Following our enlightening Never Alone play session, I was fortunate enough to be able to interview Grant Roberts, Lead Game Designer on the atmospheric puzzle platformer, to get the developers’ perspective on the importance of communication in the game.
Did you, as the designers of the game, set out to communicate with the player? If so, what did you hope to communicate? Did you feel you succeeded in communicating with your players?
Yes, absolutely – you can’t make a game without having some kind of communication with the player, after all. We set out to communicate with the player in many ways, but foremost among them was our effort to share, celebrate, and extend the culture of the Alaska Native people with a new audience. We accomplished that through years of creating the atmospheric visuals that were found in the final game, from the howling winds of the eternal blizzard to the ethereal danger of the Aurora People.
It was also very important to communicate the values of the Iñupiaq people to the player. The three core values that we focused on (after much collaboration with the Iñupiaq community) were intergenerational exchange, resilience, and interdependence. Intergenerational exchange was communicated in the game through Nuna’s relationship with her elders, and outside the game by local co-op being available for players of widely different demographics and skill levels. We communicated the value of resilience by showcasing the aforementioned environment of the Arctic, as well as the gradually escalating difficulty over the course of the game experience. Interdependence was represented by the friendship between Nuna and Fox, in addition to the companions’ relationship both with the land around them and with the world of the helping spirits that is always around us. Local co-op also helped to communicate the value of interdependence to the player outside of the game.
And of course, we had to communicate gameplay elements to the player. The eternal blizzard, in addition to being aesthetically amazing, is a hazard that the player always has to worry about by bracing against its effects, or by finding shelter. Its wind is not always harmful, though – and when the player had to use it to proceed, we had to properly communicate its timing and strength.
Did we succeed? For the most part, yes. The response to Never Alone has been overwhelming both from the press and from everyday players of the game. That’s partly due to all the ways we succeeded at communicating that I mentioned earlier, but the most successful element of Never Alone is arguably the Cultural Insight videos that are unlocked over the course of the game. That was a way for us to communicate the reality of the Alaska Native people – that they’re a living people and a living culture – directly to players in video form. And while we’re tremendously proud of the entire game, including the Cultural Insight videos, our next project will attempt to weave the core values of the culture even more seamlessly into the experience of the game instead of requiring the player to step out of the moment.
We also could have had more two-way communication with our players. The scale of our external playtesting effort was as large as we could comfortably make it as a relatively small independent studio, but we would have delivered a better game if we’d been able to solicit feedback from a much wider swath of the community.
Do you think that playing Never Alone (particularly in co-op mode) may help develop skills in those who play it, such as communication or collaboration skills?
Definitely. Making a local co-op game allowed us to provide a deeply collaborative experience for players. Nuna and Fox have to work together (thanks to that core value of interdependence) to solve puzzles and ultimately succeed in their quest. We saw this a lot at conventions and in on-site playtests: strangers chatting with each other as they dodged fireballs from the Manslayer, fathers and daughters experimenting with ways of dodging polar bear attacks, and much more. We succeeded in fostering communication between the two players of the game, and look forward to the opportunity to feature that even more strongly in future projects.
How did you find the balance between gameplay and learning?
Our primary goal was to make Never Alone fun to play. After all, if the game wasn’t fun, then all of the communication we set out to do wouldn’t have found an audience. So whenever we were faced with the choice of learning versus gameplay, we tried to make the gameplay come first. As an example, when we first implemented the Cultural Insight videos, they automatically played when the player unlocked them. We put a lot of effort into them (which shows in the finished product), so we wanted to make sure that the player didn’t miss them. However, we quickly realized that if the videos interrupted the gameplay experience, the player would think of them as an intrusion instead of a window into a culture. So we made the viewing experience optional.
That was a common theme during the development of Never Alone (and also the title of a talk I gave in April 2015): “if it isn’t fun, no one will care”. As the development team, we were caretakers and students of an incredibly rich culture, so it was critical that we treat it as something to be experienced and enjoyed – not endured.
Never Alone is available now on PS4, Xbox One and Steam.