Game Awards 2023

Tales of Kenzera: ZAU’s Creator Wanted to Express His Grief Through a Video Game

A new game from the voice of Assassin’s Creed’s Bayek.

Tales of Kenzera: ZAU
Electronic Arts
The Inverse Interview

Abubakar Salim always wanted to make video games, but the spark that set things in motion was working with renowned director Ridley Scott, the visionary behind Alien, Gladiator, Blade Runner, and countless more.

“The moment when I realized that I wanted to do this was working with Ridley Scott four years ago on Raised by Wolves, and him saying yes to me,” says Salim. “A guy like him saying yes to you is like, ‘Oh okay, that means I'm doing something, right.’ It was such a boost of confidence in my ability, that I knew I wanted to make games. The revelation came: I want to make games. I want to enjoy and breathe games. I want to make film. I want to tell stories.”

Salim, who played the devoted Father in Raised by Wolves, isn’t a stranger to gaming. He’s best known as the voice behind Bayek, the protagonist in Assassin’s Creed Origins, but also played Chappleman in DioField Chronicle and Eros in Stray Gods: The Roleplaying Musical.

Tales of Kenzera: ZAU is the first game from Salim’s production house Surgent Studios and is being billed as an Electronic Arts Original. ZAU is a 2.5D sidescrolling Metroidvania, that looks to deliver the genre’s staples of intricate exploration and boss showdowns. Mixed in with this is a fluid combat system that seems inspired by the older Prince of Persia games and a story rooted in Bantu tales and mythology from Africa.

As a lifelong gamer, Salim’s Game Awards debut is a full circle moment. More importantly, it allows the actor to tell a vitally important and personal story, one that deals with the grief of losing his father.

“He introduced me to games,” Salim says. “He was a gamer. It made sense.”

Salim talked to Inverse at length about the momentous task of developing a game, how ZAU embraces African mythology, and the emotional tale at its core.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Salim says ZAU is a Metroidvania from a “different perspective.”

Electronic Arts

I know this is a deeply personal story about your father. What was it trying to represent that story and why did you think a video game was the right fit?

It was tough. Being as vulnerable and as open as I have been in regard to my grief and what my father meant to me is really challenging. But at the same time, it's been useful. It's been good talking about it.

Truly the reason why it's a game is because it just felt like the perfect medium to explore and share that experience, the theme, the journey of it all. I'm a gamer through and through. Games have always been my thing. And I've never felt so at home as when I'm talking to someone who understands games as well as I do.

As to why it’s a Metroidvania world, the genre lends itself to the idea of what it means to grieve. This event happens to you. You're thrown into the middle of it, and you have to figure out where you are, how to get out of it, and how to maneuver.

I could’ve written a script, or done a film or TV show, but it just didn't feel honest, not to myself and to my dad. He introduced me to games and even though he wouldn’t [have said] it himself, I do believe that he was a gamer. It made sense.

With this being your first time on the development side of games, what kind of experience was that? How much of a learning curve was there?

Peeking behind the curtains, man, it's real. Making games is more of a marathon than a sprint, it feels very different to film and TV, where you're in and you're out, get the job done, and move on. Whereas in games, you can sit with it and really explore and play. Because ultimately, that's what the people at the end are going to be doing.

That's been a big lesson for me: you’ve gotta take your time to go through the weeds, understand it, and then face choices like cutting content or keeping it in there. It isn't about what is cool and what stays in, it's about what makes sense.

As an actor, most of the time you're a cog within this massive machine. To be in the space where this machine is working and to see it as a whole has been very enlightening regarding what you can and can’t control. It's challenging but fascinating at the same time.

Salim notes the team wanted to “play with this idea of fluid combat and dance, within the African mythological space.”

Electronic Arts

How did you go about finding the right people for this game, and putting together a team?

Dude, the amount of times I've slid into so many DMs. (laughs)] And the more I say it, the more I’m like, “Oh my god, man.” Put it this way: As soon as the idea came, that nugget, that feeling of this is what I want to do, I ran with it.

I said, okay, where do I start? So I started reaching out to people from Ubisoft and asked how they got into games, hearing their stories, and asking them questions. They would then lead me to someone else, telling them what I wanted to do, and they would point me in the right direction, or they’d jump on board. I led all these conversations, all these messages that I threw at people on Twitter/X, Instagram, and ArtStation, with, “I want to tell this experience of grief, in a fantastical setting but through a video game, how do I do it?”

That led to me learning what I have. It led to me being able to pitch to EA because I listened and I was driven by this real vision of wanting to get the story out there. I had to learn fast. I had to take it up. I had to make mistakes. But I also had to make really good achievements. It came from this drive of wanting to get this thing done and it still drives me now.

How did you want to highlight your culture? Do you think video games in general are uniquely positioned to share cultural ideas?

What video games do is they give the audience a chance to jump into the world and lose themselves and actually partake in it. In film and TV, you're always a viewer and ever so rarely are you able to escape. Games provide this element of escapism, as well as jumping into it and interacting. To me, the cultural element is more of a perspective rather than something that I wanted to educate people on.

My dad would tell me all these stories about his father, who was in Uganda. He was this traditional healer. And he would tell me all the stories of when he was a kid, about his dad who was able to commune with spirits and talk with spirits. Whether it was embellished or not, the point is, that was his perspective, that was where he came from.

I wanted to dive into that. I pulled a lot from the anime and manga that I loved as a kid, like Shaman King. It had such an impact on me, I remember watching it on Toonami as a kid, seeing the story of spirits and being like “Oh that sounds like what my dad would go through.”

As time has gone on, I've been exposed to more stories from my family, as well as working in South Africa filming Raised By Wolves, talking to people who are from the Zuni tribe, or the Xhosa tribe, all those cultures and hearing their stories. I just thought “Man, this is so dope, we need to do something here.”

I'm a massive fan of Greek mythology, Norse, and Celtic, they're so rich. But so is Bantu mythology, Bantu stories, even from the Maasai religious ideas, or the Yoruba deities, the Orishans. There’s so much to take from here, so much drama. It's like, yeah, let's play into it.

ZAU will have voice options for both English and Swahili.

Electronic Arts

It's been a rough year for the industry in terms of layoffs. With that in mind, how did you kind of deal with the risk and the worry of this game succeeding? How do you grapple with that as your first project?

I approached it in the same way that I do a lot of my acting stuff and the roles that I take on. You never know. All you can do is the best of what you can and be honest. That is truly everything.

I remember reading the script for Raised By Wolves, and it was wild, man. You're filming it, and no one has any idea what you're filming. Season One, I'm in this latex suit, and I’m like, is this really gonna hit? You just don’t know.

All that you have control over is how you feel about it and what you can bring. I think with this game that’s where we've all driven from, is this sense of, we're going to do the best we can, we’re gonna tell as honest of a story as we can and enjoy it.

Because a lot of this stuff, you just have no control over. In the same way, I couldn't control my dad staying for any longer, even though, in my mind, it wasn't part of the plan. But what you can do is either look back and be like, how could I have bettered that result? Or you could think of the beautiful moments and let that charge you forward.

Tales of Kenzera: ZAU releases on April 23, 2024, for PS5, Xbox Series X|S, Nintendo Switch, and PC.

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