Tales of Kenzera Interview: Abubakar Salim on Exploring Grief and Humanity Through Gaming

Tales of Kenzera Interview: Abubakar Salim on Exploring Grief and Humanity Through Gaming

Tales of Kenzera: Zau is poised to be a monumental Metroidvania title that lands with an almighty splash later this month. It’s the first game from Surgent Studios and has been creatively pioneered by Abubakar Salim, who pivoted into game development out of a beautiful desire to pay tribute to his late father through the medium.

I was fortunate enough to sit down with Salim and learn about the love, honesty, and dedication poured into Tales of Kenzera: Zau, which has come to exist as a launchpad for a multimedia universe built on the most solid of principles: authenticity, individuality, and the core, guiding concept of staying human.

Here’s the full video interview:

The Origins of Tales of Kenzera

Surgent Studios is made up of a fully remote team that learnt how to work together during one of the toughest times for the industry. From joining forces to compile Salim’s critical vision to partnering with Electronic Arts under the EA Originals label, Surgent has gone from strength to strength during the development of Tales of Kenzera: Zau.

Abubakar’s introduction of Zau during The Game Awards in December 2023 was nothing short of inspiring and deeply honest. I remarked that the actor (and now creative director) had worn his heart on his sleeve and showed emotion that’s rarely seen in the industry, and he assured me that’s what Surgent is all about:

It’s quite an emotional moment because we’ve built this from the ground up – it’s our first game, it’s a new studio… It’s a lot … No matter what size we grow to, how successful we are, whatever – it always has to come from the heart. There is something about being honest and speaking from the heart and being authentic that always captures that moment. That’s what games are, right? It’s an art form.

Watch: Abubakar Salim introduces Tales of Kenzera

Tales of Kenzera: Zau is a stunning 2.5D ‘Metroidvania’ title that tells the story of a heartbroken and grieving shaman who seeks to revive his father, retrieving him from the clutches of the God of Death, Kalunga. It’s a game with gorgeous visuals, an impressive soundtrack, and some deeply satisfying combat and puzzles, but above all, it’s raw and real.

It’s inspired heavily by Abubakar Salim’s battle with grief following the loss of his father. That was a topic that we touched upon during our conversation, and I learned how those themes are pulled into Tales of Kenzera: Zau, which doesn’t rely on dark imagery to represent death, but instead leans into energetic, colourful, and vibrant imagery:

When my father died, the world kept spinning – and the world is bright and beautiful, when you really look at it. I remember that feeling, I had rose-tinted glasses when my Dad was alive, and then as soon as he passed away, which wasn’t part of the plan, it almost felt like they were ripped off – it felt like everything just turned up a notch, and noises were louder, things were moving faster.

That’s why I really wanted to capture this element of frenetic energy, this franticness, but give the player enough control that they can play to their own beat to a degree. That’s sort of where I leant into.

You’re right, most games that think about grief, they think about sadness, they think about death… But in some cultures – in Africa, it’s celebrated. Death is a lot of the time seen as this bad thing but I think that in some spaces, it’s almost seen as the next step. It doesn’t necessarily negate the sadness of the things you feel and that’s what I wanted to capture with this.

Building a Universe

While talking to Abubakar Salim, I was warmed by a persistent sense of authenticity and honesty, which are themes that he and the team at Surgent have woven into Tales of Kenzera: Zau. This is a game created and written by childhood best friends – but it’s so much more than that. It’s an immersive tribute and a memorial to a man’s father and, as Salim explained, an ‘homage’ to the ‘child versions of ourselves from back in the day’.

Watch: Tales of Kenzera: Zau Official Gameplay Reveal Trailer

Taking inspiration from his experiences growing up, Salim explained that this is the first step in building an entire universe using a framework that’s at all times focused on storytelling and the concept of being human:

Tales of Kenzera is a universe that I’ve built to be able to tell these stories that come from all these different angles that respect the medium of which they’re being told in. So, Zau for example couldn’t have been a TV show or it couldn’t have been a film, it had to be a game. But there will be stories that had to be a film or had to be a TV show, or even another game.

I’ve got a plan with it – I’ve got like an idea with it and where I want to go with it, and certain beats and elements of it all, it’s all rooted in this idea of this human truth, this idea of what makes us human, that’s what really excites me, telling stories in that. Zau is literally just an entry, you know? It’s an entry point, but it’s a pretty important one.

As Tales of Kenzera: Zau is almost told from Salim’s perspective, it leans heavily into what influenced him and what reminds him of his father and his family. It’s set in a world that’s rooted in Bantu mythology, which is deep, rich, and the perfect foundation for the story, but Salim explained that the journey is more important than the setting in this case:

This is about the journey of grief and trying to tell that in the most authentic way possible, and that could have been in a Greek myth, a Norse myth, whatever, it could have been anything. The big reason for why it sparked from Bantu is because it’s from my perspective. You know, these are inspired by the stories my Dad would tell me, and it’s kind of where I grew up and the cultures that I was exposed to.

Besides, African myth and Bantu myth are crazy, man!

Tales of Kenzera: Zau will be released on April 23 on PS5, PC, Xbox Series X|S, and Nintendo Switch. It was recently revealed that it’ll drop on day one on PS Plus, which is a huge win for subscribers.

I openly admitted to Salim that I’m not a fan of Metroidvania titles, but Tales of Kenzera: Zau absolutely snatched my attention and held it tight. I can’t wait to explore the full world built by Salim and his team at Surgent and take on this journey that has been built with so much love, honesty, and attention.

For more Flizzyy coverage, check out the news that a PlayStation Showcase might take place next month

Zeen is a next generation WordPress theme. It’s powerful, beautifully designed and comes with everything you need to engage your visitors and increase conversions.