Venba is a game that has been on my radar since its announcement trailer was released in 2020. It comes from a mainly South Asian development team, with its aesthetics, character designs, and sound design drawing its inspiration from the culture to tell a story about a South Asian family trying to reclaim and archive their own underrepresented culture after immigrating to Canada. It is an incredibly ambitious title to pursue when many video games do not try to engage with having cultures or identities outside of the white/western represented.
Venba is about trying to figure out your own identity (or sometimes lack thereof) in an all-new environment. This new environment is not kind or accommodating to people who are not considered white, and if you are underrepresented from a culture of color you are swayed and forced to assimilate, leaving what made you unique behind to survive this new place.
The game starts off in 1988, when Venba and Paavalan, the two main characters, are arguing right after Venba wakes up. Venba wants to make her husband Paavalan lunch, while Paavalan says he will skip lunch so as not to bother her. Since Paavalan is not the best at cooking, Venba gets up and heads straight to the kitchen. This is where the main gameplay mechanics of the game start. You will be making idli, a fluffy rice cake from lentil batter.
Here, you will be able to use Venba’s mother’s recipe book on how to make the dish, but some of the instructions are too unclear to follow accurately. This difficult-to-decipher recipe book creates interesting obstacles throughout the game when making different dishes, so it is up to you as the player to make use of the surrounding instructions and diagrams to fill in the gaps. This obstacle starts off with one or two lines from the recipe missing to later on becomes a whole page with just diagrams to work with and no legible instructions (for non-Tamil readers) to tackle cooking a meal properly. The recipe book mechanic aptly showcases the game’s narrative through its gameplay mechanics, allowing players to feel what it’s like to want to express your own culture from your roots and familial bonds, but not being able to completely translate it in challenging environments.
In this case, Venba does not have her mother’s consistent guidance directly as she is back home in India, but through a secondary resource with the recipe book it can be accomplished with a lot of trial and error. It’s not just about making the dish; Venba thinks about how her idlis, in comparison to her mother’s, are not as soft or as fluffy, but strives to ensure that maybe they could be just as good with the aid of the recipe book granted to her. It is about doing the dish justice, but also bringing a taste of home to an unfamiliar new place.
The game does allow you to ask for hints and provides background information on what you are cooking. For example, you can learn that idlis are a breakfast staple and if they are not stacked properly or steamed with a towel, the batter can leak, spill, or not cook thoroughly. This context then provides guidance on how the dish should come together. Thankfully, the game is very accommodating in giving help to progress the cooking segments.
The attempts you make to create these dishes mirror the struggles Venba herself faces in trying to recover these lost recipes. You will need to place ingredients in bowls or containers in the proper order, stack them correctly, or sift certain ingredients a few times to make sure you use all of the ingredients you are given and that none are wasted. It can get tricky fairly quickly, but it is supposed to be tricky trying to use an old recipe book with scratches, stains, and damaged pages. Cooking requires more steps later on and provides enough of a challenge that you may often use hints for some of the steps. You can play chapters again to complete the cooking segments without errors but, unfortunately, you will need to parse the dialogue/story you have already read to attempt cooking those recipes. There is no option to just dive outright into the previously played cooking sections.
It is an incredibly ambitious title to pursue when many video games do not try to engage with having cultures or identities outside of the white/western represented
These cooking segments are inspiring and when you see the finished product, it can make you feel empowered to attempt these dishes at home. Yes--Indian food can be ordered from a restaurant, but making your own creates opportunities to bring unique flavors and ingredient choices, as well as create a personal connection to a dish in a way that a restaurant cannot replicate. Food is not just about being satiated or staving off hunger, it is also about reminiscing, salvaging, and appreciating where you (or others) come from; especially in an environment that is not even accommodating to gathering the ingredients for your own precious dishes due to cost. In one example, this is highlighted when Venba uses idlis to reveal important life-changing information to her husband early on in the game: Food is more than just something people eat, it can be used to communicate and express yourself.
