Here’s a career progression you probably haven’t encountered before: actor to game studio founder. But that’s just the path that Abubakar Salim has taken. The 30-year-old British actor is best known in gaming circles as Bayek from Assassin’s Creed Origins (he has also appeared in Raised by Wolves and Napoleon, and will be in the second season of House of the Dragon). And now he has founded Surgent Studios to make a game that’s extremely personal to him.
That game is Tales of Kenzera: Zau, an action-platformer set in a fantastical world inspired by the Bantu legends of central and southern Africa. The player takes on the role of Zau, a young, grieving warrior shaman battling to bring his father back from the dead, under the guidance of Kalunga, the God of Death. A stylish and colorful Metroidvania, it’s been picked up by EA’s Originals publishing label and will be released on April 23, 2024, for Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 5, Windows PC, and Xbox Series X.
The impetus to make the game came from a pivotal moment in Salim’s life. He lost his father to cancer when he was just 20; he was at drama school, starting to meet with agents, and sensing his acting career taking shape ahead of him. The loss had a profound effect on him. “I still feel like I’m grieving,” Salim told Polygon in a video call. “Even though it’s been 10 years.”
Salim’s dad was a software engineer who played video games. He introduced his son to Sonic the Hedgehog when he was “very, very young” and bought him a Game Boy. Salim remembers playing Castlevania with his father a lot. “The amount of freedom he allowed me to play games and kind of breathe them and live them, and support me in that, kind of made me see, like, Ah, my dad’s a nerd, man,” he said.
Salim’s dad was from Kenya, and for a first-generation British kid figuring out an uncertain cultural identity, Salim found his dad to be an important anchor. “He was very much the man who I really looked up to, and really kind of connected with — especially because, you know… In a world where sometimes I’m not necessarily seen as British, or sometimes I’m not even necessarily seen as Kenyan, like, where do I fit in?” he said. “And at least I could look to him and be like, OK. [...] It’s that link, but once that disappears, it’s almost like that shield [or] those glasses are taken off, and everything is vivid.”
After Salim’s acting career took off, he felt a strong urge to start telling stories of his own, starting with something that would express his feelings about losing his father. It felt natural and truthful to him to do this in the form of a video game — partly because he’d found success with Assassin’s Creed, partly because of the connection he’d shared with his dad through games, and partly because of his own love of video games — “the best way of taking in stories.”
He also knew that the game had to be a Metroidvania, and not just because of those childhood Castlevania sessions. Salim loves how the framework of video game genres — from roguelikes to turn-based role-playing games — can interact with story and theme, and he sees the exploratory, back-and-forth structure of a Metroidvania as a perfect metaphor for working through grief.
“You’re growing a character in the middle of nowhere, they have no idea where they’re going, where they are about,” he said. “They’ve got a vague idea, but not really. And the longer the longer you spend in it, the more tools you unlock in order to kind of maneuver yourself around it.” Working through grief is not always about going forward; sometimes, like an explorer on a labyrinthine map, you have to go back. “Sometimes you’ll stumble upon something that feels like a barrier that you can’t get through. It’s only until you go a bit further down the line, and then you’re like, Oh, that makes sense. I’m gonna come back there.”
The game’s framing as a Bantu legend is partly personal, too. Salim’s grandfather was a nganga, a traditional healer; his dad would tell him stories about his grandfather communing with spirits, which the young Salim found equal parts terrifying and fascinating. In the game, Zau is a nganga, too. Salim says Tales of Kenzera also serves as a celebration of the panoply of tribal cultures and traditions that he encountered while filming Raised by Wolves in South Africa.
Armed with a clear vision of what he wanted to make, all that remained for Salim was the small task of founding a game studio, despite not being a game developer. It seems an unlikely feat, but Salim doesn’t see it differently from the more traditional routes actors might take to assume authorship of the stories they tell — by moving into directing or producing movies, say.
He leveraged connections he made on Assassin’s Creed Origins and through receiving a BAFTA Breakthrough Brit award, and the rest was just legwork: making connections, asking for introductions, posing questions. “The amount of DMs I slid into! On LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram, Artstation, like everywhere… Really, it was a lot of hustling, man, like, the amount of emails I sent was — it was a lot,” he said. The result is Surgent Studios, a fully remote, global team of developers and artists based in South Africa, Botswana, Nigeria, New York, Vienna, and England, to name a few.
Salim is very charming in person, but I suspect it’s the clarity of his vision and the strength of his sense of purpose for the game he wants to make that have really enabled this young actor to become a game studio founder. “I had a vision, I had an idea, you know, I had a story that I wanted to tell,” he said. “And when I shared that with people, they got it.”