The Inverse Interview

Tales of Kenzera Devs Want to “Tell Different Stories” In Gaming

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Tales of Kenzera: Zau
Surgent Studios
The Inverse Interview

At the 2023 Game Awards, actor Abubakar Salim (Raised by Wolves) revealed his new game, Tales of Kenzera: Zau, with an impassioned speech. The pitch for the game is simple, an emotional and poignant Metroidvania all about grief, dealing with the loss of a loved one, and acceptance.

Every single facet of Tales of Kenzera feeds into that narrative theme, from the world’s environmental design to the abilities you get to play around with. That singular vision is what makes the game stand out from the pack, and it’s clear as day this game was created with a passion for that theme first, and what drew developers to the project.

“Being able to tell stories with layers, and not just epic end-of-world chaos event happening. There’s enough of that. There are people that do that beautifully, and we love that,” art lead Ackeem Durant tells Inverse, “But we also want to tell different stories in the space while still having cool mechanics.”

Tales of Kenzera heavily draws inspiration from the mythology of the Bantu people of Africa, using that historical context to create something that feels drastically new for the Metroidvania genre.

Ahead of the launch of Tales of Kenzera, Inverse talked to Durrant and lead designer Zi Peters, diving into the process of making a narratively ambitious game about grief that's also deeply personal to its team and creator.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Every area in Tales of Kenzera is meant to evoke a different emotion or a different part of processing grief.

Surgent Studios

Can you tell me about the idea of designing each biome around different emotions or feelings? How did you lean into that idea?

Ackeem Durrant: Visually we leaned into it being literal for the initial biomes. When we drop in we have Sanctuary, it’s that peace and tranquility, literally where the statues of the ancestors were. So that's what it's supposed to represent. It shouldn't be as hectic or as chaotic as anywhere else, you just know that this is the starting place for the adventure you're about to take, a neutral ground, let’s say.

Then you have the Highlands, which is a name fitting for it, but it's about taking on this larger-than-life adventure. Just going is similar to when you're thrown into something happening, an event happens and it just comes to life. Now you have to be the one dealing with it. It's always sort of “Why me?”

But for the metaphors that are parallel to it, It's a ruined city, you're going through this desolate place by yourself, which is a theme. You'll see even if it feels like people are around you, or even if people are around you, it still can feel lonely, which is deliberate. And it's a very real-world thing as well. It represents that feeling of taking on a responsibility larger than life. Then we have the Woodlands, which are fear incarnate, getting lost in this maze, and having to find your way through it.

Then the Deadlands. The people living there have these bones that they use for construction. It’s very much about surviving the circumstances or the hand you’ve been dealt, accepting it, and overcoming it.

One of my favorite things about the game is that we have these story beats, and for a Metroidvania that isn't something that normally happens. But you have these story beats that you go through, and when they lead you along the way. You have the music kick in, then you have dialogue coming in randomly while you're playing, and you're going through these narratives, but the narratives also lean into everything.

Zi Peters: We’re thinking a lot about gameplay aspects and how they can also evoke these emotions in the player. So when you’re getting to the bottom of the caverns, filled with rapids and flowing water, you acquire the Bamba stone to freeze water. We take the player through a section of the level, but then they’re required to backtrack, and it's in a new lens with this new ability, which reframes everything for the player. Now the things that were anxiety-inducing before are not so much anymore. You can freeze the water which gives you time to breathe, take a moment, and overcome those obstacles. Enemies that were jumping around and difficult to deal with can be frozen, and you can crowd-control them better.

It’s all about, one, setting up emotional themes and trying to evoke those in the player. But then also having that parallel and analogy for acquiring the tools to overcome them, as Zau overcomes elements of his own grief.

Could you tell me a little bit about the dual mask system? Were there any different iterations you went through, or anything that didn’t make the cut?

Kenzera’s dual masks focus on giving Zau melee and ranged abilities.

Surgent Studios

Peters: It was there from the beginning. It was a core starting point bringing ties back to Bantu culture, and how that was represented in this game. It was a foundational thing for us.

