Venba’s Thoughtful Food Gives Food For Thought
There aren’t a lot of games like Venba, the first title from developer Visai Games. The game, set across several decades from the 80s until the present, tells the tale of an immigrant Indian family living in Canada. From the perspective of the titular character Venba (the mother in a three-person family unit), you experience the hardships of their life, the difficulties of raising a child between two distinct cultures, and the difficulties and heartbreaks that come with aging. But Venba is really a game about the happier moments, the little moments of family life that make everything else worth living through – and, more specifically, about the pleasure that comes from making a really nice meal.
Across Venba‘s short run-time (a single playthrough took me about 90 minutes) there are several interactive cooking segments, which treat traditional Tamil recipes as mini puzzles. Venba has her mother’s cookbook, and occasionally needs to interpret diagrams or sections where the words have faded to make various meals, from simple snacks to proper delicacies. The recipes are authentic, and although the game may not teach you exactly how to make them at home they might give you some ideas for recipes to explore further.
The mechanical logistics of making the food isn’t generally complicated, but the game’s stunning art style and deep sound design totally sells the deliciousness of the food – a rare feat in games. The way spices sizzle in oil, or steam whistles from a cooker, is viscerally inviting – when I think back on playing this game, I feel as though I can imagine the smell of it. Venba evokes a real sense of time and place; working your way through a recipe while listening to Tamil music on the radio, stopping and starting again when something goes wrong with your cooking. There’s a wonderful sense of verisimilitude to Venba; the game feels real and lived-in, and that extends from the cooking gameplay to the characters themselves.
When you’re not puzzling through recipes, Venba plays like a visual novel with some very minor, largely inconsequential dialogue choices. There are only three characters in the game – Venba, her husband Paavalan, and their son Kavin – and together they share a small but powerful dramatic arc. Venba and Paavalan remember their homeland fondly, but know that there are more opportunities for Kavin in Canada. Their son, while curious about their customs, is also keen to fit in and assimilate, and doesn’t want to stand out as being “foreign” among his friends.
These themes here are universal, even if the circumstances they’re being explored under are very specific – fitting in and growing up are complicated, and whether you see yourself reflected in these characters or not, the reality of their lives sings through the screen..The gameplay is thin and nothing particularly earth-shattering happens,, but Venba is compelling and involving anyway, with the layer of interactivity deepening your attachment to the characters and their lives. A strong script and deep characterisation can go a long way.
Venba may be a small game, but it’s a sharp and well-observed one. It’s not likely to challenge your abilities, but it may tug at your heart – there’s something very moving and honest about the experience, and I found myself revisiting the game a week after finishing it to revisit the characters and their lives. Like a good recipe, the different ingredients in Venba work together in tandem to make something greater, richer, and more delicious than the sum of their parts – even if it’s more of a snack than a full meal.
Venba is available on PC, Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 5, and Xbox consoles. A Nintendo Switch code was provided for review.
James O’Connor has been reviewing and writing about games