to the themes running through the platformer.

But it nearly didn’t happen. When Angst and Gershenfeld first met with O’Neill, they nearly advised that the CITC rethink their ideas.

“It was high risk, and it was complex. We almost advised against it, and told the team how we felt,” reveals Gershenfeld. “But we also felt there could be a major opportunity.”

O’Neill adds: “We learned there had never been a significant opportunity by an indigenous group in the video games industry. We felt we had something to share, and that there would be an appetite for our stories.”

Gershenfeld continues: “So we began a really in-depth analysis. We looked at how indigenous cultures were represented in movies, comics, graphic novels and music, and we found lots of great examples of commercially successful, very high quality, powerful and inclusively developed movies like Whale Rider, and various world music, and we thought ‘why not a video game?’.”

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THE BLIZZARD’S ACTIVE VISION

That video game was Never Alone, which told the story of the endless blizzard.

The story was conceived by a great Alaska Native storyteller, whose daughter Minnie Gray joined the Upper One team to weave that treasured tale into a platform game that sees a young girl and mysterious fox accomplice set off head first into the storm to find its source and bring harmony back to the world.

“Minnie is possibly 84. Or perhaps she’s 86. Nobody is really sure, to be honest,” says O’Neill. “She’s in her eighties, and she received the story of the endless blizzard from her father, who is a very famous storyteller.

“As we worked with Minnie and her family, we had to be sure to respectfully get the rights to their story, and involve Minnie in the process. So E-Line creative director Sean Vesce and Minnie spent a long time together talking about the idea and the story, and Minnie has picked up the controller and played the game herself. She understands that this story – Kisima In?itchu?a – is now going to reach a global audience, and so she has this pride of her father’s new voice.”

That idea of a new voice is important to the game – which serves as a single player or co-op experience, and encourages intergenerational play sessions – as Gershenfeld explains.

“Never Alone is not just about being a faithful documentation of Minnie’s father’s story,” he says. “Never Alone is in part about extending these stories into a new medium, for another generation, and to last another 100 years. Minnie hasn’t looked to become a core gamer. She wanted to know what the affordances and limitations of the medium are, and how can it best be used to share her father’s story. It was wonderful to have her involved.”



O’Neill interjects: “Our people are evolving, and our stories evolve. They continue to evolve, and that’s why we love the power of video games. I think they are an amazing medium to evolve the stories with us, as we tell those stories to new generations at home, and to the world.”

Never Alone, which mixes elements of Limbo, Braid, Journey and Another World is almost ready for the public. It is due for release on Steam, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One on November 4th, with possible Wii U and Vita versions to be confirmed for early 2015.

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MORE STORIES TO TELL

In the meantime, Upper One Games and E-Line Media have now merged. One of the benefits, says Gershenfeld, is that E-Line’s all-male team has now been blended with the all-female leadership of the CITC, from which O’Neill and her colleagues have emerged with a wealth of new job titles, standing both as tribal council leaders and video games developers.

How Never Alone fares, of course, is yet to be seen. But the early press response is positive, the Cook Inlet Alaska Native people have their own studio, and the industry has a new model for development to freely share.
Never Alone’s story has not yet reached its closing chapter, but it’s certainly shaping up to be a tale with a happy ending.

“A lot of people feel video games and digital media are disconnecting youth and young adults from their culture, their elders and their language.” concludes O’Neill.

“But why not use it to reconnect? That’s what we hope to do.”

www.upperonegames.com

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