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Abubakar Salim On Processing Loss Through Art In Tales Of Kenzera: ZAU

I’m very fortunate that so many of my core gaming memories are tied to my father. One of my earliest recollections had me perched in the back of the car on the way to school, practically hanging off the back of the driver’s seat, as I explained in great detail to my father what a game changer the backlight on the GameBoy SP would be. Another, the man drove to an obscure EB Games over an hour away from our home to pick up a collectors edition of Resident Evil 4, dutifully nodding along as I, again in great detail, gave him a history lesson on Umbrella and Leon Kennedy. He’s a good bloke, and instrumental in my relationship to games. Abubakar Salim, actor and founder of Surgent Studios, had the same kind of dad and lost him.

“A lot of my memories of gaming as a kid stem from him” Salim tells me via Zoom, the 30 year old star of Raised by Wolves and House of the Dragon cutting an immediately charming and relaxed figure, the transition from actor to game developer at least outwardly that of a duck to water.

“He understood, essentially that there was something there. It’s an art form, it’s a way of getting the mind thinking and communicating, that kind of thing. And I think he really, rather than necessarily shying away from it or being like, oh, I don’t know, video games for kids ‘gambling’. He was like, Actually, you know what? This is working and it’s a way for my child to escape. Have at it.”

Salim’s father, a man always adjacent to advancing computer technologies due to his role at Xerox in the 90s, passed away in 2013 after a battle with cancer. The impact of the loss would go on to fundamentally shape Salim’s trajectory through art, a multi-medium career that has seen the British-Kenyan actor move from some of HBO’s biggest television productions, to starring roles in Assassin’s Creed, and now to launch his biggest swing to date, Surgent Studios.

Founded in 2018, the studio, along with Salim, seems hungry, “This is exactly why I formed Surgent”, Salim explains as we get on a roll about the narrative potential of games, “I think at the heart of it, it’s all about storytelling. And I think games are just another powerful tool in regards to communicating stories…because it isn’t just being told at you, you are experiencing it. You are literally stepping into the shoes of the character and you’re going on this journey with them.”

At this point, Salim is firing on all cylinders, smiling as broadly as a barn and radiating enthusiasm. I would be too if I was about to finally show off several years of hard work, Surgent at the time of chatting just days out from The Game Awards and the unveiling of Tales of Kenzera: ZAU. A vibrant but unapologetically meditative Metroidvania that pulls from Salim’s life in myriad ways, Tales of Kenzera: ZAU sees Surgent and Salim attempt to tackle the impossibilities of grief through an action-platformer lens. In it we follow Zau, a shaman greiving the loss of his father, on a quest to make an accord with the god of Death for his Baba’s soul. Zau’s single-player adventure sees him deploy the powers of the Sun and Moon masks to traverse a 2.5D platformer that takes inspiration from genre greats but clearly as its eye on telling a unique and deeply personal tale.

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“It’s frightening,” Salim admits when I ask him how it feels to pour something so personal into a project, “I think for me, you’ve got to be vulnerable in order to be truthful and honest. And I think that’s something that I’ve not only had to learn as an actor, but also as a game developer. I think, funnily enough, as an actor, you sort of have this sense of guarding yourself because it’s The Show, it’s The Film or whatever. You’re just a cog in that, whereas with this, it feels sort of like you’re laying everything open. This is really, really personal…there is a sense of power to it and there’s a fuel there that allows you to be like, okay, cool, I’m going to tell this story to the best of my ability….as long as you are honest, I think that’s enough for people to kind of be like, okay, you feel good about that? You know what I mean?”

Tales of Kenzera: ZAU introduces audiences to a rich and storied culture

I do know what he means, Salim’s earnest take on storytelling in games speaking to the recent bout of successful indie games that could only ever exist because of a unique, and honest, perspective being brought to table. As Salim and I chat about the bones of Tales of Kenzera: ZAU, he begins to unpack the unexpected collision of narrative intent and genre. “The main reason why we went down the Metroidvania route is because for me…storytelling in games is king. That genre perfectly encapsulate what grief kind of means in the sense that grief is this thing that’s this event that happens to you, it throws you into this new world you have no idea about. It gives you the tools within that world in order to sort of master it or conquer it or deal with it in a way, but you learn them over time and have to revisit elements over time. And I think that’s why for me, it was important to begin with the world being this Metroidvania style space.”

It’s a gorgeous bit of synergy between the emotional truth of the art and the mechanical systems of the game, Salim’s lifelong passion for the medium allowing him to process the loss of his father and channel it into creation.

“Even when it comes to the combat, we really aim to strive to make it kinetic and almost like…a representation, for me,  of what grief kind of throws at you.” Salim continues, “You have total control over how you may react sometimes or maybe not at all. This idea of losing yourself in combat, in the dance in a way, or the idea of being thorough and thinking about what you want to do…one of the things that I really wanted to highlight with the mask switching is these different masks that you wear depending on what you’re facing. Sometimes you want to get close and personal with whatever obstacle you’re facing. Sometimes you want to stay back, sometimes you want to mix both…there’s other elements within the game that are reflective of grief…but ultimately for me it was really integral to capture that idea of what does grief mean by throwing the player in the middle of something that they have no control over.”

