Venba makes me feel understood. Both as a South Asian, and as a first generation immigrant in Canada. This latter point is one that’s particularly important to me. Oftentimes when I consume a story created here in the West by a South Asian immigrant—usually a second generation one—that tackles the immigrant experience, it’s one that obfuscates the identities of the parents. It erases their stories, and focuses solely on the creator’s upbringing, their desire to ‘fit in’ to their Western surroundings; wading the trite narrative waters of not being able to relate to their parents and facing racism from their predominantly white friends who make fun of their cultural food. This is not to diminish those experiences, not at all, I’ve faced similar struggles as well. But each time I would come away from such a story with a sour taste in my mouth, a festering anger that made me feel that the story’s protagonist—who are oftentimes inspired by their creator—erased their roots, and in turn, their parents.
So when I came across Venba, a narrative-driven cooking game with a strikingly Indian art-style that told a story of a couple immigrating to Canada, I was both excited and cautious. Excited because seeing a South Asian-inspired video game is a rarity, and one that focused on the unique cuisine of South India sounded like a perfect vessel for such a game. Cautious because the immigrant experience is a premise that has rarely resonated with me in Western media, due to it being told through a skewed lens that valued American individualism over ones own history. Thankfully, Venba’s writer, Abhi, put all my concerns to rest and has woven a beautifully reflective story that has an understanding of the nuances between the generational experiences of immigrants, while doing so with a tenderness and love for all its characters.
For most of this short, two-hour experience, you play as Venba—a former school teacher from India who has moved to Canada with her husband, Paavalan to start their life anew. You begin in their early years, with Paavalan struggling to find consistent work, and Venba trying to get her foot in the door as a teacher in a Canadian school. The first time you’re put in the kitchen it’s to make a classic South Indian dish, idli, for your husband who—like most older generation South Asian men—is useless in the kitchen.
Every recipe in Venba comes from Venba’s mother’s (amma) recipe book, which acts like a guide throughout the game. Though the twist is that the book is quite old, with many of its instructions faded and unreadable. This makes for a good bit of trial-and-error as you attempt to figure out the order of things. Venba does a good job in not holding your hand, though sometimes its grip is missed as I would often quickly become lost at what to do, leading me to use the ‘hint’ function more than once. Still, the game resets the items quickly each time you inevitably make a mistake, doing so with a Prince of Persia-esque, “that’s not quite how I remember it,” from Venba.
Each cooking segment also comes with the ability to read up on the dish you’re making. Giving you little factoids of the dish’ history, as well as the different variations of how it can be made. Both this feature and the trial-and-error nature of Venba made me feel more acquainted with Tamil cuisine, not only in terms of how the dishes are made but the formalities in which they’re eaten. Unfortunately, the cooking mechanics themselves aren’t as deep as I would’ve hoped. There were moments where I’d do one or two simple steps, and the dish would be complete. Frankly, I’ve found more robust gameplay experiences on some mobile cooking games. Still, being able to see these Tamil dishes come to life, and the way in which they are all tied to the narrative forms a unique connection.
What makes this connection even stronger are the audiovisuals. The art-work in Venba is vibrant and uniquely stylized. In an interview with PlayStation Blog, Abhi talked about the game’s art-style, saying: “Sam Elkana, our art director, has a unique art style that’s very stylized and inspired by the likes of Samurai Jack and Dexter’s Laboratory. When developing the art direction for Venba, he wanted to adopt a similar approach to stylization. But since we’ll be introducing these dishes for the first time to a lot of the audience, Sam had to strike a balance between stylization while maintaining authenticity, which we think he has done really well.” The inspiration of those Cartoon Network classics is easily identifiable, but Elkana does a wonderful job in keeping the Tamil aesthetic intact.
Praise must also be given to Venba’s composer, Alpha Something, who melds classic Tamil and Carnatic instruments like thavils and veenas with modern beats to create a truly head-bopping but also oddly nostalgic soundtrack that accompanies the colourful artwork wonderfully. The sound design in general is quite electric, with each cut of an herb, sizzling of an oil, or flip of a spatula having an almost exaggerated sound effect that gives the cooking experience a tactile satisfaction.
As Venba progresses, you watch as Venba and Paavalan struggle to connect with their son, Kavin, whose name I just typed on my keyboard and my American-made computer auto-corrected it to ‘Kevin,’ which is the name Kavin’s friends at his Canadian school call him, and one he himself would prefer to be. As Venba pushes her son to speak in Tamil and eat their South Indian food, both things Kavin is averse to doing, Paavalan consoles her by saying that he’s simply learning to adapt and has to find his own way. Though during a meal later in the game before Kavin heads off to university, where Venba excitedly wants to pack him containers of biryani but Kavin angrily refuses, Paavalan tells his son, and I’m paraphrasing here: “You don’t have to be something just for us, but make sure you’re also not being something just for them. It’d be a shame for you to lose the rich history of your roots.”
For as short of a game as Venba is, it still manages to allows itself to take time in telling its story. Telling it without unnecessary dialogue, instead focusing on the little moments between characters and subtle shifts in facial expressions, which the artwork brings out so naturally. There’s a hard-hitting scene midway through the game that tackles race and violence, and instead of padding it out with dialogue like I’ve seen many a times, Venba uses silence, cinematography, and subtle character moments between the family to say all it needs to. It’s a poignant moment that was handled with care and got me rightfully misty-eyed. Beyond that, Venba has a deep understanding of the simple things that’s so intrinsic to the relationship between a South Asian husband and wife. From the way Venba dresses up prior to telling Paavalan that she’s pregnant, to her giving Kavin all the meat pieces leaving Paavalan with none, to the way she makes excuses to spend more time with Kavin.
There’s some interesting use of dialogue boxes that add to the narrative as well. Every time Venba pushes Kavin to speak in Tamil, the text in his dialogue boxes begin appearing at a slightly slower pace, giving us a sense that his Tamil isn’t as fluent. It’s these little things that add so much to the narrative, and brings me closer to these characters in a way that games ten times its length aren’t able to do. I did wish the dialogue options were a bit more robust, however. Though the options are an infrequent occurrence, when they did appear I felt my choices didn’t matter, as Venba’s response was often written in a way that could’ve worked for the other options as well. It didn’t take away from the moment, but it simply felt like the choice to even have dialogue options was just to have an additional game mechanic for the sake of having so.
Venba isn’t a long game, its cooking mechanics aren’t that deep or robust for the genre, and its dialogue options may as well not have been implemented. However, Visai Games have made a game that tells a beautifully intimate and reflective narrative about the nuanced experience of being a first generation immigrant, with characters that are written with heart. Whether it’s tackling the pitfalls of assimilation, or the devastation of loss, Venba is able to balance these multi-faceted themes through strong character writing, an expressive art-style, and rhythmic Carnatic music while celebrating the vibrant culture and cuisine of Tamils.
Shaz played Venba on Xbox Series S with his own copy via GamePass