Image courtesy of Ember Lab

The magic of creating Kena: Bridge of Spirits

By Brian Crecente |
October 19, 2020


As the CCO at Ember Lab, Mike is responsible for the studio’s content development and art direction. His primary goal is to meld different creative ideas, artistic disciplines, and technical backgrounds into an authentic experience with a cohesive visual aesthetic.

Among the many eclectic, enticing new creations headed to the Epic Games Store and PlayStation 5 is one title made by a small indie studio known more for its work in film than video games. In fact, Kena: Bridge of Spirits is Ember Lab’s first full video game creation.

Founded in 2009 by brothers Mike and Josh Grier, the small team of talented artists got their start with the amazing live-action short Dust and then blew up with the Zelda-themed Majora’s Mask - Terrible Fate animated short.

Kena, set for a 2021 release, is a narratively-driven action-adventure game that infuses the studio’s rich art with exploration, puzzles, and combat.

We interviewed Ember Lab co-founder and chief creative officer Mike Grier about the studio’s inception, its decision to create a video game, and how next-gen tech and Unreal Engine will empower its creative vision.
 

How did Ember Lab come about as a studio and grow to the size it is now? What drew the team together?

Mike Grier, chief creative officer and co-founder of Ember Lab:
Ember started as a VFX and animation studio. Most of our team has a background in film and part of our motivation in forming the company was to develop enough resources to create our film, Dust. Many of our original team members worked on the film traveling with us to shoot on location in Japan. The process of developing an independent film really brought the team together and helped grow the studio’s potential. 
Image courtesy of Ember Lab
As we worked to complete post-production on Dust, the studio began taking on advertising projects. We began to specialize in character development for commercial campaigns. Each project the studio took on pushed us to grow and helped develop our capacities. 
 
Both Majora’s Mask - Terrible Fate and Dust feature rich atmospheric settings and intriguing, evocative storylines, how did your ideas for these two shorts come about and what compelled you to create them?
 
Grier:
Much of Dust’s influence comes from my time in Japan. I lived in Tokyo for a handful of years and I would make time to venture into the beautiful countryside and photograph the landscape. While Tokyo was a city densely populated with skyscrapers, a short ride on the train transported me to hikeable farmlands and ancient temples in lush environments. Looking back, I saw that some of the best photographs I had taken were of abandoned structures. 
 
I met many locals who were very helpful and eager to show me off the beaten path locations. They helped me find old trails and locations few travelers to Japan ever see. The visual aesthetics and themes of the film were inspired by the observation of these abandoned man-made locales being reclaimed by nature over time.
 
The concept for Terrible Fate came from the desire to collaborate with our friend Jason Gallaty. Jason is the composer for Kena and got his start developing video game remixes. Jason had previously released a successful Majora’s Mask remix album and for his second album, we wanted to develop a short that could help excite fans of the game and bring the world to life. At the time, we had been doing a lot of commercial projects in that style, live-action location filming featuring stylized 3D characters. The game had a huge impact on all of us growing up and the idea of building on that inspiration was really exciting.
 

Why did you decide to make Kena: Bridge of Spirits a video game and not another film short?
 
Grier:
The challenge of storytelling in the video game medium has always interested our team. Some of my most impactful experiences growing up were the stories and worlds crafted in video games. It’s been a dream of mine to try and spark future generations of creators the same way I was inspired! 
 
When we initially started developing story ideas, we thought it might be an animated series or film. But once we started developing the concept of the Rot, we knew it had to be a game. We wanted to be able to go on adventures with the Rot and explore the world with them. The Rot ended up being the crucial element that helped us intertwine the gameplay with the story we wanted to tell. The player’s journey with the Rot as they find and grow their team reflects many of the themes in the game. Also, they are a lot of fun!
 
What sorts of films and video games inspired the creation of Kena?
 
Grier:
We’ve definitely been inspired by the Zelda games as well as Okami. The storytelling style of the film Rashomon was also a key inspiration.
 
