My reintroduction to video games in late 2016 consisted mostly of me googling ‘video game podcasts’ and listening to what came up. Some of the shows returned by google’s algorithm are still in my weekly podcast rotation (Waypoint and Kotaku Splitscreen which is now Triple Click). Since late 2016 I’ve used these podcasts, Twitter, and Youtube to stay up to date with what is going on in the critical discussion around games. I also started to do some of my own writing about games (hence this journal) which underscored my lack of awareness about gaming and game culture during and before the PS3/Xbox One generation. Even when I had a Gamecube or 360 I wasn’t playing the new games. My Gamecube was a Mario kart: Double Dash machine, and I spent most of the time with my 360 trying to find cheap pacey midfielders on Ultimate team.
There will always be a spot in my heart for the Gamecube with its weird lunchbox handle, but when it comes to writing about games in 2022 I don’t have the built-up knowledge to discuss games in a historical or technical context. It seems kind of funny to me now, but I did a whole journal series while playing Breath of the Wild without the ability to compare that game to anything other than Skyrim. All of this came into view recently while playing Kena: Bridge of Spirits.
Much of the discussion around Kena focused on how it was a bit of a throwback to PS2 character platformers Spyro, Ratchet & Clank, or Jak and Daxter. But what does it mean for Kena to be like those games? I’ve only ever played a little Spyro and the new (very good) Ratchet games, so I can’t say explain what the similarities or differences might be. Trying to find a different angle you can also try to think about Kena in a modern context and compare it to other action platformers that have roots in the PS2 era. Thankfully there is a really good example of this type of game out right now in Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart.
I finished playing Rift Apart right before starting Kens and there’s a way to hold these two games next to each other that allows for an interesting comparison. A direct comparison is difficult because the games are explicitly trying to do two different things. This is obvious if you look just the way the games were marketed in the same Sony Future of Gaming show from June 2020. This was the event where the PS5 was revealed and included first looks at both games as well as words from their developers.
In the Rachet reveal the emphasis was on the technological advancements that will be possible because of the PS5’s new SSD and DualSense controller. The developers were excited that these advancements would give players access to more worlds, better lighting, and more ridiculous weapons. Kena’s developers only got to speak for about fifteen seconds, but they used that time to talk about the vibes and themes of Kena.
Where this comparison becomes more interesting is when you remember that this is Ember Labs’ first game and Insomnias’ 17th Ratchet game across multiple consoles. Insomniac has made so many Ratchet games that they began re-imagining them. They know what a Rachet game is to such a degree that they are able and need to re-think what these games could be. It’s a totally different starting point for a game when you’re thinking about ‘how do we do something different than we’ve done before?’ versus ‘how do we do this for the first time?’ You can hear studio heads Mike and Josh Grier talk about this problem in their presentation at the 2021 Tribeca Games Spotlight. They have a strong background in animation and blending real environments with CGI. But after they created all the cool things the player can do and interact with, they needed to communicate with the player about how to do that.
The most material way this difference in institutional knowledge shows up is the ways that each game communicates to the player what is possible with the given tools. You are rarely wondering what you should are can do when playing Ratchet. Whether it is level design, tooltips, the way objects are represented in the environment, or the animations, the player never wonders what they should be doing which allows you to focus on using the huge array of fun tools you’re given. A good example of this is when you get a pair of rocket boots that allow you to move quickly across different planets. There is a tooltip telling you exactly how to activate them and an accompanying rumble on the DualSense that mimics the friction you feel when pushing off on the ground to get going on a pair of ice skates or roller blades. Then, immediately, there are multiple clearly marked opportunities to use the skates to find a collectible or access a new part of the map. The control scheme for the boots is simple, clearly described, there is physical feedback that tells you if you’ve activated them, and you have multiple opportunities to use them immediately.
Contrast this with Kena where at two different points you are given new tools and not shown, told, or given the opportunity to understand how they change how you can interact with the environment. When you first get your bow, you go through a tutorial that makes sure you know how to shoot it. What isn’t explained is that the bow is also a tool you must use to clear corruption in the forest. The next few encounters are similar to previous ones with no obvious changes to the interactive geometry or enemy placement during the encounter. Everything is still low to the forest floor so that you don’t think about using the bow to reach something that you can’t with your staff. The game does not force or asked the player to change their behavior in any way. What this means is that when you get to an encounter a little further on where you have to clear corruption high off the forest floor you might not put together (I didn’t) that the bow is the thing you need to use to at this moment.
This experience made me think about what I’ve learned about the best way to reinforce newly learned information behavior in a classroom situation. When you are teaching new skills, you need to give the students practice using those skills over the next few days. What you don’t do is mentioned something once and then don’t bring it up until the quiz (I try to avoid doing this to my students). There is a sort of reverse moment to the bow situation in a later boss. On a path near the end of the game, a new ghostly enemy is introduced. To beat this enemy you must first dash through them to stun them, and then you can attack while they are stunned. First, you fight one ghost enemy in an enclosed space, and then you face them in groups in an open space. At the end of that same path is a boss who is a ghost. It would be reasonable in this situation to assume that the mechanic you recently learned to fight similar-looking enemies might need to be used here. Spoiler you don’t, the ghost boss is beaten with just your staff and bow like every other enemy in the game, and the dash mechanic is never used again.