The story jumps to different years in the life of Venba and Paavalan. Their son Kavin’s early years are depicted and we get to see him heading off to university too. The story jumps around to these different years with different subject matters explored, but themes and adversities that many immigrants and/or South Asians directly face remain close. One such example shows Kavin having his friends anglicize his name to “Kevin” because he wants to fit in, or not eating his lunch at school because he knows the other kids will make fun of the smell.
These experiences could be seen as generic or cliche, but they are what many immigrants of color face. Anglicizing or shortening your name to fit in and not be a burden because someone cannot use your full name or its correct spelling is extremely common amongst South Asians. These depictions are an opportunity to explore the game’s themes without overly relying on cooking, and the game uses them well. These scenes can also be triggering and unearth memories of the past, as they depict common experiences South Asians tend to face from an early age trying to navigate their community. Venba was a teacher in India who could easily joke and excite her class to learn, but in Canada, she finds trouble relating to her students and struggles to be accepted for a position as a teacher. And Paavalan faces similar difficulties despite having a Bachelor of Science in Physics. It is very true to life with the conversations I have had with Indians in my local community, and it’s true of most South Asian communities that well-educated and accomplished people find themselves with little to no prospects in foreign societal structures.
I cannot help but relate to many of the emotionally resonant scenes and situations these characters face, even though they are not my own exact experiences as a South Asian immigrant. This is a great indication that the developers have achieved their goals.
Outside of the cooking mechanics, you'll pick dialogue options in conversations with other characters. There is replayability in making different dialogue choices or going back to create past dishes without making mistakes. Still, since the game has an extremely specific narrative throughline, these slight dialogue choices feel negligible. I would have been more content to follow along to read all of the game’s dialogue with all of the lines presented rather than having to go back to experience a few lines I missed because of the dialogue option I chose, especially since the changes and additions aren’t significant. The cooking segments are about having agency as Venba, but I felt choosing dialogue options was an unnecessary addition.
These themes all unfold with nuance and meticulously show that this family, their lives, and their experiences are not seen as important as the others in their community--that they will always be outsiders. But even with all of these disasters the family faces, there is one constant: food. With food, you dive directly in as a player making different South Asian cuisines while Indian music with lyrics plays—a process that delights in letting Venba and the family be unapologetically South Asian and find strength in it.
Its original soundtrack is inspired by the Tamil music the developers heard growing up, and I could not help but nod along through the cooking segments. It is refreshing and rejuvenating to hear this kind of music in a game. Personally, I do not listen to Indian or Tamil music at all, but this soundtrack is so intricately crafted with beautiful vocals that it will be added to my playlist due to the positive experiences this game has left me with. In these moments of cooking, Venba and her family can distance themselves from their daily onslaught of problems to reach a peaceful state of mind by emboldening themselves with their culture, and that is elevated by the game’s original soundtrack. It all comes together to reassure you directly and gives you a glimmer of hope that these characters will be fine. Eventually. Hopefully.
On larger recipes such as the biriyani that includes layering, it will take much longer to complete, but because it is a cooking segment that takes longer than previous ones, I found that the music in sections such as that loops too abruptly and made me flinch in disdain. The abnormal music looping feels irregular and did take me out of the game’s focus a few times.
The game’s storybook art style compliments the game’s cooking segments nicely in a similar way, especially as it reflects the journey of these characters. It very much looks and feels like a cartoon you would watch or a popup book you would open from India. Throughout the game, you can visually tell that Kavin is drifting away from his culture and his family more, so his dialogue boxes reflect that gradual shift by being tarnished. This starts out as an inkling, but when you initially catch it, it really is a subtle way to show this shift. It feels like a natural way to foreshadow the theme.
Having South Asian developers, all with different experiences, means Venba is a narrative cooking adventure about an immigrant mother’s life that feels authentic. It is told through her culture’s cuisine in a way that will make players empathize and sympathize. But it isn’t downbeat or drab, it’s vivid, colorful, and inspiring.
Its ending, however, had me sit there and grapple with my thoughts after its two-hour playtime, thinking about how it is never too late in life to discover or rediscover your racial/cultural identity as a South Asian individual. Sometimes a recipe for idli can be the first step in finding the resolve to be yourself and discovering pride in your roots.