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'He would have loved it': House Of The Dragon actor's new game inspired by grief of losing his dad

Growing up, Abubakar Salim never felt destined to be a star of the screen.

The Jamestown and Raised By Wolves actor, who this year joins the cast of HBO and Sky’s House Of The Dragon, didn’t much care for the worlds of TV and film where he has since made his name.

“As a kid, I didn’t really like TV,” he recalls. “Cartoons were pretty cool, but this was when they were at a set time, so you couldn’t watch them all the time!”

Due to his dyslexia, reading didn’t come naturally either. For a young Salim, who goes by Abu, it was games that proved an escape.

“It was the one thing I had a passion for – and my father saw that.

“If it wasn’t for games, I wouldn’t be an actor – they sparked my love for storytelling. And my dad saw they were the only way in for me.”

Abu Salim and his dad, Ali. Pic: EA
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Abu and his father shared a deep love of video games. Pic: EA

‘He knew I was fascinated’

Abu’s dad Ali, a Kenyan-born software engineer with a love of tech, raised him in Hertfordshire with his mother.

The father-son relationship was often driven by passion for games, with shared adventures in Sonic The Hedgehog and The Legend Of Zelda tightening their bond.

“He knew I was fascinated,” the actor says.

Recalling a moment in a Zelda game that “always used to terrify me” (it involved zombies, we’ve all been there), Abu fondly remembers how his dad would sit next to him as he went through it.

“And it always felt like, ‘alright, he’s with me – I feel prepared’.”

Abubakar Salim in Raised By Wolves. Pic: Coco Van Oppens/HBO/Kobal/Shutterstock
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Abubakar Salim in Raised By Wolves. Pic: Coco Van Oppens/HBO/Kobal/Shutterstock

A story of grief

But Ali never got to see his son, now 31, in his breakthrough roles.

The 66-year-old died with cancer in 2013, years before Abu would make his name as a BAFTA-nominated actor.

More than a decade on, the loss is inspiring his ultimate passion project – a new action-adventure game of the type they so enjoyed playing together, shaped by his experience of grief.

Tales Of Kenzera: Zau, which releases on 23 April on PlayStation, Xbox, PC, and Nintendo Switch, is the debut title from UK-based Surgent Studios, which Abu founded in 2019.

Players take on the role of Zau, a powerful but grieving warrior determined to bring his father back from the dead.

It’s inspired not just by Abu’s grief, but the myths and legends of the Bantu – a mixture of hundreds of ethnic groups from countries across central and Southern Africa, including Kenya.

Tales Of Kenzera: Zau. Pic: EA
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Tales Of Kenzera: Zau is the first game from Abu Salim’s own games studio. Pic: EA

A place of passion

In a medium that, while increasingly diverse, is still dominated by familiar franchises and white protagonists, Zau’s inspirations conjure up a striking aesthetic, though also influenced by a love of comic books and wearing some Afrofuturism motifs on its sleeve.

“It’s come from a place of passion,” says Abu, who serves as creative director and also the voice of Zau, though the entire game can also be played in Swahili.

He previously voiced the main character in 2017’s Assassin’s Creed Origins, his debut gaming role and one which – given that title’s vast scope – made him the narrator of much of my free time that year.

It was that part which inspired Abu to find out what it might take to create his own games, and assemble a team to create the world of Kenzera and “tell stories in a different light”.

The team is made up of just 30 people working remotely, dwarfed by the hundreds if not thousands who create the Assassin’s Creed games, but brings together a diverse line-up of British talent – some who share Abu’s unorthodox journey into game creation.

Abu Salim testing Tales Of Kenzera: Zau. Pic: EA
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Abu Salim testing Tales Of Kenzera: Zau. Pic: EA

A united team

Composer Nainita Desai, born to Indian parents, learned the violin and piano at school, joined the choir, and had her own pop band, but she put her musical ambitions on hold to study maths at university.

“I didn’t realise composing was something you could have as a career,” she admits.

“I thought it was something for old white dudes!”