It’s important to take a moment here to say that while this might be a frustrating moment, all games are full of this stuff. Horizon Zero Dawn (a flawed favorite of mine) spends a major part of its tutorial teaching you how to throw rocks to distract the robot dinos when you really never have to do that in the main game (and why this mechanic remains in the sequel is baffling). And while Kena’s developers may have struggled at moments in the game to decide what the necessary mechanics were and how to teach them to the player, there is one combination of skill and mechanic that they allow the player to exploit that is among the coolest things I’ve done in a video game.
Kena’s controls are pretty straightforward if you’ve played any third-person action game. Sprint, jump, double jump, dodge roll, light attack, heavy attack. The skill tree is also something you’ve probably seen before, collect a specific resource (Karma) for performing certain actions in the environment and you gain access to new moves and powerful attacks. Once you can access the bow there are new skills that make it more powerful. One of these skills (Focus) is a ‘slow down time mechanic’ that makes everything slow-mo for a few seconds while you are aiming the bow. None of these three skills/mechanics (double jump, bow, Focus) are unique to Kena. The thing that feels game-breaking is the ability to combine these three skills to create a new movement mechanic. If you activate Focus while you are in the air you’ll find that it doesn’t just slow time but also preserves Kena’s momentum. This means that if you jump in a direction and then use Focus you float in the direction you jumped. Combine this with the double jump and you’ll feel like Neo learning how to fly. You will be floating and gliding past ledges and platforms that were frustratingly out of reach before. You didn’t break the game and this is and this is an ability the developers wanted you to figure out because late game platforming challenges would be impossible without it.
Unlike the bow, this is an example of the game developers knowing how to encourage the players to find this new way of moving through the world. The environments are filled with ledges and impossible-to-reach spaces, so when you get access to these three tools it’s still in your head that you need to get up there somehow. The encouragement that was missing when the bow was introduced is present here because of how often you come across an area you can’t get up or over to. I may be overstating how unique this mechanic is, or exposing my limited game knowledge, but I appreciate that the developers didn’t stop at the question of what tools should we give the player. Instead, they thought about how players could combine the given tools to create a new mechanic.
This approach by the Kena developers can again be contrasted with Ratchet where you have a ton of mechanics that take advantage of the power and technology of the PS5 and DualSense controller which allows everything to feel and look as awesome as anything you’ve ever seen or felt from a video game. But Ratchet doesn’t ask the player to go to that next layer and think about the interaction and combination of the given tools. This is one example of the way Ember Labs tries, despite grounding Kena in games that have come before, to use their skills and priorities as a studio to make something more unique than it appears at first look.
Kena: Bridge of Spirits developers describe it as a forty-five-minute animated movie wrapped inside a game. That isn’t to trivialize what they created, but to highlight what they are proud of in this game. The studio is known for beautiful animated short films and commercials with their biggest hit being the short film Majora’s Mask – Terrible Fate. This film weirdly serves as some type of proof of concept for much of the sound, imagery, and creepiness that is found throughout Kena. The mask in the opening shot of Terrible Fate echos the variety of symbolic masks found throughout the game. The red and yellow sprites that dance around the main character in Fate feel like a precursor to your Rot companions, who also swirl, dance, and coo their support and approval.
The dark and creepier elements that run through Kena, which were not fully on display in its initial showing at the PS5 showcase, also have a precursor in Fate. This moment when the imp puts on Majora’s mask and you can hear limbs cracking is reflected directly at this moment from Kena’s presentation trailer at the 2021 Tribeca Games Spotlight. The animation was highlighted in the trailers for Kena, playing up their strengths as a studio, but what they actually created when you step into that forest is something much more special.
Kena’s structure, once you reach the main village, is a hub and spoke game where the next path out of the village opens only after the previous path is completed. It’s a linear structure that doesn’t become constraining. The design of the forest flora, how the paths are laid out, the way light filters through the trees, and the noises coming from everywhere create a place that, despite a limited number of places you can actually go, makes you want to look around every corner. The forest areas play into the strengths of Ember Lab as a studio. Here they can exert more control over what the player sees or experiences, like in their animated short films, and when that control goes away in some of the more open landscapes so does some of the charm.
One aspect of the game that is never lacking is the sound design. You can get a taste by watching gameplay, but I think seeing it in action might be the only place to truly appreciate what they created. This includes both the soundtrack as well as each little thunk, coo, and twinkle that pops as you go through the world. Earlier I mentioned I how a lack of institutional knowledge created friction points for the player trying to figure out what to do at certain points, but Ember Lab’s newcomer status can also be a strength. Many games have good music or sound design, but Kena’s feels different. The music was inspired by Gamelan music and to respect the culture that creates that music and how that music is used, members of the development team went to Bali to record the Gamelan Çudamani ensemble.
Video games often mix and match whatever pieces of culture they want to create something unsatisfying and appropriative. Ember labs did not do this. Their collaboration with Gamelan Çudamani also led to a standout part of the game, Kena’s voice actor. Kena is voiced the daughter of the ensemble’s founder and lead singer. Ayu Larassanti’s performance as Kena is full of so much personality and perspective that Larassanti attributes to the respectful approach Ember Labs took in developing the games’ themes and using Gamelan music. I don’t know if you can say definitively that being a smaller studio played any part in the commitment to respect that ran through their development process, but you don’t see a lot of AAA games doing this. Ember Labs created something they can and should be proud of and I can’t wait to replay this game again now that I know exactly what I’m doing. They showed with this game you don’t have to be a huge AAA studio doing things like everyone else to make an amazing and beautiful character action game that is tons of fun to play.