Abubakar Salim talks exploring grief and Bantu culture with ‘Tales Of Kenzera: Zau’

Abubakar Salim talks exploring grief and Bantu culture with ‘Tales Of Kenzera: Zau’

Following the announcement of Tales Of Kenzera: Zau at The Game Awards 2023, NME caught up with actor and Surgent Studios founder Abubakar Salim to discuss the platformer’s “celebration” of Bantu culture and exploration of grief.

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The first trailer for Tales Of Kenzera: Zau debuted today (December 8), revealing a single-player platformer that follows Zau, a young hero who bargains with the god of death to bring his father back from the dead.

Zau is tasked with gaining new powers and defeating three mighty yet “strangely familiar” beings in the land of Kenzera, a realm inspired by Bantu tales that Salim was told by his family.

The game is set to launch on April 24, 2024, and although this is Salim’s first game as a developer, his name will already be familiar to many. The actor played Assassin’s Creed Origins protagonist Bayek in 2017, and this year starred as French officer Thomas-Alexandre Dumas in Ridley Scott’s historical epic Napoleon. Next year, he’ll play Alyn Of Hull in season two of Game Of Thrones spin-off House Of The Dragon. In short, it’s a busy time for him to be working on a game.

Tales Of Kenzera: Zau. Credit: Surgent Studios.

“I should have just bought a car or something,” Salim told NME over Zoom, laughing. Though he’s best known for his acting, Salim chose not to tell Zau’s story through that medium as he felt the personal nature of its tale, which is based on his experiences with grief after losing his father to cancer, was best told by letting players journey through it themselves.

“Every time I’ve played a game on grief, or even watched something on grief, they’ve always been married to this weight and sadness,” Salim explained. “For me, I wanted to share that differently. I’m a massive gamer, so it just made sense to make this action-adventure platformer.”

Zau is a 2.5D metroidvania – a genre that includes the likes of Hollow Knight and Ori And The Blind Forest. In these games, much of the map is sealed off until players gain new powers or tools to help them overcome obstacles, which means that there’s a lot of exploring and backtracking.

“The genre is designed and almost feels like it fits grief perfectly,” said Salim. “You’re throwing a character in the middle of nowhere, they have no idea what to do and how to deal with it. They find the tools they need as they go along on their journey, and essentially with those tools, they begin to slowly get an idea of the world they’re in. They almost become, not necessarily masters of it, but they get used to the idea of it. That’s exactly what grief is.”

Tales Of Kenzera: Zau. Credit: Surgent Studios.

As for the realm of Kenzera that Zau takes place in, it’s been visually inspired by some of Salim’s favourite mangas, including Dragonball Z and Shaman King. Yet much of its lore draws on Bantu tales that Salim’s dad passed down about his own father, who was a Nganga – a spiritual healer. The game will be voiced in both English and Swahili, and Salim described it as more of a cultural “celebration” than something designed to be educational.

“I want people to be excited by this,” he said, pointing to the success of other mythological games like God Of War. “When it came to the Bantu tales and mythologies that my father shared with me, they’re as rich as Greek or Norse mythology.”

“This game will really explore and celebrate it, and get people intrigued by it,” Salim added. “Let’s say my daughter plays this game, and hopefully she will. She’s not only going to see the love that I have for my dad and what drove me to make this, but also feel that it’s a pretty fun game to play!”

As some fans may have spotted in the trailer, the Ridley Scott Creative Group (RSCG) is credited with supporting Surgent Studios’ vision. While filming in South Africa for sci-fi drama series Raised By Wolves, the crew “took a real fascination” to Salim’s creative endeavors in gaming. Ridley’s son Luke Scott, who directed three of the show’s episodes and is the CEO of the RSCG, has helped Salim plot a “bigger space” for Tales Of Kenzera outside of a single game.

“Zau’s story is important within [this universe], but it’s only a sliver of the world we want to create,” shared Salim. “Luke, Ridley and his team are helping in regards to making cool content that will support and aid this.”

Ultimately, Salim wants the setting’s first entry to be a platformer that can offer the same enjoyment he’s found in games like Ori. But on a deeper level, he hopes it will paint a new picture of grief using his own experience as a signpost.

“We looked at this game as not necessarily a way of ‘this is how you deal with grief’ – it’s a sense of presenting the different shades and perspectives of it,” shared Salim. “I want players to come out and say look, it’s okay to not be okay. That’s key. That was something I wish I’d told myself 10 years ago.”

The post Abubakar Salim talks exploring grief and Bantu culture with ‘Tales Of Kenzera: Zau’ appeared first on NME.

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