Every Wednesday in high school I went out to do community service that the campus ministry of my Catholic high school facilitated. We would go to nursing homes, care facilities, and homeless shelters, work for a few hours, and return to the comforts of our middle class homes. Every year there would be service trips to different parts of the US, Mexico, and some other places. I went on a few of them: one to West Virginia, the other to the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.
We went, worked for a few days, listened to and learned from the people living there, and came back to our lives in suburban Massachusetts. I won’t deny that these were formative experiences for me, but how I have viewed those experiences have drastically changed as I’ve gotten older.
I have a tattoo on my back shoulder that uses several objects from Oglala Lakota culture. I’ve thought about mitigating my dislike of it with another tattoo that reads “19 year old white guys don’t understand cultural appropriation,” but there is a part of me that remembers and misses the high schooler that put it together. He was generous in more accepted ways, offering up his time to work in different places. But he was also naive and ignorant of the things he was doing (and, generally, still is).
When I got the tattoo it was to remember to continue community service. Seven years later, I see it as a reminder that the closeness that I felt during that work was not a closeness to the actual community, but a false connection that developed out of the power I had to pick up whenever I wanted to. There were others that would stay in these places for years on end, engaging with the issues and joys of the community. There were even more that couldn’t leave. I was more of an empathetic tourist. Most of the feelings I had ended when I got on the plane or van to return.
This is why I’m afraid of Never Alone, a game made in conjunction with the Iñupiat people of Alaska and Northwestern Canada. It follows the story of Nuna, who has gone out from her village to restore order that a terrible man and forces of nature have disrupted. You can switch characters with your companion, a white fox, to solve platform puzzles and work with the spirits that inhabit the lands. Gameplay is paired with collectible documentary clips, known in-game as cultural insights, that explain various aspects of Iñupiat culture. If you want to know more about the game, Eurogamer published an excellent review of it that ignored the slight mechanical issues others had harped on.
OK. I’m not very afraid of Never Alone, but I’m afraid of myself playing it.
I’m afraid that Never Alone is like that weeklong trip I took to Pine Ridge. I feel like I’ve done a few hours of work and have gone back to my comforts, but I’m not sure about what comes next – if anything. I fear that like the tattoo that I have, I, or other players, will quickly allow the experience of this game to be reduced down to objects that we can easily pick up and examine, removed from their context. I fear that other players will look at it and boil down the Iñupiat to scrimshaw and caribou-skin clothes. I fear this because I’ve personally done it before, albeit with different experiences and outcomes.
I fear that the game facilitates it, with its dissected and separated cultural insights. I fear that the relationship to nature is something that could be taken holistically so quickly and so easily that players might make lazy assumptions. Since the game is manifested as a fantasy, I fear that any struggle we see of the game is one that is tied to nature and not understood as possible products of various systems of dominance. All but one of the cultural insights is a discussion of positive aspects of Iñupiat life (the one exclusion being a discussion of a climate change seemingly without cause). These are the first things that my own brand of criticism puts forth.
This fear is a double-edged sword though. While it might highlight everything that could go wrong, it also shields me from experiencing much of the joy that is in this game. Sure, I still felt the thrill of conquering the challenges when the degree of difficulty ramped up towards the end. I found pleasure in the narrator regularly speaking over my actions in Iñupiat. The visuals made me feel like the world I was put into was alive.
However, these things quickly dissipated once I moved from experiencing them to thinking about the game as a range of experiences.
I don’t mean this to come across as a woe-is-me narrative. Instead, I hope that critics can use it as a note of caution. We will occasionally be forced away from things because of our histories or our understandings. I honestly don’t know what to think about Never Alone, but it feels like my distance has diminished celebration in favor of worry.
And that is what is so fucked up about this. I have to take a step back and get metacritical about this experience because I have an inability to see it as anything positive or productive. My criticality is so housed in negative or contested readings that it is impossible to just go along with what is happening.
I’ve honed a critical practice that is based on noticing the lack of difference to the point that I can’t recognize where to celebrate its existence. In my previous experiences I let an understanding of difference turn to appropriation. I fear that empathy can too easily turn to sympathy or even pity. I don’t doubt the sincerity of the makers of Never Alone, but I know the power of the player in negotiating the meaning and significance of the games they play. For some, only messages of power and hope flow through this game. For me, I only see the pitfalls that these experiences could foster.
This projection of myself into the work is something that critics need to be aware of when interpreting their experiences. Several writers have talked about subjective criticism as of late, and important in this work will be a deeper understanding of how we interact with games and how we project our own critical screens upon them. The critical lenses that we have built up are part of those subjectivities, but a bit more difficult to parse out. They don’t necessarily shape our experiences directly, but shape how we see and discuss those experiences – how we incorporate them into our lives.
There is a point in Never Alone where the aurora borealis above a village turn into ghoulish sprites that will engulf your character. They move around in patterns, their arms open, trying to catch you. Looking back on my experience with the game, these seem like a manifestation of my critical screens. They consume me and take me away from the text, driving me into past experiences. They circulate around certain objects and ideas, programmed to latch onto them. For me, fear of certain things has cast its arms wide, making it more likely that I’ll fall into that frame of mind. The project from here is not working to avoid them, but to find those fallen into less often. Neglecting certain critical screens has led me astray before. It’s impossible to solve this issue, but it may be possible to mitigate its effects.