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Saturday, May 18, 2024

How 'Kena' Conjured the 'Feeling of Getting Lost in a Forest'

Kena: Bridge Of Spirits demands attention for being a narrative-driven outlier that poeticizes the finer details of environmental storytelling. The PlayStation exclusive and debut from developer Ember Lab hits the canonical highs of the action-adventure genre—and, in a very Pixar way of doing things, binds clever puzzles and kinetic combat to the coziest swells of exploration. Instead of posing a debate on “fidelity versus mechanics,” Kena traces the growth of a young Balinese heroine, and as the studio tells WIRED, it uses her story to underline the importance of player-led discoveries in video games.

For the Orange, California–based animation studio, hitting that sweet spot means everything. The team—founded in 2009 by brothers Josh and Mike Grier—started small. They developed animated projects for Coca-Cola and Major League Baseball, designed convention displays for Hisense, and produced experimental shorts such as Dust and Majora’s Mask—Terrible Fate—two films that harmonized with Sony’s commitment to arming independent artists with a bigger canvas.

Ember Lab’s debut is transparent about its influences—it cites Ocarina of Time, and is a full-on poetry slam about why the gameplay systems in Pikmin and The Minish Cap are woefully underrated—but it lets them mingle among the studio’s greatest skillset: interactive storytelling. Bridge of Spirits is a theatrical marvel that punctuates its Dreamworks levels of animated sequences with intricate layouts of forests, caverns, treetops, waterfalls, and scenic lookouts that are downright gorgeous. Every path and enclave invites curiosity and presents opportunities to restore village shrines to a familiar sense of tranquility—whether it’s through creature companions known as the Rot, or *Ghost of Tsushima–*like moments of meditation that assist Kena on her journey guiding lost souls to the other side.

“Many games include progressive upgrades to health, stamina, abilities etc., but we wanted to find a way to allow this progression mechanic to fit into the story and ethos of our world,” Mike Grier tells WIRED. “So much of Kena’s journey involves self-reflection and coming to terms with concepts like balance, the cycles of nature, and acceptance. We felt the practice of meditation best connected these thematic elements with the game mechanic of increasing health capacity.”


Kena: Bridge of Spirits is lined with nods to Balinese and Japanese culture, in a conscious effort to add authenticity and appropriation to a fictional world embedded in spiritualism. Every symbol, carved mask, and sprawling piece of architecture stems from Southeast Asian traditions (and the Griers’ time spent abroad), and go hand in hand with the creators’ adoration for lighting effects, Sekiro’s combat, and unconventional scoring. The latter, specifically, resulted from an impromptu session between composer Jason Gallaty and the Balinese music ensemble Gamelan Çudamani—which, in turn, introduced the team to directors Dewa Putu Berata and Emiko Saraswati Susilo and their daughter Ayu Larassanti, the voice actress behind Kena.

That kind of dedication doesn’t go unnoticed. Using bamboo percussion instruments allowed Ember Lab to create an open-world adventure that accurately communicates eastern traditions and isn’t hindered by misrepresentation. As a result, Kena: Bridge of Spirits is a nuanced glimpse into the remote village of Pengosekan, Bali. To find out more, WIRED talked to cofounders Josh Grier (chief operating officer) and Mike Grier (chief creative officer) about their debut project, its Southeast Asian influences, and the various challenges of designing a female protagonist who doesn’t conform to stereotypes.

Note: This Q&A has been edited for both clarity and length.

WIRED: What was your original pitch for Bridge of Spirits?

Mike Grier: In many ways, the original pitch has remained intact throughout development. We set out to make a story-focused, action-adventure game in a smaller but AAA quality package. We pitched an experience that was digestible—something you could complete in a weekend but with high-quality visuals and really fun gameplay.

As we crafted game mechanics, tested animation, reviewed character designs, and developed the story, each process influenced the other, leading to exciting transformations. We never knew exactly where this journey might lead! Originally, the Rot were actually the antagonists thwarting Kena on her journey, but we soon found that making them her teammates was the way to go.

Similarly, early on we were focused on telling a coming of age story about a fairly young spirit guide. Soon, we began to ask ourselves how her skill level affected gameplay and story. So, combat design triggered story discussions about how far she had gone in her training, how much information she knew, and how much real-world experience she may have.

WIRED: How would you describe Kena's personality and where she fits in her world?

MG: Kena still has a lot to learn, but at the start of her journey, she sets out—sure of her duties as a spirit guide and one who understands the sacred rituals needed to assist lost spirits. Earlier in development, Kena was more unsure, innocent, and a true novice, but the Kena you meet in Bridge Of Spirits is independent, self-reliant, and knows what she’s doing. At the same time, she knows how to have some fun with the village children and her little Rot friends.

Upon meeting the inhabitants of the village, Kena discovers they have different traditions than those that her father taught her, but she quickly understands that they have the same mission. Perhaps the value of Kena’s youth reveals itself in her own ability to accept and adapt to new perspectives and different ways of achieving the same goals.

WIRED: How does Kena and her journey in Bridge Of Spirits counter stereotypes and differ from other portrayals of loss and forgiveness?

Josh Grier: We value the presentation of a wide variety of perspectives in storytelling, especially stories that explore less commonly depicted experiences. Kena’s undivided focus on her duty and using her knowledge and expertise to help those around her marks a key departure from some of the more common female stereotypes or tropes within gaming. Kena is not a damsel in distress, an unlikely female hero, or a fragile protagonist in need of assistance. Instead, the characters our hero encounters recognize her as a highly capable and effective spirit guide.

