A Conversation with Abubakar Salim

Ned Jordan
In Short
I recently had the chance to speak with Abubakar Salim, accomplished actor and founder of Surgent Studios, about his game Tales of Kenzera: Zau and learn a lot about the inspiration for the game and what went into its design.

NJ: So, Tales of Kenzera: ZAU has its beginnings in a deeply personal experience for you. Can you share a little bit about that experience and when you decided you needed to share that experience through a story?

AS: Yeah, I've always wanted to talk about grief and share my experience of grief since my father passed away.

So, it felt only natural to sort of, well, I say natural.

It's been one of those ones where I'd be constantly humming an aria, what's the best way of doing it?

And it was only until I was playing Ori and the Blind Forest on the Switch, and there was a feeling that was generated from doing the waterfall moment, which essentially awakened this memory of me playing Sonic with my father, especially at the casino level on the Mega Drive, and completing it. And it made sense there that I had to kind of share this experience as a video game or through a video game. And that's really where Zau was born, in a way.


NJ: Was that the moment you decided you wanted to create a game or have you had an interest in possibly doing something like that before?

AS: Yeah, I've always been interested in sort of games and making games, but I don't think it ever really dawned on me what it took to make a game.

And so, I think, yeah, I think that was when, because I didn't have the knowledge, it made sense in a way, it was always an interesting thing to do or something that would be cool to do. But because of that moment of feeling inspired of needing for it to be a game, I'd say that was the moment where I was like, OK, now I'm going to make this into a game. It's the idea of making a game is always really cool and it's like a dream. But that kind of desire to actually and need to make it kind of was sparked from that moment of playing Ori.


NJ: As I understand it, your grandfather and father had very different ideas of the spiritual world, so to speak, what happens at death. Is that why you chose to present the game as a story within a story with kind of two different perspectives?

AS: Yeah, I wanted it to be a kind of mythological place or a place of myth and legend. And I wanted the other space to be a bit more kind of grounded, to represent those two different sort of perspectives and two different takes on death. Whereas one hasn't really accepted the passing, both of them haven't. There is one party who is sort of dealing with the realities of it. And then there's another one who is essentially demanding the god of death to reverse that. And I think that we've have experienced grief or loss of some sorts and have been there wanting to almost deny the reality of what it is and what it means. And I think that that's essentially what I wanted to do with that.

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NJ: Do you personally identify more with the Zuberi or Zau, because Zuberi is dealing with his grief through stories, he’s more introspective, but Zau is more about taking action, he wants to actually do something about it?

AS: I think I went through two phases.

I think after my father passed, right away I was very much a Zau sort of action, sort of all right, now I've got to do this, I've got to do that, I've got to be the man of the house, you know, just soldier on.

Whereas through time, I've kind of become a bit more like Zuberi and sort of introspectively looked at it and assessed it on that side.

So yeah, I would say it's a bit of both.


NJ: So, there are also additional characters in the game, including some of the boss characters, that are all dealing with grief in a different manner. Would you say that those are kind of different aspects of the process represented from the outside or are they just different ways to teach lessons to people on their own journey?

AS: Yeah, I think they're just different perspectives and different kind of POVs in a way. I think everyone has their own sort of lesson and their own sort of takes from the experiences that they go through. For me it was like the interactions between Zau and the characters essentially were there to serve as not really a lesson for Zau, but as a different perspective, a different light to looking at things.

Do you see what I mean?

And it's one of those ones where, I mean, I've had the experiences where I feel like I've kind of got a hold or a grip of what I was supposed to have taken out of it and then, you know, two years later it teaches me something different and something new.


NJ: The game draws a lot on Bantu mythology, which might not be as familiar to a Western audience. Was it difficult to craft a story that draws on a really rich mythology that your audience doesn't necessarily have the same touch points with that they do with other mythos?

AS: Yeah, no, not really, because I think again like for me, you got to really sort of look at storytelling and at its core what it's supposed to do and what it's about. I think the aspect of the Bantu myth really is there because again it's just from my perspective, it's from the kind of the stories I grew up with.

And at the end of the day, a story is a story - we've been sharing stories for years and we're always finding new stories to be told and new stories to kind of share with one another. So, I think like, as long as that story connects that human element, we'll always find something that kind of resonates with us no matter where it's from.

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NJ: Kind of along the same lines, many people come into a game that deals with death and expect something that's really dark and gray and yet this game has such vibrant color palettes. How are you using color to speak to that, considering the background people would normally expect would feature dark and somber tones?

AS: I think because, again, my experience of grief wasn't really dark or somber, it almost was like the rose-tinted glasses were ripped from me and I could see everything in full 4K. It was vivid, it was loud, the world just sort of continued to spin and I think that's why it was important to capture that and resonate that. And also, the thing is, that with different cultures, grief means different things.

