Emberlab’s newest game, Kena: Bridge of Spirits, stands out among this year’s video game releases for many reasons- from the distinct cinematic animation style to the combination of action, combat, and story. But what goes behind making such a game? Today, Global Spotlight Magazine gets an inside look into the development process with Ayu Larassanti, the voice actor behind the protagonist of the game, Kena. Ayu talks to us about the importance of authentic representation, her identification with Kena, and performing with the internationally acclaimed ensemble from Bali, Çudamani.
Why was it important to you to take on the voice role of Kena?
As a dark brown-skinned/melanated young woman, I was thrilled to be cast! Not a lot of Southeast Asians are cast in major projects like this one. In Asia and in America, colorism, racism, and Euro-Western centricism are pervasive, and darker brown-skinned people are not often cast. As a Japanese, Javanese, and Balinese American, I resonated with Kena. Those are some of the cultures that Emberlab drew from when creating Kena’s world. Although we look different, I feel that I've connected with her culturally. There are too many instances of yellowface and Blackface, both within film and animation, and accurate representation is so important. It felt like a big but very important responsibility for me to take on this role.
In your own words, who is Kena, and what about her and her story drew you to her?
Kena is a spirit guide, and her job is to assist spirits in passing on to the next stage of life. She is skilled, but she is young and has a lot to learn. Her story is special, she works to help spirits who are trapped. I’m drawn to her because she is strong, determined, and kind. She also has a connection to her dad that feels so similar to my connection with my own dad. Spirits are integrated in Balinese culture. We have spirits in our villages, our temples, in sacred spaces, at home. I don’t have as strong of a connection as others do, but I feel them and I respect them. This is very much how Kena approaches being with spirits. They may be lost, angry, or stuck, but she is determined to help them regardless. I can connect to her story and her journey as a Balinese person, and as a determined, young woman.
How does this game’s release further inclusivity and diversity?
I love this question! I think this game is incredibly important with regards to diversity and inclusion. Firstly, Mike and Josh Grier! Video game developers are overwhelmingly white men, so having two young Black men at the helm is refreshing and comforting. Secondly, the inspiration of the film and HOW that inspiration was incorporated was so elegant.
For instance, for the music collaboration, Jason really did his research. We had so many emails and phone calls go back and forth to make sure our music would be respected and used properly. Jason and Mike came to Bali and worked with our musicians and our Çudamani family to make the music come to life. We felt so respected, and it was a true collaboration, which is rare, and I am so grateful for.
Can you share any anecdotes from recording the voice track?
Oh my gosh, one of my favorite days was when we recorded effect sounds. My mom is a voice actor, so she was my coach. She also (thankfully) owns a sound booth, so that’s what we used to record Kena! I stood in my mom’s sound booth and we looked at a list of sounds we needed. Then, we just went for it. I breathed, coughed, sneezed, cleared my throat. But the best and most exciting part was ALL of the hits! I made so many sounds. I considered what it is like to jump, to skip, to run, to walk, to breathe, to fight. I did really big hits, and really small hits, and it was sooo much fun! It was hilarious, however, I kept hitting my head against my mom’s microphone. I’m not that tall, but apparently when I record fight scenes, I become big and hit everything in the way! By the end of the session, I had gotten all my aggression out and it felt like a massive release. But wow, I hadn’t anticipated so many kinds of sounds that we make in everyday lives, let alone when we fight!
You are also featured on the soundtrack of the game, as a musician! Did you and your group have any fears going into the project?
Wah, this was definitely a unique experience! First and foremost, Jason and Emberlab got an “orientation” from my mom. It included an intro to Balinese culture: what to do and not to do, and how to do things. We have so many cultural rules that are nuanced and unclear to non-Balinese folks. It was really important to us that our music would be respected and used properly. We also wanted to make sure our musicians were cared for and respected as the professionals they are. We never thought video games and Balinese music could coincide, but we were so pleasantly surprised!
The experience was incredible. Vocalists and musicians recorded new pieces every day, we were with one another all the time, and it was amazing. Some of the recordings were taken from when we were on tour, though. For instance, I am singing in the soundtrack. My solo was recorded last-minute on tour. I was already in the van, ready to go home! But my mom called me back in, my dad came and got me, and he said, “go record. This is a rare experience, and you might not get to record again. It might be useful, we never know!” And sure enough, it was featured in the game! My Çudamani family was given a once-in-a-lifetime experience and all I want is to give them the opportunities they deserve! Overall, I had a wonderful time being part of the score, especially because I shared that experience with my Balinese loved ones.
What steps would you like to see media take towards creating a more inclusive industry?
I would love for the media to really look at how Emberlab approached inclusion in this game. None of the portrayals they included were without extensive research and knowledge. None of the portrayals were without consultants. THAT is what we need. When portraying a culture/language/setting not from one’s own background, media NEED to have consultants. Once they have consultants, they HAVE to respect the consultants’ experiences and perspectives. Things that are OK in some cultures are just NOT OK in others. But we’ll never know until we ask.
Another incredible aspect of this game is the spectrum of the kinds of diversity that is represented. We have LGBTQIA+ representation, East Asian representation, Southeast Asian representation (yes, they are VERY different), a spectrum of ages, many different ethnicities, and an incredible representation of music. I really appreciate everything that Emberlab has done, and I hope with all my heart that other industries and companies learn from my incredible experience, and emulate that experience with their own consultants and stories.
I have been training as a Balinese musician and dancer since I was 5 years old, but unofficially since I was born. My first teachers were my cousins, my uncles, and my aunts. I have such a strong correlation between performance/music/dance with my family, my friends, and my loved ones. When I dance or play music, I feel so uplifted that nothing can take me down. I train and learn from my mentors and I also teach. My young dancers remind me that there is hope for future generations, for the continuations of our cultures, and for the preservation of our art forms.
"I take inspiration and work to make sure everything I do either opens up a platform for others to share their stories, or somehow provides insight into how I, a young woman of color, experience the world."
Everything I do is influenced by the arts, and now, also by activism. Any choreographies that I work on have a purpose, a commentary on what work needs to happen to better our world. I am always inspired by my dad, Dewa Berata, my mom, Emiko Susilo, and my oldest cousin Dewa Ayu Eka Putri. Their works always have meaning, so I take inspiration and work to make sure everything I do either opens up a platform for others to share their stories, or somehow provides insight into how I, a young woman of color, experience the world.
THANK YOU FOR YOUR CONTINUED SUPPORT. WE LOOK FORWARD TO BRINGING YOU THE VOICE OF MORE INSPIRING ARTISTS AND CHANGEMAKERS IN 2021.
Interview conducted and written by Naomi Segal