I recently listened to independent researcher Paul J. Hale’s Disney Story Origins podcast. In each episode, Hale seeks to understand the historical facts or origins of folklores, myths, and tales adapted by Disney for the big screen. Hale’s podcast presents amusing factoids and comparisons. In Disney’s Mulan, for example, the heroine has a token sidekick, Mushu, the fiery, feisty dragon. In Chinese folkore, Mulan does not have a sidekick. After her Uncle Mu Shu refuses to go to war, Mulan assumes his name as an alias and joins the army. The information I learned from listening to the podcast did not alter my perception of Disney films, but it caused me to think about Upper One Games and E-line media’s recent title Never Alone, which introduces a powerful example of transforming folklore into interactive play.
In Never Alone, the young adventurer Nuna and Arctic Fox brave shifting ice, torrents of snow, and wildlife in an attempt to survive the bitter Alaskan climate. The game is based on the traditional Iñupiaq tale “Kunuuksaaguka,” a story of an endless blizzard that plagues a nomadic family. Never Alone stays true to the conventionalities of survival folktales. The winds blow Nuna and Arctic Fox from platforms and the pair encounters extended periods of near-total darkness. The story includes spirits of aurora borealis that allude to cold and impending death and anecdotes about whale hunting. The development team also collaborated with Iñupiaq elders and artists to create characters and environments that resembled traditional Alaska Native paintings, drawings, clothing, masks, and scrimshaws. In between scenes, short videos called “cultural insights” present individuals from the Cook Inlet community discussing what it is like to live in the region.
During their research, the team discovered that master storyteller Robert Nasruk Cleveland was the last person to tell “Kunuuksaayuka.” Cleveland lived along the Black River in Alaska where he subsisted off the land in the early 1900s. As a young man, Cleveland devoted his leisure time to visiting ceremonial houses with the Elders and, there, he learned Iñupiaq stories. He then shared the tales in collected works such as Stories of the Black River People and also made reel-to-reel tape recordings of them. In creating Never Alone, the team tried whenever possible to be sensitive to what most researchers would consider Cleveland’s devotion his culture. Game developer Sean Vesce met with Cleveland’s daughter Minnie Gray (now in her 80s) to discuss the team’s ideas for the game. Gray, however, suggested that the story was not fixed and encouraged the team members to bring their own sensibilities and attitudes to the tale.
There are aspects of Never Alone that take liberties with the story. The team changed the protagonist of “Kunuuksaayuka” from a little boy to a little girl. And, as with Disney’s Mulan, they added a companion character. In conversations with kids and elders regarding the introduction of the companion character Arctic Fox, it became evident to the team that he needed a back-story. The companion character conveys the significance of interdependence in nomadic cultures. The strengths and weaknesses of Nuna and the Arctic Fox complement each other. Nuna uses a magical bola (a weapon made of rocks tied to strings) to defend against enemies and spirit markings. Arctic Fox’s agility and ability to call on spirits helps the pair to navigate other aspects of the treacherous landscape.
Never Alone demonstrates how interactive play lends to engaged learning, cultural insights, and preservation. Many other video game developers have explored aspects of folk tales and myths to find inspiration. Ōkami features characters from Japanese folklore like Orochi, the great snake, and Amaterasu, the goddess of the sun. Hera, the queen of Olympus, occupies the throne as ruler of the Gods and launches a murderous campaign to find mortals in Apotheon. And Puppeteer features minions, which resemble Chinese Zodiac creatures. The number of video games based on legends, folklore, and fairy tales proves that play is a vital format for conveying stories based on tradition, participation, and research.