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'Tales of Kenzera: Zau' — a video game about grief, inspired by Bantu mythology


Creative director Abubakar Salim has always loved video games. That love was passed down to him by his father.


ABUBAKAR SALIM: It started with my dad, right? He got me into them. He understood, you know, that games are an art form. You know, it's a great space to enjoy an escape from the reality of the world.

SUMMERS: But over 10 years ago, his dad died after a battle with cancer.


SALIM: And I'll tell you what, I'm still figuring it out. But four years ago, I decided that I needed to try and process my grief in a way that felt true to me and him. So I took the biggest risk of my life and threw everything that I had in making a game, a piece of art that honored him, an ode to the people we have loved and lost.

SUMMERS: That game, years in the making, is out now. It's called Tales of Kenzera: ZAU.


SALIM: (As Zau) My baba, my father, your story was snatched away too soon. My name is Zau, shaman of Kenzera. Here, I seek my father, Shutan (ph).

SUMMERS: Abubakar Salim is here to tell us more about the long journey to bringing this new game to life. Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

SALIM: (Laughter) Thank you for having me. It's - I'm sorry. It's - I just I got to say it's very surreal hearing that back today (laughter) 'cause I'm very aware of how personal it is and sharing it to people. So it's - hearing it back is like, oh, man. You know, it just hits on another level. It's just so personal.

SUMMERS: Well, let's start there. I mean, this game is so personal to you. Listening to you at the Game Awards talking about your relationship with your dad and how much he meant to you and how much this game means to you - tell us a bit of the story of how working through your own grief with the loss of your father led you to this game that we're now able to play.

SALIM: Absolutely. It's a funny one - right? - 'cause I'm an actor by trade. So, you know, I've done, you know, "Raised By Wolves," "Black Mirror," you know, I'm now in "House Of The Dragon." Like, I've done - that's really normally my space. It was when I was in South Africa - I was filming "Raised By Wolves" at the time - and I was playing a game on my Nintendo Switch. And there was a section in Ori and the Blind Forest - it's this waterfall section. It's this chase sequence, and it's incredibly difficult to do. But I was able to accomplish it.

And the feeling that came through, this feeling of, like, kind of, you know, just happiness of actually getting through this thing, it sort of took me back to a feeling I remember when playing Sonic for the first time on the Mega Drive and my father watching me play Sonic and that feeling of actually completing this level that we just kept dying on. And it just dawned on me there that I had to make a game. Keep in mind I had no idea what it meant to make a game or how to do it.


SALIM: But I was just so driven by this idea that the way to express my feelings, the way to express this grief is through a video game.


SALIM: (As Zau) The shaman's path is one of healing, one of guiding. Yet, how does a shaman perform his duties when he is the one in need of healing, of guiding.

SUMMERS: Let's talk a bit, if we can, about the story of the game. Just briefly, if you can, tell us about the premise of it.

SALIM: So Tales of Kenzera: ZAU is about a young shaman called Zau, who makes a deal with the God of death, Kalunga, that in exchange for three great spirits, he will bring the spirit of his father back to life.


TRISTAN D LALLA: (As Kalunga) And tell me, (non-English language spoken), what wealth is it that you seek?

SALIM: (As Zau) My Baba. A sickness plagued him. You have taken his soul, and I am here to reclaim it back.

You know, it's inspired by Bantu mythology and legends, a lot of the stories that my father would tell me as a kid. But truly, it's really inspired by the journey of grief that I had experienced having lost my father. You know, a lot of the time whenever I've seen grief depicted in an entertainment medium, it's always been quite sad and quite down and morose, and it's been a lot, right? Whereas, my experience was very colorful in a way. It was vivid. It was almost like these - the rose-tinted glasses were ripped from my face, and I'm seeing the world anew.

One of the biggest sort of shocks for me was that the world continued to spin. And as silly as it sounds, it was just such a shock. At the same time, I was also dealing with this idea of, OK, now, you know, my father has passed away, I've got to be the man of the family or the - you know, I've got to be the one who has - you know, who's in control of everything. That is where this game is sort of - where it comes from. The kernel of this game, it comes from my experience and my journey of grief.

SUMMERS: And I can't talk to you about this game without talking to you about the game's soundtrack, which feels really different to me.

SALIM: (Laughter) Yeah.

SUMMERS: What makes you laugh about that question?

SALIM: No, 'cause the soundtrack is so good, right (laughter)?


SALIM: You know, the thing - again, this is the beauty of working with someone who is so brilliant and just so talented as Nainita.

SUMMERS: So you're talking about Nainita Desai there. She's the composer for the game, right?

SALIM: Yes. Yeah. And what a composer she is. So, I brought Nainita on very, very early. Again, this was during the time that I - you know, there was no EA involved. There was none of that. It was just me, this idea and a team of - you know, a team of people. And Nainita just got it. You know, she understood what I was trying to say.


SALIM: It was very much this mentality of, like, you know, I want - it's my father, who was brought up in Kenya, and sort of him communicating with me, who was brought up in England, and having this kind of clash that makes sense, but also there is this feeling of, like, it vibes, but then it doesn't, but then it vibes, and then it doesn't. And for Nainita to capture something like that and not only capture the essence of it, but also capture that journey of grief, I laugh because it's so beautiful. So yeah.

SUMMERS: You know, I have to say, when we started our conversation, we started out by talking about how the roots of this game are in the grief that you had after losing your father. And yet, as I've had this conversation with you, I hear your laughter. It sounds like you have a smile on your face the entire time that you're talking about this game. How do you balance the two?

SALIM: I think because grief isn't always sad. And it's one of those ones where as long as you accept the fact that the grief isn't going to go away - you just have to, you know, almost accept that it is there. You get comfortable with it, and you could find almost, like, the sort of - the relief in it as well as the anger, as well as the happiness, and use that as a fuel source to keep pushing you forward. There's a beauty in this idea of an end, that the life that you live or that you kind of work up to or that you have is - there's so much beauty there. And grief really truly is a celebration of life. That's what grief is. It's the celebration of life, and I really do believe that. And I think, like, this game is that.


UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing in non-English language).

SUMMERS: We have been talking with creative director Abubakar Salim. Tales of Kenzera: ZAU is out now. Thank you so much.

SALIM: Thank you.


UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing in non-English language). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Juana Summers
Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.