So I think, you know, it's approached very differently. Some people see it as a beginning rather than necessarily an end and I think like that's why I wanted to capture that.


NJ: The game is a metroidvania game, why did you choose that as a genre and did you consider other genres as well?

AS: It's inspired by the metroidvania genre because it's, for me, that genre captures in quite a powerful way what grief is, right? You're thrown into the middle of a space that feels almost, that feels very alien, you have no idea where you are or where to begin, whether to go left or right in a way. And the more time you spend in it, the more comfortable you get with it, the more sort of attuned you get to it.

And even though there are elements in it that feel antagonistic, there are also elements in there that are there to aid your journey, to help you discover and uncover elements that you wouldn't have necessarily thought of.

Things of going back and forth a lot, backtracking, sometimes it feels like you are taking steps back when you're grieving, but at the same time you are actually technically moving forward.

It just captured the feeling of, or the journey of grief really, really well, which I don't think any other genre could do.

You look at even the elements of doing like a roguelike, for example, it wouldn't have worked with grief, because that's the death of the self, which is repeated and death is almost kind of, it's an important factor to a roguelike, but it doesn't carry the same weight, which is why it needed to be inspired by that metroidvania genre.

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NJ: You talked a bit about the backtracking in metroidvania games, and one of the things that impressed me in Tales of Kenzera is the backtracking, the levels actually felt different when you played them depending on the direction you were going through them. Was it difficult to design levels that would actually play slightly differently depending on which direction you were going through?

AS: Yeah, I mean, that's definitely a level design question, but again, I think the way that we sort of met with it really was when it came to the design of the levels, I remember telling the team, I really wanted it to be led by emotion, rather than necessarily being this typical … here's a lava level, and, you know, here's the woods level.

For example, the wild wood was essentially supposed to be representative of fear. So, the traps that kind of played within there were all about fear. The feeling was supposed to be of fear, and then you look at the beginning, the highlands, and sort of the journey to the Kurumba, that was all about anxiety, you know, with the storm and the feeling of being in the middle of this this anxious space.

And that's really how we wanted to lead with the design of these levels - go into the emotions of it all, and then deal with it that way, the constant jumping up and feeling like you have to go up within the sort of highlands, jumping on these shaky platforms against all of our anxiety.


NJ: So, another aspect of the game that seemed a little bit of a departure from the, I guess, the kind of the metroidvania baseline was that you don't start as a completely weak character at the beginning of the game. You have actually a decent skill set, and you do progress as the game goes on, but what led you to decide to not start the player as a powerless hero at the beginning of the game?

AS: For me, the way I sort of see skills or abilities and powers is kind of a bit like baggage, and I think that even though I was young when I lost my father, I still had skills and baggage with me. I wasn't coming at this fresh or weak. I was coming at it from a perspective, from an angle, and I think that's why it was important to feel like Zau was lived.

You know, they've had a life before this game started, and they will continue to have a life after, and that's really what led to the choice of having, like, dash, double jump, aerial dash, that kind of stuff, you know?

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NJ: The idea between the two different power sets that are where he draws the power through the masks, is there any significance that they were sun powers and moon powers? Is that tied into legend at all, or how did you come to choose those?

AS: Yeah, the sun and the moon in a lot of Bantu cultures essentially represent life and death, and really that's why I wanted to play with them as elements of power.

You know, sun there is one of those ones that can be seen as a life giver, whereas the moon is there, seen as sort of the death of what that is.

So that was really where that tie-in comes from.


NJ: I have one final question and that has to do with the game's title, Tales of Kenzera. You can look at that in two ways. Tales because there's kind of a story with a story in the game, but it also kind of implies that there might be more tales to be told in the future. Do you have any plans to kind of continue this world with follow up games?

AS: Yeah, that's the end. The one is to kind of continue telling the story. I think it's important to kind of keep that continuity and build that community, you know.


NJ: Are some of your ideas to continue with kind of the same characters or other stories from the same world?

AS: I think we've always been led by the idea of telling stories that essentially it needs to be the right medium and it needs to be the right story and the right theme. So, for example, this was very much just driven by the journey of grief, right? And it felt right to tell a story from Zaal and then Zubari.

And so depending on where that next story is or what that next story is, it might be new characters, it might be the same.

I think for me, one thing that I want to do is I want to be able to have this universe that we've kind of conjured be as inviting and open as possible for everyone to jump in on board. Even for me, even though we are very much Bantu, we started with Bantu myth and looked at the Bantu gods, it's not to say that, you know, the Nordic gods can't play in there as well. I think there is something really cool about mixing Pantheons and what that means and how that is reflective as well of humanity as a whole.

That's what we are, right?

We're a mix of all these different types of stories.

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Transmitted: 7/19/2024 10:01:21 AM