I was very close to my grandparents growing up. My Granddad was the funniest person I knew but what I loved the most were his stories. There’s an unmistakable look that a child gets when listening to an excellent storyteller tell an excellent story and I was hardly an exception. Arthur Frank puts it far better than I can in “Letting Stories Breathe”:
“Stories work with people, for people, and always stories work on people, affecting what people are able to see as real, as possible, and as worth doing or best avoided.”
Video games as a media offer writers a unique platform to tell stories. Some do it far better than others of course but there’s one in particular that caught my eye recently and brought back memories of sitting at my Granddad’s feet being regaled of his adventures.
Kisima Inŋitchuŋa (Never Alone) is a puzzle platformer developed by Upper One games. What makes it unique is that it was developed in collaboration with the Iñupiat people of northern Alaska. This isn’t just a token “we know that this game is a thing”. The team at Upper One Games have actively worked with local historians and community members in order to tell a story in the spirit of the Iñupiat people; the way they want it to be told.
I feel like I might not be giving Upper One Games enough credit here. They’re not just out to make a quick buck off of someone else’s culture. No sir, Upper One Games has been launched by a non-profit called the Cook Inlet Tribal Council in Anchorage. They’re the first Indigenous owned and operated digital game developer is the USA (and I think that’s pretty neat). This looks to be the team’s first game but their site seems to suggest that they’ll be pursuing similar projects in future. One of the biggest challenges for the team was ensuring that the project did not appear to be fetishizing an “unknown culture”. Amy Fredeen, Upper One Games CFO and EVP (and Iñupiat native herself) says “”The last thing we wanted was this game to be kind of a cultural appropriation…We didn’t want this to be an outsider’s view of what the Inupiaq culture was. We wanted it to come from the people themselves.”
Kisima Inŋitchuŋa is based on an unipqaak, a multi-generational tale passed on by family and friends, called Kanuuksaayuka. It follows a young Iñupiat girl (traditionally a boy/man but changed for Kisima Inŋitchuŋa, another +1 in their favour imo) called Nuna and her Arctic fox buddy who journey to try and quell an eternal blizzard that threatens the livelihood of Nuna’s tribe. Throughout the story the player is introduced to several other aspects of Iñupiat culture, both through gameplay and, one of my favourite bits, documentary style interviews with some of the collaborators. The story was first recorded in Iñupiat by Robert Nasruk Cleveland and with the blessing of his daughter, village elder Minnie (Aliitchak) Gray, lends itself to the narration of the tale. Artistically, director Dima Veryovka, draws influence from traditional Iñupiat sculptures and dolls while of course working very closely with other members of the community.
Why does all this matter? Why do we need to have input from traditional cultures into a modern storytelling medium? Well why not? Jodi Byrd, professor of American Indian Studies at the University of Illinois, explains that there is a lingering notion that “indigenous peoples are somehow pre-modern, technologically challenged, or just a part of a long-dead past that has no role to play in the present,” but there is no reason for that belief. The team at Upper One Games and the folks they’ve worked with in Alaska have taken a great step in the right direction to show that this isn’t the case. It’s very easy in modern media for native cultures to tend towards stereotype but by telling the story from a cultural perspective, by the very people who have heard this story told to them while at the feet of their own parents and grandparents for generations, the team have opened the way for people ignorant of the Iñupiat culture (myself included) to be able to understand them on a level far more personal than any textbook or history lesson could. I believe cultural diversity in games is important, not just because it allows for more interesting games, but because it allows us to see the world from a different perspective and that is how we learn to be a more empathetic and caring species in our ever more connected world.
“We all do stories. We all live in stories. We all tell stories to our friends, and they need to be told, they need to be heard” – Ishmael (Angaluuk) Hope: Writer, Storyteller and Cultural Insights on Kisima Inŋitchuŋa (Never Alone).