Tales of Kenzera: ZAU is already looking like it will provide a decent challenge but Surgent isn’t asking you to S-tier your grief process, with approachability and accessibility at the forefront of its mind. “One of the things about building this game and going through this whole process is, for me, accessibility is key” Salim explains, “…in regards to trying to access as many people to play and experience the story as possible, for me, it is integral…one thing that I wanted to do is make a game that can be played by the masses, played by people who are maybe even non gamers, people who have never played games before. Because I think the feeling of grief is such a universal thing, we’ll all experience it in some way, shape or form.”

The game promises to be challenging but ultimately open to all players

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While grief is universal, Tales of Kenzera: ZAU is banking on something far more specific for its aesthetic trappings and mythological story structure. Salim’s Kenyan roots are on proud display here, the game riffing on a cultural heritage that many players may not have experienced before. “I’ve always been brought up with the mentality of my perspective is my perspective and it’s what I know. And I think, especially with the game that we’re creating and what we’re throwing out there, yes, it is a celebration of the sort of Bantu cultures that I’ve been exposed to and I’ve learned from and something that I also want to share with people.”

Salim and I reflect on the recent success in the indie space for culturally diverse experiences, something he has enjoyed seeing, going on to say, “But I do feel confident and comfortable with the idea of people want to hear these stories as much as they want to hear Norse mythology or Greek mythology because it’s as rich and it’s just a different perspective.”

Although evidently passionate about the culture he has been able to infuse into the game, Salim doesn’t view his perspective as the only selling point, but rather a gateway for players. “For me, it’s really key and important to see it as a bonus, as an idea of being like, oh, wow, this is a bonus perspective that I never even thought of and could see before. I want to do that Wiki dive in regards to learning more about it. You’ve got, like, Kalûnga, the god of death. Like, I’ve never heard of Kalûnga. Let me see that. Oh, it’s like Hades!” he muses, likening the grief experienced by a variety of people as a potentially binding experience, regardless of culture. Tales of Kenzera: ZAU will make use of Salim’s heritage in other ways too, blending traditional tales and heightened, romanticised new takes on them.

“Bantu tales are known for being orally told, and sometimes, whenever you’re told them, the storyteller can sometimes embellish. And that’s the fun thing about it, right? You get told a story, it sticks with you. You go to someone else, you tell that story, you might add your flavour to it. And that kind of stuff is really key for me. So this game is a mixture of the cultures that I have sort of, as I say, been exposed to and the stories in which they have told me in regards to things like the beings, like the Impundulu, Gag-Gorib…like the stories that my dad would tell me about what the shamans would do. Because my grandfather, funnily enough, was Nganga, which is essentially a traditional healer. He could talk to spirits and whatnot. My dad didn’t believe in any of that crap,” Salim laughs here, recalling a conversation he had with his father about the nature of death and the afterlife, his teenage self promptly rejecting some of these ideas, a perspective I get the impression has shifted over time, at least academically. “But the point is, he loved it. There was a sense of being like, this is where I come from. This is what my family is.”

The 2.5D action genre allowed Surgent Studios to bring a different culture to life

In forming his new family at Surgent, Salim has enlisted the help of friend and fellow Hollywood creative Luke Scott of Scott Free Productions, as well as the folks over at Critical Role, Salim citing both collaborations as narrative-minded, creative experiences. But closer to home, EA Originals has stepped in as Tales of Kenzera: ZAU’s publisher, a partnership Salim talks about during our chat. “I genuinely love and respect them, and the big reason for that is because they have given me the space to make mistakes and to learn” says Salim of the indie-minded branch of EA, “And I think that is something that’s so rare nowadays…you get this expectation to master something as soon as you start it. But because there has been space to play and create and they have created that, it’s given me the freedom and enjoyment of what it is to make a game.”

“The relationship between Surgent and EA has been very close,” Salim continues, “I remember pitching this game in the middle of like a lockdown to them and it was just a pitch deck, and it was just this idea. But they saw the vision and they saw the heart of it, and they were like, cool, let’s go for it. They gave us a chance. And I think, in the same way, it’s like an actor when you audition for a project, be it working with Ridley Scott or doing my first ever theatre play, that person to give you that shot is so incredibly important.”

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To sit and talk with Salim about family, and loss, and art, is to remember exactly why all of those things matter so much in the first place. Tales of Kenzera: ZAU’s reception at The Game Awards has already been glowing and I have little doubt the game will be anything other than fascinating when it launches next April. But as my time with Salim wrapped up (after a lengthy diversion about our favourite Pokémon games), I was left with the stark impression that here is a man willing to put the rawest parts of himself and his culture out there for the world to see, an earnest swing in an overly calculated market.

“It reminds me of how excited I am to share this game with the world,” Salim says as we close on the strange nature of promoting your art, “To be in the driving seat of something like this is really both terrifying but also really exciting because on a company level, you feel like you can make changes and tell stories that you kind of want to tell rather than something that you’re being forced to tell. And I think that’s something that has been really vital, exciting, but also terrifying at the same time.”

Written By James Wood

One part pretentious academic and one part goofy dickhead, James is often found defending strange games and frowning at the popular ones, but he's happy to play just about everything in between. An unbridled love for FromSoftware's pantheon, a keen eye for vibes first experiences, and an insistence on the Oxford comma have marked his time in the industry.

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