Nainita Desai. Pic: EA
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Nainita Desai. Pic: EA

She’s since enjoyed a career spanning films, TV, and games – but few have evoked the same passion as Zau, which saw her work with a diverse orchestra at London’s Abbey Road, combining the “ancient sounds of African cultures” with modern synths to create a score that’s already been hailed as a likely awards contender.

Desai also enlisted Voquality, the same choir that performed on Marvel’s Black Panther films.

Shining a spotlight on Africa’s rich Bantu mythology, she says, was one of the things that made the “beautiful, rich” Kenzera such a hugely compelling project.

Tales Of Kenzera: Zau. Pic: EA
Tales of Kenzera: Zau. Pic: EA
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Pics: EA

For artist Ackeem Durrant, it’s an opportunity to bring its lore to a wider audience in the way games like God Of War and films like Thor have done for the Norse and Greek mythologies.

“When you see these things in media, you go and Google them, right? You check this stuff out,” he says.

“That’s what we really want to inspire by covering Bantu culture in this game – it’s a huge rabbit hole to go down.”

Ackeem Durrant. Pic: EA
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Ackeem Durrant. Pic: EA

Surgent has drawn from the Bantu pantheon to inspire everything from the environments players explore, to the enemies they fight and the abilities they learn over the course of the game.

It’s of the so-called “Metroidvania” genre, named after the influential 2D Metroid and Castlevania franchises, known for their addictive combination of combat, puzzles, and exploration.

Among the enemy inspirations are the water spirit Tikoloshe and fire spirit Kalunga, while the levels – from the Kakaramban Highlands to the Kivulian Forests – draw upon the varied landscapes of the continent.

Lead designer Zi Peters describes it as a world players will initially “feel a bit lost in”.

Tales Of Kenzera: Zau. Pic: EA
Tales Of Kenzera: Zau. Pic: EA
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Pics: EA

‘You’re not alone’

But despite that rabbit hole of Bantu mythology the developers could go down, they never lost sight of the game’s overriding inspiration – grief.

“This game can hopefully be an experience to show people they’re not alone,” says Peters, who also lost his dad to cancer in his 20s.

“It’s one of those things, especially when it comes earlier than you expect, that you can’t plan for.

“You have to allow yourself to feel it, not force yourself, but also not let it completely overwhelm you.”

Each level along Zau’s journey and the abilities he learns “serve as an analogy for the journey of grief”, ensuring the story and how players actually interact with the game “sit in harmony”.

Zi Peters. Pic: EA
Image:
Zi Peters. Pic: EA

Evolve and change

For Abu, it’s what makes games such a powerful vessel for storytelling, inspiring people “to think differently”.

“If I knew you could actually have a career in games when I was a kid, I probably would’ve gone straight into games,” he admits.

While a film or show can only ever “put you as a fly on the wall”, a game puts you “in the shoes of a character, you travel with them through a journey of what they’re going through, and you’re gonna evolve and change with them”.

Abu has already done plenty of the whole “evolve and change” thing, his father’s death forcing him to “accept a new version of me and be cool with it”.

Whether it’s the death of a loved one or friend, a breakup, or even the loss of a job, “it will never leave you”, he says.

“You grow comfortable with it – you have to accept it and keep going, keep pressing on.”

Read more: The science of heartbreak

Abubakar Salim. Pic: EA
Image:
Abubakar Salim. Pic: EA

‘I think he would have loved it’

Early buzz around Zau has been nothing but positive – having been announced at last year’s Game Awards, perhaps this year’s show will end up being something of a full circle moment.

Whatever the reception ends up being, Abu has likely already made proud the people who matter most.

“I showed my mum the trailer after we announced it, and it really moved her,” he says with a smile.

“She was like, ‘I’ve never seen anything like this before!’ My mum’s in her 70s, so it’s cool to have that effect and surprise someone who feels they’ve probably seen it all.”

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And what about dad? What would he have made of it?

“He would have been like, ‘You could have just made like a Sonic The Hedgehog! This is really deep, man!’”

“No,” Abu grins. “I think he would have loved it.”

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