I have a funny relationship with death. Because of my anxiety it’s something I think about too often, and because of my culture it’s something I celebrate once a year in a way that I don’t think a lot of people understand. Death is ever present, and often stories in media are about how grief manipulates us, pushes us, or is used as a weapon against us. Most recently, Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy explored this concept and used grief almost as its antagonist. But death and how we cope with it don’t have to be negative. That’s where Kena: Bridge of Spirits comes in.
I played Kena at launch and the concept immediately made a big impact on me. If you’re unfamiliar, Kena is a spirit guide. Picking up her father’s legacy, she is tasked with ensuring that the spirits of the dead reach peace. In a way, she is working to free spirits of their grief, of their guilt, and ultimately help them reach acceptance. Kena is a steward of the spirits just as much as she is of the land, purifying it of its corruption.
As we play we discover familial bonds and familial regret. But the most beautiful thing about Kena: Bridge of Spirits is how it doesn’t view death through the kind of dark and grim lens that we see so often. Instead, the world in the game is lush and vibrant. Whether it’s the adorable companions called Rot or the even cuter spirits you help named Saiya and Beni, there isn’t anything terrifying about the game. Even the corruption in the world you must purify has a whimsical beauty to it.
There is a vibrancy to the game that immediately felt like home and a positivity around death rarely found in media from the United States. In fact, the game started to get me thinking about Dia de Muertos.
As a spirit guide, Kena isn’t trying to stop death, she’s trying to complete the cycle. In this case, one of the games’ key narrative elements revolves around helping a spirit named Taro move on from his trauma. Over the course of the game, you collect items that hold Taro’s memories and put his story into perspective. While fighting the corruption is important to saving Taro, helping him remember who he is, and connecting him with his siblings Saiya and Beni, is the key. And as I collected the relics attached to his memories I thought about all the things I put on my offrenda. I thought about the can of Dr. Pepper I put on the offrenda that was my wela’s favorite drink and about the rose we always place that reminds us of our times in her garden. I was thinking about the chess pieces that hold the memories of hours spent with my welo playing the game. But more importantly, I think about how even in death, those memories keep them alive, and how I’m protecting them, the same way Kena does.
In all transparency grief and I have been living side by side since the start of the pandemic. Before the pandemic I still had grandparents. Now, I don’t. Before the pandemic, I had more tios than I do now. Before the pandemic I had more people in my life that existed as more than just memories. And now, memories are all I have. But those memories have turned into scars that just don’t go away. The grief grows and spreads like a rot needing to be purified. But for a year, my only way to tend to my grief was gone.
I missed four funerals because of COVID restrictions. I missed four wakes where we sit in a VFW hall, eat tamales and remember their lives. I missed four chances to see people I love. And as four more people made it to our family’s offrenda, I missed the celebration of them that Dia de Muertos offers. And in doing so, I missed the light.
For me, and for many Mexicans and Mexican-Americans, Dia de Muertos is a celebration of life that helps cull the grief growing in our bodies. It’s a beauty and vibrancy that rejuvenates us as we remember and preserve the people who came before us. We keep their memories close so that we can find peace. And for those who believe in the afterlife (which I don’t), Dia de Muertos is a way to keep their family alive. It’s a way to keep them at peace, to invite them into their homes one night a year and celebrate with the joy they had before death.
And in 2020, I missed that.
Playing Kena: Bridge of Spirits was cathartic not only because it allowed me to care for spirits in search of peace. That said, its impact is not just personal. It’s a story that pushes the player to interact with death and move through it in a positive space. Grief isn’t a big bad, it’s a normal piece of life. Death is just there. It’s a constant and it’s embraced.
That’s the kind of games we need, and honestly the kind of media we need in general. Death is inevitable, and we view it as either a spectre that causes fear or as a piece of life that people can connect through. How we approach death doesn’t have to be dark and grim. It can be inviting and empathetic. It can be filled with cute characters in lush worlds. It can be the constant instead of the threat. When we remove the darkness from death, grief also becomes something more inviting. It becomes a journey that is undertaken instead of a debilitating weakness. It’s not something to overcome, but instead, something to move through.
Kena isn’t about ending death, it’s about saving a character who has lost their path. It’s about listening to spirits who have already accepted who they are and reaching out to those who feel guilt about their death. Kena’s role as a spirit guide isn’t to stop death, but rather, walk her charges down a path of acceptance and peace. Like the memories I put on my offrenda, Kena uses them too. She’s a steward of memories, she’s a way to move forward. We can’t escape death or grief, but games like Kena: Bridge of Spirits can showcase how to have a healthier relationship with it.
Kate Sánchez is a pop culture journalist and co-founder of But Why Tho? A Geek Community.