EA's Latest Game 'Tales of Kenzera: ZAU' is Side-Scrolling Platformer Inspired by African Mythology

We spoke to actor and game developer Abubakar Salim on how his own life’s story of love and loss is mirrored in the game.

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Tales of Kenzera: ZAU, the latest game from publishing titan EA, launched this week across all major platforms, becoming the debut title developed by BAFTA-nominated actor Abubakar Salim’s creative production house Surgent Studios.

The game – a single-player, side-scrolling, action-adventure platformer – is a product of Salim’s own trials and tribulations; namely, his father’s death and the painful experience of coming to terms with it. It’s a deeply personal expression of both love and loss that, according to the game’s developer, is rooted in the bond between a father and son, and in the equally strong and transformative “power of loss.”

“You never really accept grief, it always stays with you. You just get comfortable with it.”

Inspired by African Bantu mythology, the game explores of the journey of grief through its protagonist’s eyes. You play as Zau, the aforementioned grieving hero, who like Salim has also lost his father. Zau, an Nganga (a traditional warrior shaman or spiritual healer), strikes a deal with the God of Death, Kalunga, to bring his Baba back, and the game sees you follow his quest as he makes his way through Kenzara, a place once filled with life but now “rife with lost ancestral spirits.” The metroidvania-style game is packed with beautifully colored 2.5D worlds and Zau must harness magic and otherworldly powers throughout his odyssey. The campaign is filled with fantastical moments of wonder mixed with a sorrow and sadness that anyone can relate to and ZAU‘s story mirrors Salim’s difficult – if not ongoing – journey with loss. Speaking to Hypebeast recently the actor stated, “You never really accept grief, it always stays with you. You just get comfortable with it.”

Tales of Kenzera: ZAU Official Launch Trailer Steam PS5 Xbox Nintendo Switch Platformer Game Gaming Metrovania

Photo by Felicity McCabe

Hypebeast caught up with Abubakar Salim in the lead up to Tales of Kenzera: ZAU‘s release this week. You can read our full conversation below.

Tell us a bit about the game.

Yeah, so the game essentially is an action-adventure platformer that explores this young kid’s journey as he makes a deal with the god of death, Kalunga. He’s a shaman, and he says, “look, in exchange for three great spirits, I want you to bring my father back.” It’s set within this afro, fantastical space inspired by Bantu mythology and Bantu legend. But, truly, it’s about grief – the journey of grief. It’s about this young man going through grief and his actions dealing with the death of his father. It’s inspired by my own journey and my own personal experience having lost my father 10 years ago, [being] in this place of I don’t know how to process it, you know? You’d think, as an actor, you’d want to write a TV show or a film, but I decided to make it into a game because my father introduced me to games. 

When did you know you wanted to make a game?

I’m a massive gamer, I’ve always been into games. In fact, I actually got into acting through games. I didn’t really connect with a lot of TV that I watched when I was younger, and reading was difficult because I’m dyslexic, so it took me a lot of time to read and lose myself in those worlds. Games, however, have always been able to hold my attention because I’m going on a journey with the character, and that made me fall in love with storytelling – the power of storytelling. And so, really, the eureka moment of this having to be a game [was] after my father passed, and after going through the elements of accepting that, actually, I’m not okay and I need to actually chat about this. I went through a period of, like, “Okay, how do I deal with this? How do I share this? How do I talk about this?,” and I was in South Africa – playing Ori and the Blind Forest on my Switch – when it just clicked. There were two games, actually: Ori and Dead Cells. In Ori, specifically, there’s a part in the game with a waterfall section – a chase sequence – that I kept on doing and doing and dying. Then there was a moment where I finally did it! And the feeling was amazing. And the only way I can relate to that feeling – or, the last time I remember feeling like that – was playing games with my dad and completing a level for the first time ever. That’s when it clicked.

How do you balance your life as both an actor and a game developer?

I sacrifice sleep! (laughs) To be honest, it’s about the people you have around you. I’ve got a really good team at Surgent, they are incredible. We can speak shorthand now, they understand what I’m trying to say and what I’m trying to do, and I trust them. It’s all about trust, right? And, you know, they understand that I’m still an actor, I’m still doing TV and film, but I’m also a writer, a creative, a storyteller, and they really respect that. And I think it’s because of that [respect] that we’re able to find a balance, naturally. And, besides that, a lot of the time when I’m on set it’s a lot of waiting – most of an actor’s job is waiting! We’re a remote studio so conversation is easier to have and is very, very flowing. It’s all about telling a story and as long as the people around you are going in the same direction, it’s all good.

What do you do to fill your downtime when you’re on set?

I’ve just got a Steam Deck, which is incredible. It’s really good. I’m playing Guardians of the Galaxy on that at the moment, and it’s really, really fun. I’m playing that a lot at the moment and it’s filling a lot of time.

What video games did you play growing up?

Bro, what didn’t I play?! (laughs) My first console was the Mega Drive. I played Sonic on that, Golden Axe as well. I remember the Game Boy was a big hit for me, playing Super Mario on that, Pokemon Red and Blue. Then going into the Game Boy Advance era, then the N64 with The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. I was a massive Command & Conquer: Red Alert fan. Loved World of Warcraft, World of Warcraft was my jam. I’ve played anything and everything, man, and to be honest, the one thing that’s always hooked me has been a compelling narrative or story. That’s always been something that’s inspired me. Gameplay definitely helps, but I always found myself leaning towards the narrative of it all. 