But, Kena still meets many challenges. Instead of taking on a more auxiliary or passive role, she grapples with her environment, utilizes her ingenuity, and delves into a deeper understanding of the grief and loss of even her greatest foes—to help them forgive, let go, and move on.

WIRED: What inspired the team to use this project to focus on themes of balance and restoration and our own human desire to reconcile our mistakes?

JG: Like many artists, our team feels the drive to investigate our human experience and reflect on these discoveries through our medium. In our personal lives, we’ve felt the strain of constant exposure to stimuli, polarization, and conflict in the world right now. Things feel out of balance.

In the early stages of development, we all found solace in the restorative concepts of finding our natural equilibrium. This inspired us to explore themes of restoration and reconciliation with our mistakes through our new medium of video games. We hope that players have a fun experience playing Bridge of Spirits, but we also hope that these more contemplative questions encourage self-reflection, and maybe even some balance.

WIRED: What influenced you to explore Balinese culture instead of other Southeast Asian traditions and Aztec mythologies that have been popularized by the action-adventure genre?

MG: It actually happened quite serendipitously. We started by exploring traditional Japanese practices of honoring the dead as we found poignancy in the custom of representing a spirit’s journey passing through the deterioration of wooden totems. Separately, while working on the sound design, we connected with Gamelan Çudamani—a renowned Balinese performance ensemble. As we worked with them, we began identifying so many similarities between the world we were developing and Balinese traditions and beliefs. The members of the ensemble taught us about their rich cultural focus on helping and purifying spirits as these ideals also strongly influence their music and dance culture.

We were immediately inspired but we wanted to make sure that we remained respectful of their traditions, music, and beliefs. After explaining more about our concept and goals, the members of Çudamani graciously agreed to share and help inspire the world of Bridge Of Spirits. We kept in close contact with Çudamani through development, following their lead on the most respectful way to take inspiration from their culture. We wanted to preserve the sanctity of everything they were so generously sharing with us.

WIRED: Is the art direction and designs of each spirit mask native to Balinese culture?

JG: Although Balinese musical traditions influence the soundtrack of Kena, the art direction draws inspiration from a variety of cultures and nature itself. We wanted to build up the lore, look, and visual vocabulary of the fictional world that we created for Bridge Of Spirits.

Each spirit mask design takes inspiration from some element of the spirit’s personality or role. For example, Rusu The Huntsman’s mask features elements of a bird of prey. As an archer and hunter, Rusu’s precise focus and attention to detail are reflected in his mask as he also watches over many of the village’s inhabitants, like an eagle flying high above their territory.

WIRED: What was it like working with the Vietnamese animation company Sparx?

JG: Our partnership sprung from our team’s need for level art support. We were recommended to Sparx by a mutual friend. While they didn’t work on animation, they proved invaluable to the project for their work on environmental art, level dressing, and environmental asset modeling.

We actually flew key members of our studio out to Vietnam to work with them and immerse their team in our style and workflow. We achieved our goals while there, built a fantastic friendship, and together, established an effective pipeline while empowering them as artists on our project.

WIRED: Coming from a background in VFX and animation, what has it been like for the team to create an immersive world that plays a key role in the storytelling of Bridge Of Spirits?

MG: Coming from the world of VFX and animation to creating an immersive gaming experience involved a huge amount of learning, which was exciting for us! We set out to create the feeling of getting lost in a forest, which we think our fantastic environmental artists and designers hit out of the park. To create a truly immersive world, however, requires all creative elements working together. From the beautiful lighting design to the soundtrack to the ambient sound design and the environmental animation—they all brought the visual world to life.

For example, our own background in animation led us to specifically focus on getting the wind animation just right: through Kena’s hair, the blowing of grass and leaves, and the subtle shifts of plants and wildlife throughout the world. The team even hand-animated each individual leaf for several key moments to get the gust effect just right. We are so happy to hear that players are getting that feeling of wonder and immersion getting lost in our world.

WIRED: Has it been difficult to transition from storyboards and cutscenes to marrying different systemic elements in-game to create moments that are more personal to the player?

MG: In crafting a story for the video games format, we focused on a somewhat non-linear mode of storytelling. Since Kena’s journey involves uncovering details and memories about each main character’s past, the narrative must be pieced together over the course of her quest. It’s why we saved our longest and most emotional cutscenes for until players achieved the major milestones of defeating a spirit’s corrupted form.

We aimed to build the player’s curiosity about the spirit they were helping by holding back key information, and gradually allowing them to uncover more and more. By the time they confront the corrupted spirit, we hope they have enough to feel a vested interest in liberating them. The final reward for completing each chapter of the story comes in the form of a full character deep dive, and an emotional farewell. Sometimes it proved a challenge to find the right blend between our cinematic background and the new frontier of storytelling through gameplay, but we are so happy with the results. The satisfaction of feeling personally involved in Kena’s journey still excites the team, even all the way at the end of the process.

WIRED: What are some of your other favorite narratives in video games and how have they influenced your own ideas and future plans in the medium?

MG: We have really loved The Last Of Us series, and obviously, The Legend Of Zelda franchise—most notably, Majora’s Mask. Fans of Kena: Bridge Of Spirits might remember the love-letter fan film that we made in 2016, called Majora’s Mask: Terrible Fate.

We love the character-focused storytelling these series do so well. Many games focus on saving the world. We’re interested in games about saving a person. Or a group of individuals. Games like Majora's Mask left a mark on us because of how well it humanized each individual NPC who had their own stories and feelings about the impending disaster. Finding the humanity in every character in our projects, no matter how small, serves as a strong guiding principle for us.

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