Winner's Spotlight November 17, 2022

Inside Kena: Bridge of Spirits

Kena: Bridge of Spirits takes the player on a fantastical journey of unearthing forgotten secrets from an abandoned community deep in an overgrown forest. Kena is joined by loveable tiny spirits called Rots to aid her in her search and to grow her powers. The game won the Webby for Adventure Games for its remarkable and intricate story and was honored for Best Art Direction for its stunning visuals. It’s an extraordinary adventure that’s driven by an imaginative story and thrilling gameplay.

We spoke with Ember Lab, the studio behind the game, to find out more about the making of Kena: Bridge of Spirits.

How did the Ember Lab team come up with the idea for Kena: Bridge of Spirits? What did the process of beginning the project look like?

In many ways we always knew we’d like to make a game someday. Ember Lab co-founders, Mike and Josh Grier’s lifelong love of video games together with Ember Lab’s focus on animation and VFX eventually led perfectly into game development. A large part of the idea for Kena came from Mike’s experiences living in Japan and exploring the countryside, which is evident in the lush, detailed environments. Our diverse team brings a variety of influences, and you can see aspects of many cultures in our character designs and music. 

Transitioning into games, we tried our best to lean on our animation background as the bedrock of our creative vision, then set out to make a game that we would want to play. But we definitely did a lot of learning as we went, and some key aspects were initially very different. For example, the Rot were originally antagonists that attacked Kena and hindered her progression. When we flipped that and made them companion helpers the gameplay mechanics started to click and we felt like we had something unique.

Do you have an all-time favorite videogame that inspires you? Or is there a videogame that inspired Kena: Bridge of Spirits?

The sources of inspiration for Kena: Bridge of Spirits have one common thread: immersive fantasy. We were always drawn to adventure games such as the Legend of Zelda series, but we were also heavily influenced by art-directed films like Lord of the Rings, Blade Runner, and the unique and often whimsical animated worlds of Studio Ghibli.

How would you best describe the signature look of the design for Kena? How did the team decide on this final design? 

Kena is both a sensitive Spirit Guide and a skilled fighter. We wanted to create a design for her that communicated both of these aspects while also feeling timeless, recognizable, and unique. Our original version was a much younger version of Kena.  However, as we created the action combat in the game, this young, inexperienced version didn’t align with the exceptional skill she was portraying in combat. Ultimately, this taught us a lot about her backstory but we ended up adjusting her character design to make her older, with a bit more experience as a Spirit Guide.

Why did you decide to make Kena: Bridge of Spirits an action & adventure game as opposed to other genres?

Largely due to our love of other action/adventure games. With a plethora of other exciting and interesting genres out there, we had a lot of options, but we’ve always been drawn to the excitement and skill of fast-based action/adventure games. Finding ways to tell a captivating story using the energy of action, combat, and exploration really excited us.

As a small design studio, how did your team stay motivated in the creative process of Kena? How long did your production take from start to finish?

Actual production began in late 2017/early 2018 and we shipped the final game on September 21, 2021. Though small, we were truly blessed with a team of very talented and motivated developers. For many members of the team, it was our first game. Combined with how special the project was to all of us, this carried us through some of the more challenging stages of development. 

The big challenge was adapting our work style through the COVID-19 pandemic. As a small team, we don’t have a lot of IT support so transitioning everyone to work from home was a big effort. COVID also complicated our troubleshooting of technical issues that required patience and determination when things didn’t work as expected. Before the pandemic our communication was quick and fluid because we were so small. With many people still working from home communication takes longer and you have to work harder to make sure everyone is informed. 

Which softwares were used to create such a realistic feeling on Kena? What were some of the most practical features it offered?

We built the game using Unreal Engine 4, along with other programs like Maya, Zbrush and Substance to create the characters and environmental assets. Keyframe animation was done in Maya. Wwise was the audio tool we used for sound effects and music mixing in the game. 

Kena has received a lot of praise and adoration from fans as well as the public eye. What is it about the game that makes it so different from others in the action-adventure & combat categories?

We’ve been so happy to see Kena resonating with so many people. It’s always hard to know exactly what the key is, but we hear from a lot of fans about how they’ve been very touched by the characters, the look of the world, and the concept of helping spirits. Since the game came from such a personal place, we hope that passion has come through for players, too. Many players have also shared their pleasant surprise at the challenging combat in light of the charming world. We’re always pleased when we can keep players on their toes.

Could you tell us some fun facts about little details players usually miss while playing? Are there any video game easter eggs?

We’ve hidden plenty of secrets around Kena’s world for players to collect, but we’ve also laid in hints about the game’s conclusion in the form of environmental storytelling. Without ruining the ending, certain cave paintings, carvings, and statues throughout the game allude to the history of the village’s fate.

Who is your intended audience? What type of person would this be the perfect game for?

Kena’s intended audience are players in their teens and older of all genders. Definitely, fans of the Zelda games, Disney/Pixar or Studio Ghibli films, and even people who may not have played many games before. Players who want to explore a beautiful and unique world who are also up for some surprising challenges.

What fuels your imagination and other creative ideas?

It may sound trite, but everything! Remaining open to the world around us, other games and stories, new ideas and perspectives, and even events and people in our personal lives all serve as inspiration. It’s always a surprise when some of the most imaginative or creative ideas come from somewhere you’d never expect. The most important thing is to stay receptive. Everyone on the team also really enjoys experiencing nature and it’s one of our main sources of inspiration. Hiking, camping, visiting the natural parks and beach days are some of our favorite activities. We’re always inspired to create new things after spending some time outdoors.

What advice would you give to someone who is just starting out in game design?

Make sure to always foster your passion. As you progress, you will gain experience, your techniques will improve, and the scale of your projects will increase, but most important is maintaining the thing that motivates you to create. Find out what that is, always keep it in sight. No matter what stage you’re at, if you’re passionate about what you’re doing, that will pull you through the difficult times and push you to improve. Eventually, your passion will draw others to the work you’re doing. We can’t wait to see what you create!

What does your Webby Award mean to you?

Our Webby Award serves as a testament to all the hard work, creativity, and dedication of everyone on our team. Very often, these things can go unnoticed, so receiving recognition from such a prestigious award reinvigorates us, and gives even more motivation to keep going. We’re very excited by where we’ve been and for what’s to come!

Want to join Kena: Bridge of Spirits as a Webby winner? Enter by the Extended Entry Deadline by Friday, February 10th here!