What’s different about the way you reach an audience and how you deliver a setting and message in a video game compared to a film?

Grier:
I find there are many similarities. Video games have a way of capturing the atmosphere and making you feel immersed in a world and for me, the best films do this as well. I think this is reflected in the types of films I try to make. I always strive to make the atmosphere of a world play a role in the story and the characters.
Image courtesy of Ember Lab
How is the creation process different between creating a film and creating a video game?

Grier:
While many of the creative development processes are similar, we’ve found the process to be much more iterative in game development. Things definitely evolve when making a film but not nearly at the pace of change during game development. Gameplay is king and if you want to tell a compelling narrative within that, you have to be flexible. We’re always working on creative solutions to make adjustments that allow the gameplay and story to work together. 
 
How do the different tools used to create your film shorts and this video game impact the end result and your ability as artists to effectively work together?

Grier:
The technology behind both mediums is really starting to merge. As technology gets better, I think we will see even more overlap. The real-time tools are becoming more artist-friendly and people who are familiar with filmmaking or visual effects should feel right at home at least when it comes to capturing cinematics or crafting narratives. I'm excited to see new generations of experiences created as AI and interactive stories become more advanced and unpredictable. 

What tools were used in the creation of your films that are now being used in the creation of this game?    

Grier:
We have used Maya, Houdini, and ZBrush.
 
How do you think the process of making this game will impact the way you view and make future films?

Grier:
Thanks to our work on Kena, the studio has become very comfortable with the real-time pipeline. I could see us utilizing real-time previs or even VFX to help visualize and speed up the creative process for a film. The experience of developing in Unreal has got us thinking about the idea of making a real-time, feature-length animated film in Unreal. 
Image courtesy of Ember Lab
In both Dust and Majora, you seem to have had a very specific goal in terms of the sort of message you wanted to deliver. Is the same true for Kena, if so what is that message?

Grier:
We have always been drawn to themes of balance and restoration. Each character in the game has a very personal story to tell. They are all unique but share similar themes of forgiveness and letting go of the past. The environmental themes of healing and balance are also told through the struggles of the characters. 
 
What were you hoping to convey with the trailer you released for the game?
 
Grier:
One of the key goals of the trailer was to establish the world while introducing key story elements and characters. Another important element was to allow people to fall in love with the Rot. We wanted people to see their bond with Kena and how the Rot transformed the environment. Most importantly, we wanted to showcase the game’s core mechanics of combat, exploration, and collection. 
 
What can you tell us about this game in terms of genre and storyline?
 
Grier:
Kena: Bridge of Spirits is a story-driven action-adventure set in a charming world rich with exploration and fast-paced combat. Players find and grow a team of tiny spirit companions called the Rot, enhancing their abilities and creating new ways to manipulate the environment.
 
Image courtesy of Ember Lab

Unique wood masks, created for those who have died, honor the life they led. These masks are placed in sacred shrines and gradually return to dust, symbolizing the spirit's progression into the next life. Creators of these masks are called spirit guides.
 
Kena, the daughter of a Spirit Guide, grew up learning from her father and accompanying him on his adventures. Years later, Kena travels to an abandoned village built around a sacred place of power, a mountain shrine believed to have restorative properties. 
 
She soon finds the overgrown forest is cursed, filled with trapped and corrupted spirits. 
 
Exploring the forgotten community, Kena discovers the Rot. Naturally timid, the Rot usually remain hidden but are uniquely attracted to Kena. With the help of the Rot and her knowledge of the Spirit Realm, Kena untangles the secrets of the forgotten community and brings peace to the troubled spirits
 
There appear to be both non-gameplay and gameplay captured in the trailer, but the artistry of the game makes it very hard to delineate the two. How did you go about delivering such rich visuals in the gameplay?
 
Grier:
We spent a long time developing the look of the environment and the world. Those efforts were focused around a visual style and the goal of environmental storytelling. All of this work in developing a world carries over to the cinematics because we leverage the same assets. So that visual style really helps carry the same feeling between gameplay and cutscenes. But one area I think may be sometimes overlooked is the quality of our gameplay animations. Kena and the characters move and feel great in gameplay and the cinematics which really unifies the gameplay and cutscene experiences. 
Image courtesy of Ember Lab
The world itself seems to be teeming with life and a high level of detail, how did the team accomplish this?
 
Grier:
As often as we can, we try to integrate “realistic” elements into the fantastical world we are developing. Things like interactive foliage, wind that rustles the trees, motes and particles in the air all help bring the world to life. Additionally, we spend a lot of time thinking about and dialing in the lighting of each space. The lighting of a forest environment can completely change how it feels and it really helps to capture its beauty. 
 
The trailer seems to include a lot of lighting effects, how important was lighting to the game and what sorts of tools did you use to achieve them?
 
Grier:
We feel like lighting is critical in shaping the locations and experiences. Nothing really works without it and we are definitely leaning on our film and VFX background to help achieve the look of the game. Generally, we are going for stylized characters and environments with a realistic lighting style. Our team has a lot of experience with light for films both digitally and practically. Our DP, Boa Simon, who we usually work with on film production, has been responsible for much of the lighting in the game.
Image courtesy of Ember Lab
How are you able to deliver such a high level of detail and immersive play with a team of just 14 people? Are there particular approaches to development that allow you to achieve this goal?
 
Grier:
We’ve tried to develop a very collaborative environment at the studio. So much of game development is interdependent, we really have to support and build on each other's work with a small team. Communication is critical and a lot of us had been working together for a long time so when everyone was working together at the studio, we could share and develop ideas really quickly. Remote work due to COVID has impacted our efficiency but also made us really appreciate the value and necessity for strong communication. 
 
What sorts of improvements, gameplay, audio, and visuals are being enabled in your game with the help of the technological advances coming along with next-gen consoles and Unreal Engine?
 
Grier:
One of the most apparent will be our ability to show more Rot on screen. There are 100 individual Rot you can collect in the game. On next-gen, we’ll be able to show each of those little guys on the screen all at the same time. 
 
What excites you and your team the most about the long-term possibilities of next-gen hardware and Unreal Engine?
 
Grier:
Probably the utilization of the next-gen hard drive. With the limited time everyone has had with the next-gen tools, we have only just scratched the surface of what is possible. Even just “out of the box,” the hard drive speed is an incredible benefit. 3D audio is another element that is going to really enhance the immersive experience.
Image courtesy of Ember Lab
Are there any particular gameplay or visual elements of your game’s design you’d like to highlight and explain? If so, please do.
 
Grier:
One of the gameplay aspects we are really happy with is the transition from corrupted areas to restored environments that occur in real-time. We originally thought that these changes would have to happen in cutscenes. However, it was a goal of the team to try and have the transitions happen in real-time. This was actually a fairly large tech art and performance undertaking. 
 
We perform a custom top-down orthographic render pass to render all the elements that clean the deadzone. This gives us a mask to work within the deadzone shaders to determine what is cleaned and what isn't. For the gameplay, to know if Kena is in a deadzone or not, we used landscape layers with physical surfaces to allow artists to paint deadzone areas. Then we simply used a combination of spheres that disappeared with the visual effects to determine what areas were cleaned.
 
Creating the dynamic deadzone also introduced another level of complexity to dressing and level art, but in the end, I think it was worth the effort. We’re able to keep the player immersed in the gameplay as the environment transforms around them. The Rot react and cheer as they rejoin Kena, flowers bloom, light changes, and life is restored to the environment. 
 
Image courtesy of Ember Lab

Thanks for your time. Where can people learn more about Ember Labs and Kena: Bridge of Spirits?
 
Grier:
Our website is www.emberlab.com and all social channels (Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and YouTube) use the handle @emberlab. 

We also have some official merchandise available at rusushop.com.

To hear more from Ember Lab about Kena and the next-gen landscape, join us in November for The Pulse Games episode.
 

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