Games, unlike most forms of media, are unique in their ability to teach. Sit a class of schoolchildren in front of a dodgy TV show on VCR with ITV2-grade acting, and the chances are you'll be met with paper airplanes, tomfoolery and snoring. Ask children to play and they'll naturally be a lot more interested.
There's nothing revolutionary about this idea, but using interactive media to teach was a key force driving the development of Upper One Games' debut puzzle platformer Never Alone.
Made in conjunction with Alaska's Cook Inlet Tribal Council, a group that supports and educates Alaska's indigenous population, Never Alone seeks to teach younger generations about a group of people whose history is slowly fading from memory.
Known as Kisima Inŋitchuŋa in its native tongue, Never Alone casts the player as a young girl named Nuna and the cute arctic fox she befriends. Working together to move through a blizzard-ravaged tundra, one player can switch between the two characters with a simple button press or two players can adventure co-operatively at any time.
Its story is based on the folklore of Alaskan natives (called Iñupiaq) and concerns Nuna's journey to find the source of a never-ending snow storm. In a nice touch the story is narrated in the native Iñupiaq language - just part of the game's charm offensive.
Never Alone falls into that category of indie games that use simple mechanics to tell evocative stories typically brought to life with an impressive visual style, like Limbo and Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons.
Like Limbo, Never Alone is a simple 2D platformer in which you jump (naturally), move boxes, swing from ropes, etc. But what sets Never Alone apart is a distinct art style, punctuated with ethereal spirits that appear to help you through environment puzzles.
Where Never Alone falters however, is in the execution of its key mechanics. Minor clipping issues can be forgiven, but the animation is basic and often stutters, which in a slow-paced platformer that requires some precision, is a problem.
Later on as the platforming puzzles grow more complicated the game's problems are sadly exacerbated. Ledges aren't always grabbed on the first try and most frustratingly of all the character you don't control in single player can get themselves killed all too easily. This occurs because they automatically follow each other, which led in my game to three instances of them leaping into the abyss for no reason.
The key to any great game is to not make the player feel cheated when they fail. Rather they need to blame themselves and endeavour to learn so they can do better next time. Mechanically, Never Alone simply isn't robust enough to provoke this, making it repeatedly frustrating.
Upper One Games' admirable efforts to educate with an endearing story about an indigenous people fall short because the game behind it simply isn't up to scratch. Never Alone is twee and good-looking, but disappoints under the surface.