Kena: Bridge of Spirits was one of the most striking games to be shown off during the original PS5 games showcase. However, the bright, vibrant adventure game may have some darkness behind the scenes. 

In an interview with VGC, former Kena lead designer Brandon Popovich claimed that he was maliciously forced out from development studio Ember Lab in 2017 after creating a significant amount of the game.

“I worked with Ember Lab for a number of months,” Popovich said. “During the time there I created the initial Prototype, taught the animators what they needed to know to animate games and more. We were able to work really well together with no real friction.”

“Most of what was there before was only conceptualized at that point. But I wanted to make this game amazing. I wanted this game to be impactful and incredible. I was given full rein to discuss and implement ideas with the animators.”

Popovich claims that he had created the majority of the game’s code –”95%” – by the time that Kena’s prototype build was shown to 18 publishers at GDC 2017, a feat that was possible due to contacts that Popovich knew.

Kena: Bridge of Spirits may not have shown much in recent months, but these little cuties are certainly going to draw in some fans.
Kena: Bridge of Spirits may not have shown much in recent months, but these little cuties are certainly going to draw in some fans.

Popovich said: “I worked with Ember Lab for a number of months. During the time there I created the initial Prototype, taught the animators what they needed to know to animate games and more. We were able to work really well together with no real friction.”

“Most of what was there before was only conceptualized at that point. But I wanted to make this game amazing. I wanted this game to be impactful and incredible. I was given full rein to discuss and implement ideas with the animators.”

“All but one company said they wanted to back the game,” Popovich told VGC. “It was a big success and everyone was ecstatic.”

“After GDC there were talks about how we would expand. What choices we should go for with the full game. Deep conversations about budgets, story and game elements were held. I was spilling my heart and mind to the studio. We hadn’t signed a deal yet, but I was promised that, if I hung in there, a position and bonus would come.”

The following months saw Popovich struggle with debt after months of unpaid work for his work on Kena, forcing him to take on other jobs part time such as working on the Blade Runner 2049 VR game. With talks of budget cuts, Popovich was given the option of  finally taking a salary, albeit one that was $50,000 less than what he had agreed on previously.

“This was the project that was meant to make me a big deal and suddenly it was over. I was depressed, emotional, and felt an urge to self-harm. But I had responsibilities – I had people I cared for and to take care of – so I had to go on,” Popovich explained to VGC.

“I had hoped the game would never be announced or released. And then I saw the PS5 announcement. The grief and terrible feelings welled up inside. I cried, honestly. The trailer that we created together three years ago at GDC is almost exactly the same as the one shown. Not only that, certain game elements I pushed for are shown up there polished and pretty.”

Kena developer Ember Lab responded to Popovich’s claims in a statement to VGC, stating that “Brandon’s statement includes a number of false accusations that diminish the efforts of those who worked on the original Unity prototype” and that the former lead designer was “fully compensated for all of his work which focused on migrating the features of the Unity prototype to an Unreal prototype”.

Kena: Bridge of Spirits is a PlayStation 5, PlayStation 4 and PC exclusive. It’s been delayed into next year.

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