In terms of iterations, we actually started off with more than the two masks, but we went through challenges in terms of finding the fun. That balance between having enough options for the player to allow for that strategy and tactical sort of application to the gameplay, but also trying not to be too complex and overwhelming, which led us to get into the two masks.

One of the key aspects of this was trying to find identities for each mask where they felt like they each had their own functional purpose. Where they complemented each other but it didn't feel like it doesn’t matter which mask I used. That’s not to say that the same mask couldn't handle the same challenge but it needed to present a different way of going about that and overcoming it. A lot of play testing and iteration in trying to find that strong identity and also trying to make it intuitive.

What inspirations did you use for Kenzera’s character designs? How do they tie into the game’s themes?

Durrant: When it comes to Zau himself, his hairstyle is used by the Himba tribe for young men before they get married. It’s a hairstyle that’s symbolic. It’s those small little things that, even a quick Google search will then give you the depth of the character.

But then from a base level you have these themes and ideas, and you want to show it to people, but you also don't want to spell everything out to them. When it comes to that whimsy look we went for big eyes. He feels like a young man but has depth to him behind the curtain. You still want him to feel like a cool silhouette at the end of the day, you want him to feel like an icon.

Then with all the other characters, it goes along a similar path. We have these ideas in mind for levels and the characters you meet along the way, and I’m thinking about what type of character best fits the role. I was the character artist and they’re all very precious to me, but even when it comes to that I’m looking at facial expressions and facial details. If you chew a lot, for example, or if you frown you get those crow’s feet, and so on. They express who you are and how you come across, without saying anything. So for example that’s why we have Mama, she feels a little bit softer, her hairstyle is more inviting. But again, it creates that really nice silhouette.

The main place we started from when it comes to character design is the Bantu people. Like with the Ndebela tribe, we have a lot of cool colors and shapes. If you look into them they even tie back into buildings. Like “How old is the person that lives there, what’s your status, are you married, how much money do you have, etc.” You get all this information from just walking outside of someone’s front door, and seeing it. It’s stuff that you don’t need to know, but maybe once you look into it, you find even more interesting layers.

Abubakar Salim has talked a lot about how personal this project is to him. What is it like working on a game that has that kind of meaning to someone on the team? And did you find any deeper meaning yourselves?

Every part of Kenzera’s world, from characters to locations, draws heavy inspiration from the Bantu people.

Surgent Studios

Peters: As a creative, you always want to put your maximum effort into what it is that you're building and deliver something that's really well received by the audience. It added an extra layer to that, in terms of it’s not just another game, and how it’s so deeply personal to Abu.

It also added such a great amount of strength to the core vision. We had a good target in terms of what it was we're aiming for. What we're trying to evoke from the player. What the game was supposed to mean, not just as a piece of entertainment, but beyond that. There's also that kind of extra sense of motivation and drive, with that elevated importance.

For me personally, as well, I'd lost my dad many years ago. So there's that instant, I could easily connect with what Abu was pitching when he approached me. It was personal to me as well.

Durrant: Grief is something that we all go through in some capacity. It doesn't have to be the loss of a parent or whoever, it could be anything in your life that you think you've treasured or valued once, and you're like, “Okay I can relate to that feeling of just not having it anymore.” So yes, instantly from that perspective, it’s very similar to myself as well.

But in relation, just the way that we're telling the story of a single player appealed to me. I didn't want to do multiplayer games anymore, I didn't want to do the same style as everyone else is doing.

We’re a small team, but everyone does get to contribute and input, and that’s something that I’ve just wanted. That’s why I left bigger studios because I prefer that atmosphere where it is creative, everyone can chime in, and be heard.

That's the attractive thing for me about the studio and then being able to tell stories with layers, and not just epic end-of-world chaos event happening. There’s enough of that. There are people that do that beautifully, and we love that. But we also want to tell different stories in the space while still having cool mechanics.

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

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