Editor's Note: Just wanted to offer a quick apology for not posting anything here for a month. Family stuff came up and that took priority. Now for the regularly scheduled posting.
This differs from what I usually talk about here on the site. Primarily because it’s more of a story-focused game and I usually don't go with that a lot of the time. But this is different. This is Venba, It’s a self-described Narrative Cooking Game developed and published by Visai Games and it’s been a game that I’ve actually had my eye on for a while now. I was given even more incentive to give it a fair look after a friend of mine finished it and told me that it would resonate with me and he was right. I was expecting a cute little cooking game, but what I got was maybe my favourite story in a game this year. And a cute cooking game on top of that.
The story of Venba is that of the titular Venba and her family. Taking place over the course of seven chapters spanning roughly 30 years, it tells of an immigrant couple living and raising their son in Canada and all of the complications that come with that in specific periods of time. It’s a story that covers themes including identity, family, one’s relationship with their own culture and heritage, and how time and differing cultural norms can change all of that. There are moments in this story that hit me in my goddamn soul and almost felt like I was gonna cry. A lot of this comes down to the fact that it felt very familiar to me and my upbringing. While there are some noticeable differences, a lot of what Venba tackles and pulls off successfully is very reflective of the 1st generation Canadian experience. The recipes being cooked in the game reminded me of the cultural equivalents of the food that my mom would make when my siblings and I were growing up and some of those dishes are things I still love and remember to this day. Hell, I even learned to cook some of them!
And while Venba does highlight how food can be used as a means to bridge gaps in culture, it also doesn’t shy away from the rougher stuff either. It also shows a scene where Venba’s husband ends up getting roughed up on the way home from work simply because he’s not from there, and Kavin, their son gets more and more assimilated as time goes on, partially out of shame for his heritage and wanting to fit in with his peers (at least that was my reading of it). It highlights the unfortunate truth that, even in a place as supposedly welcoming as Canada, you will go through the same troubles as other countries where there’s a small contingent of immigrants of colour in a predominantly white country. It's a story I’m deeply familiar with and I appreciate that Venba highlights this as well (chief among them being Kavin’s code-switching being highlighted through text boxes that are harder to read). It leads to a wonderful ending that I won’t talk about here, but suffice it to say, it's worth it.
Venba’s gameplay is one of the best examples of the year of using gameplay mechanics and the interactivity of the medium of video games to tell an affecting story. The main gist of it is that you are cooking recipes from the cookbook that Venba’s mother gave her before she and her husband Paavalan left for Canada. They start out simple enough, but as time goes on they proceed to get more and more complex the more intricate the dishes become. This ties into both the escalating in mechanics and the story as each recipe is related to events in the story. This ranges from simple things like Idlis, to eventually getting more complex stuff like Layered Biriyani. A lot of these are authentic South Indian recipes to boot, as Visai Games brought in several food consultants to get both the recipes and the ingredients themselves as accurate as possible. Eventually, it gets to the point where you can't rely on the recipe book anymore and need to use Venba’s and later Kavin’s memories of past events to make the recipes properly. It’s a nice piece of gameplay that ties into the story it wants to tell by showcasing things from one’s past and heritage.
I’ve spoken at length about Venba’s writing, but the art and music are also on point as well. A lot of Venba’s art feels very reminiscent of the art that you’d see in a children’s book and I mean that as a compliment. The music is also something that caught my ear. It’s based on a lot of old Tamil movie music, which again ties into the themes of the story, but it was all very nice to listen to because I’ve never heard that sort of thing before. Special points go to the music that plays during the cooking segments. A lot of it is original music from the sound of it and it sets the tone perfectly.
All in all, Venba is a game that I would actively go out of my way to recommend to people. While it only takes an hour to get through, it’s still the standout narrative I’ve seen in video games this year. It tells a powerful story about family that should be experienced by everyone at least once. