The creative studio at Ember Lab recently made their video game debut with the successful release of Kena: Bridge of Spirits, a fantasy adventure and spiritual story with a cinematic CGI art style that really stands out. Since launch, the game has been well received by both critics and players, receiving multiple award recognitions that include two nominations for The Virtual Photography Awards | 2021.
Of course, the game's outstanding art style is no accident and can be traced back to the studio's origins in CGI animation and storytelling before making the disciplinary cross-over into interactive gaming. That creative heritage certainly shows through, so it was a privilege to be able to catch up with the team at Ember Lab recently to find out a bit more about what inspired them to create the game, as well as it's innovative photo mode.
- HIGHLIGHT REEL // EMBER LAB -
First of all, tell me a bit more about Ember Lab and what motivated the studio to move from CGI storytelling into video games?
While we started from a more traditional film and animation background, many of our core team members have always been huge gamers. We learned so much exploring different mediums from commercial work, to narrative film, and eventually video games. The transition to games seemed like a natural one for us – allowing us to explore two passions and offering so many exciting possibilities and challenges to sink our teeth into.
Did this new medium require any changes in your approach to storytelling and animation?
Definitely. We loved discovering how to implement what we already knew in new ways. For example, in animation, we adjusted techniques for player feel and speed of combat. Animating characters in games requires connection to player controls and responses in order to clarify player actions and feel exciting at a quickly-changing pace. As we made these adjustments, we also continued our focus on realistic and emotional performances in both gameplay and cutscenes.
Storytelling also required a new perspective. Not only did we want to give life to all the details of the world and characters, we needed to focus on telling the story in a way that incorporated interactivity and a sense of accomplishment and exploration. We tried to find as many ways of allowing the story to unfold through the player’s experience, then augment and reward those actions with further context and story beats through our cutscenes.
- SHRINE // KENA: BRIDGE OF SPIRITS -
The world and characters of Kena: Bridge of Spirits certainly feel like they have lots of life and soul; what were some of the main inspirations behind the setting, story and the art style?
We took inspiration from many real-world locations and environments – pulling from the places we’ve lived and travelled, including locations in California, Bali, and Japan. We took a lot of character design inspiration from Eastern animation styles like Studio Ghibli and incorporated our own spin and backgrounds.
As we crafted the environments, we focused on designing the props and structures to feel like they had been truly lived in and abandoned – telling subtle stories about what might have been through the visual details. As opposed to relying exclusively on animation, cutscenes, and dialogue to drive narrative, we also maintained a strong focus on storytelling through the art design of the game.
We especially wanted to capture the feeling of nature reclaiming these spaces – ivy climbing up walls and plants growing on top of buildings. We took inspiration from the Japanese concept of Haikyo, where previously populated spaces have become more or less abandoned and isolated; a haunting reminder of an almost forgotten community blended with the beauty of nature’s resilience.
- ENVIRONMENT CONCEPT // EMBER LAB -
The game often feels like stepping straight into a piece of concept art, is it important at Ember Lab to embrace and retain the original creative vision while trying to achieve those visual details?
We worked through many iterations and concepts, ultimately landing on a vision we were excited to bring to life, and worked hard to live up to or surpass our initial vision. Our artistic aim for Kena: Bridge of Spirits focused on blending stylized characters with realistic environments to create a fantastical adventure supported by an authentic and grounded world. While creating fantastical worlds, it’s important to us to make things feel real. We always start with references from the real world as we bring our creative vision to life.
- SHOOT // KENA: BRIDGE OF SPIRITS -
Speaking of creativity, when did you first become aware of virtual photography and what led to your decision to include a photo mode in Kena: Bridge of Spirits?
We had seen some really exciting photo mode options in other games, and we knew from the beginning of development that we wanted to develop a photo mode for Kena: Bridge of Spirits. At first we weren’t sure if we would have the bandwidth or resources, but ultimately were very glad we prioritised it!
You certainly kept us waiting with the exciting news that there would be a photo mode... Can you give any insight into the process of implementing it into the game, and was it important that the tools could reproduce a cinematic style?
Most of our team members are filmmakers by trade with practical photography experience. We tried to draw from those skills in building our photo mode features. For example, we mapped the camera controls on the game controller to match where those buttons would be on a still camera to best replicate the feeling of snapping a photo in real life.
Since we put so much attention into creating the world and details, we really wanted to give players the ability to take a closer look, capture, and live in those details in a fulfilling way.
On a technical note, the photo mode sees some strange behaviour from post-render effects that adversely affect still image quality; any idea what is going on there, perhaps an artefact of AA or motion blur?
We are aware of issues related to pausing the game and various temporal effects in Unreal Engine. While we have resolved some of the issues in patches, we are working on fixing the remaining issues like the artefacts in the hair.
Easily the most innovative feature, the “Action” and “Cheese!” options make your photo mode feel like photographing live subjects that interact with the camera in a way that no other game achieves. How did this feature happen?
Our characters were so important in creating the world, and we were looking for more ways for players to interact, build relationships, and see their personalities (especially in those quieter moments at rest). While building our photo mode, we discovered that bringing each character to life while setting up the shot and developing their unique poses gave us exactly what we were looking for. It was a really exciting way to dive deeper into our characters outside of the main story and allow exciting possibilities for player creativity.
- CHEESE! // KENA: BRIDGE OF SPIRITS -
What has it been like to see the way the game has been received in general, and have you been surprised by the amount of creativity shown by virtual photographers using the photo mode?
We have been overwhelmed to see the support! In regard to virtual photography in the game, we seriously thought we’d seen it all, but players’ incredible skill and creativity have let us see ideas and pictures we wouldn’t have imagined! It’s been so rewarding seeing players engage with the world we worked hard to create.
So where next for you guys, can we expect more from Kena as playable content or maybe other media like an animated series or comics perhaps?
We are still waiting to determine what’s next for us, but we love the idea of expanding the world of Kena into other mediums!
I think a lot of people would love that idea! Anything else you’d like to add, oh, and any chance of an option to hide the photo mode UI please?
We really appreciate your support and the support of all of our amazing fans! We wouldn’t be where we are without everyone, and we’re very excited to continue our journey together.
(We wanted to add the hide UI feature, but ran out of time. We’re looking forward to supporting additional features in the future).
- EMBER LAB -
Well, it has been an absolute pleasure, thank you for taking the time to talk to me and giving some fascinating peeks behind the scenes. I hope everyone has enjoyed reading and if you would like to see more about this novel photo mode, please do check out my Kena: Bridge of Spirits review.
Until next time...