IGM Interviews – Grant Roberts and Dima Veryovka (Never Alone)

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As we’ve previously reported on IGMNever Alone is an upcoming atmospheric puzzle platforming game that aims to bring Alaskan culture and stories to life. It stars a young Inupiat girl named Nuna, who must overcome the harsh and relentless Alaskan wilderness with her unlikely companion, an adorable arctic fox. The original trailer for the game was released in May and was extremely well received by the gaming world, including during its E3 campaign. It was just a few days ago that Never Alone reached its Beta stage, but has only been tested as a demo at the time of this article.

It was a cold Saturday morning in Melbourne when I sat down to interview Grant Roberts and Elizabeth Olson of E-Line media, who were kind enough to lend their time for an interview about some of the finer in-game details, and made my day significantly brighter. Grant has been playing games for over 30 years and is the lead game designer for Never Alone. He has been involved in the video game industry since 1997, and was also a writer and editor for Next Generation Magazine, eventually becoming involved in the game production side of things including level design, narrative and content design, and writing. Elizabeth is responsible for the promotion and PR of the game and has 25 years in the video games industry, beginning as the founding editor-in-chief for Game Informer. I was also able to gain some insights on the art of Never Alone from the game’s art director, Dima Veryovka, a classically trained artist with extensive experience in the video games industry, who provided me with some very detailed responses.

Indie Game Magazine: How do you pronounce Kisima Inŋitchuŋa? Does it directly translate to ‘Never Alone’ or does it mean something slightly different in Inupiaq?

Grant Roberts: Ki-si-ma ing-i-chuna (kiˈsi ˈiŋitʃuŋɑ). It translates most directly as “I am not alone” but we refer to it as Never Alone. There has been a process of translating the story we’re telling with the game and we want to have this game feel like one of the stories we’ve been so inspired by over the course of making this project. We’ve got the progression of the story which is based on the story Kunuuksaayuka, one of the stories we’ve been inspired by and the one that we licensed for this game. But there hasn’t really been anything lost in translation, it’s mostly been enhanced by the translation of making it feel more like an Inupiat story along the way.

IGM: How did you decide on that title?

Grant: Some of the main themes that we’ve learned that are really close to the heart of the Inupiat people are interdependence, resilience, and intergenerational exchange. They are three of the ones that we wanted to focus on and are so core to who the Inpuiat are. Never Alone hits all of those things: It really emphasizes that you’re never alone because you need to go on your journey and you need each other to really live your life, you’re never alone because you have the support of those around you to be resilient, and you’re never alone because your family and friends from two generations ago and two generations from now are still with you. And as far as the title Kisima Inŋitchuŋa and Never Alone, it was really important for us to have both the English name Never Alone and the Inupiaq name to represent how important it’s been for us along the way to have Inupiat people in the project and to the team that’s been working on it.

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IGM: Never Alone has been also described as a game that fits into the ‘world games’ genre. Can you explain what that entails?

Grant: World games really allow us to explore an enormous world of stories from different cultures. We’re focusing on the culture of the Inupiat people for this game, but there are so many cultures all over the world that have had their stories told occasionally, and some very frequently. But there are just hundreds that have never had their stories told in this medium before, from all over the world. Over the course of this project, we’ve been lucky enough to hear from Elders so many stories of the Inupiat people, and it’s been super exciting to create this new genre of world games. We’re bringing the stories of untapped cultures into the limelight, and I’m pretty excited to be a part of it.

IGM: Never Alone writer Ishmael Hope has stated he believes ‘players are hungry for this kind of thing’ (referring to Never Alone). How does Never Alone differ from current games in mainstream and non-mainstream gaming spheres?

Grant: I think the world games are a new thing, and being inspired by and retelling stories of a culture that not a lot of people have familiarity with is something that’s pretty different, and it’s something that people are hungry for. I am myself hungry for this kind of thing that’s more personal, and more rich in tradition in a lot of other stories that you encounter in games.

Elizabeth Olson: A lot of the team felt like they wanted to do something about what games could be, or games as ‘gateways’. I think they really see the game as a gateway to get people interested, and encourage them to explore another culture. Games can do that, it’s a perfect medium for that actually.  

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IGM: The protagonist of the game is a girl called ‘Nuna’-meaning ‘land’. Why was that name specifically chosen?

Grant: Well, she was such an important character to us that the process of choosing a name for her was a long one. We went through a bunch of different ideas-some of them ended up sounding similar to ‘Nuna’ and some of them did not. Nuna was my favorite name of the list-it sounded really right for her. It ended up being serendipity because she’s kind of the representative of her land in Never Alone. The besieging blizzard that’s been affecting her way of life for so long is affecting everyone around her-the surrounding villages, the very land itself, so it seemed very appropriate.

IGM: Nuna’s companion is a white arctic fox. Why was that animal chosen?

Grant: It was really important to us to have a companion along the way-and there were a few different ones. We had a rabbit at one point, there was a wolf-we tried a lot of different things. The fox really fit the bill for a great companion character. He’s obviously very nimble, he’s completely adorable, which always helps, and so is Nuna-they’re both very likeable characters.