Tales of Kenzera: ZAU Understands the Complexity of Grief

Games Features Tales of Kenzera: ZAU
Tales of Kenzera: ZAU Understands the Complexity of Grief

Grief and I are best friends at this point. Since 2020 I’ve lost nine members of my family and grief is kind of the only thing I write essays about now. Half of that is because it’s so familiar and the other half of that need to write is because I still don’t really understand it all. 

When we see grief portrayed in media, it’s often set to a monochromatic blues or a black and gray aesthetic that only becomes vibrant once you’re “through” the loss. But that’s not how grieving looks in my life. For my family, grief is loud, it’s vibrant, it’s the deep golds and saturated reds of an ofrenda in October. It’s the vivid teal of the Lady of Guadalupe’s veil. Loss has never been a neutral expression. Even when my grandmother died, we were asked to attend her wake and burial in our brightest purples. Surgent Studios’ debut game Tales of Kenzera: ZAU is the first time that I’ve played through a pain that wasn’t numb. Instead, it was vibrant and expressive. There was rage, sadness, guilt, fear, and even at times, joy. 

The Metroid-style adventure game Tales of Kenzera: ZAU brings the player into the fantasy world of Kenzera. Built on Bantu folklore, the zones change from the violet and pinks that surround the God of Death, Kalunga, to cool blues of deep caverns, lush emeralds of a thriving jungle, and hot reds to accompany scorching sands. Each area is tied to a character you’re meant to help move on. 

The beauty of Tales of Kenzera: ZAU is that grief is not linear. It’s not something you heal from and it doesn’t ever look the same across two people. It’s a deeply unique experience, but at the same time, it’s also universal. The complexity of grief is what makes it so. Zau feels anger, guilt, and sadness. He feels all of it and he mediates those emotions in the Great Spirits he helps cross over. He helps a parent loosen their grip on their child, he provides a salve to the anger between father and son, and he learns to let go. Each new character is a different expression of why you can get stuck in your loss, how it can debilitate you and keep you in an endless loop, ultimately impacting those around you.

But even when the darkness rushes in at the end of boss battles as you try to escape a zone, the vibrancy of those emotions is never lost. When I pitched this article, I didn’t know if anyone would understand what I meant. The grief that Surgent Studios has captured is vibrant and saturated. It’s not a dull pang or a numbness that creeps. It’s more potent and the beautiful world it lives in makes it all the more impactful. 

My grief, in all the times I’ve felt it, doesn’t make the world feel less. I don’t feel like the color dropped out. In fact, the opposite happens. Everything is brighter and louder, everything feels so much more intense because the people I loved are no longer there to enjoy it. Whether the mariachi band at the wakes or the marigolds we prefer over roses, life feels different. 

Much of this is because in my culture, death is celebrated. It’s a continuation of our journeys and our families show us how much they love us by how much joy they can express. While we don’t see that in Tales of Kenzera: ZAU, necessarily, it is one of the few times where the main emotion isn’t just one long depressive episode. Grief isn’t an emotion, it’s a process. It’s a description for the spectrum of emotions you house in your body. It describes moments of progress and growth, but it also describes how it feels to be hollowed out by loss. It’s complex and layered. Zau feels deeply, but he can’t just let himself rest. 

Periodically throughout the game, you’ll come across trees. When you find them, you refill your health but you also gain more. There are moments when Kalunga encourages you to think—to remember your Baba, to embrace your memories, and to just rest. One of the things for me when I lost my grandfather, was that everyone was just joyful. He had had a long battle with Alzheimer’s and now he was going to be with my grandmother. 

But for me, I don’t believe in an afterlife, even if my culture does. I was alone and the world around me kept spinning. It was jubilant and full, and I was just there, pushing myself to not get lost in it. I forced myself to keep moving forward and no one told me just to stop. I love how my family sees death and the beauty our ceremonies are filled with, but with that comes the pressure to just keep going. 

Tales of Kenzera: ZAU doesn’t just give Zau permission to stop fighting and move forward, it rewards him for his stillness. It’s as if Surgent Studios is telling you to take a moment and breathe. You just progressed through a rapidly paced level; it’s okay to just stop. Even in an electric and kinetic environment, you can still just pause and reflect. 

In all of this, I haven’t even processed some of the smaller themes in the game. As a detailed exploration of an intimate process of losing someone, its beauty is just one element, but the one that struck me immediately. The synergy between Mexican traditions, highly influenced by our indigenous ancestors, and the Bantu folklore feels like kindred spirits meeting. Surgent Studios has captured the way I’ve seen grief expressed in my life: Boisterous and vivid, folding the pain I carry into other emotions. 

With all of the sadness that comes with death, there is joy and celebration to be had. It doesn’t have to be dower or dull. Instead, grief can be expressed through music and art, something that many cultures do. Honoring the dead by celebrating them, Tales of Kenzera: ZAU goes one step further and makes sure you know you can sit down during the party instead of constantly being a part of it.  

Kate Sánchez is a pop culture journalist and co-founder of But Why Tho? A Geek Community.

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