There’s a lot of focus on online multiplayer games today, what made you want to make a single player title?

There’s always an audience for it, right? There’s an audience there and there’s a love for stories. I actually think that, even with these big multiplayer games, as the audience matures they will want to see more [storytelling]. In the same way that film evolved over time. I think the story is king. You always need a good story or something to grip and hook you.

There aren’t many Black studio owners in the gaming industry. Is this something you were conscious of when making the game?

Yes and no. I really led with the mentality and idea that I wanted to create a space that focuses on the human truth, and, essentially, what makes us human. It goes beyond race, gender, it’s essentially the elements that are universal; like grief, for example. There was definitely an element of thinking, okay, you know, “I am a Black creative”, and going into it with that in mind. Put it this way, the game is set in Africa and it’s an African-inspired game, but that’s purely just from my perspective. It’s inspired by the tales my father would tell me, that his father would share with him, and that’s how I see it. Truly, in my eyes, what sells well, or what does well, is a good story. Something that’s easily relatable and emotional, that goes beyond who you are or where you are. It connects to almost like the… the spirit of you. And so, yes, I’m very aware that the position I’m in and that who I am will inspire people who look like me to be like, “I can actually do this”. However, I also think, on a much deeper and more spiritual level, by making something that speaks to you, regardless of who you are and where you’re from, it’s a lot more effective in making change and inspiring people to act on it, rather than trying to force something. You know what I mean?

You’ve mentioned the impact your father had on your life, but, growing up, did your parents envisage you becoming an actor and a game developer?

(Laughs) No! My dad was different, my dad was quite supportive. And so was my mum, to a degree. I think they were both supportive of me wanting to pursue acting, the acting sort of space, but they knew how hard it was, how difficult it was. One of the things that I remember telling my dad was “I want to be an actor” and the first thing he said to me was, “Well, prove it.” And, so, that was doing all these acting classes, researching what it means to be an actor, and all that sort of stuff. That was one of the things that he really threw at me. But, you know, even playing games, thank God for my parents on this one, especially my father, they allowed me to play even though everyone else around them was telling them that games were bad. I don’t think they ever – and even me – thought I’d actually be a game developer. When I was growing up, I didn’t know that you could even have a career in games. I thought you put the disc in the thing and magic happens. I had no idea this was actually made by people! It’s a funny turn of events. Even now, when I tell my mum I’m making a game, she’s like, “Okay, all that game playing when you were younger was worth it.”

What inspired the art direction of the game?

It was a mixture of a few things. Something that I really wanted to pay homage to with the artwork, but also with the animation, were the kinds of TV shows I liked as a kid. Dragon Ball Z, Shaman King, you know, all that kind of stuff. The colorful nature and cartoony feel was one of the big, big inspirations, but I’d say, also, the colors and elements that champion the different cultures within Bantu was a big one as well. It was really important for us to capture color because whenever I speak about grief and my experience of grief, things don’t feel dull. Because, normally, when people think of grief they think of darkness, depression, in a very black and white and way. For me, it was vivid. It was almost like [I had] rose tinted glasses that were snatched from me and, “Oh, this is the reality of life”. It was like I was seeing life in full 4K. Like an attack on the senses. That’s something I really wanted to represent as well in this game’s world, even though we’re talking about grief and experiencing grief. Also, just listening to the team and seeing what they wanted, how they wanted to flow and what they wanted to play with. 

What’s your favorite ever game?

(Laughs) Bro! Oh, God… (laughs)

Street Fighter or Mortal Kombat?

I’d say Street Fighter for me. I’m a Street Fighter guy. 

Sonic or Mario?

Oh… Mario. New Mario, like Mario now, but Sonic back in the day.

PlayStation or Xbox?

I’ve got ‘em all! (laughs) I play ‘em all, mate, so I’ll take both! I’m greedy that way. But back to the favorite ever game front, I’d have to say Kingdom Hearts 2 on PS2.

Where do you see the future of gaming?

I think we’re going through a period of time where it will be more and more handheld. Not even where it will go, because it is now. But I think there’s going to be more of a push for it. The main reason for that is because everyone’s always on the move. Everyone’s always either on the move or, if you’re at home with you know, a loved one or you know, with your family, they can watch TV and enjoy themselves while you’re playing your game on the sofa. You know what I mean? 

What do you want people to get out of playing this game?

For a long time after my father died I was very much of the mentality that “everything is fine, just keep calm and carry on.” I think anyone who suffers from grief will kind of have this, but I feel like with men especially – who don’t necessarily enjoy emoting, or talking about their emotions – and even in my culture, it’s almost like, you just have to deal with it. You know, man up and soldier on. That was my mentality after my father passed, and it wasn’t necessarily great. What I’m hoping for with this game is to make people say, “Hey, man, it’s okay to not be okay.” Because as soon as you crack that it opens a door to realizing that you can talk about it, rather than bottling it up and killing yourself slowly inside. I think it’s important to realize that, actually, it’s alright to not have it together all the time. And I feel like as soon as we start doing that, it becomes a common thing, a normal thing, you get rid of the ego, essentially, and just allow yourself to connect to other people on a human level – and even connect to yourself on a human level. You never really accept grief, it always stays with you. You just get comfortable with it. And I think as long as you’re okay with that, you’ll be fine.

Tales of Kenzera: ZAU is available now for PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X|S, Nintendo Switch and PC, priced at £17.99 GBP / $19.99 USD.

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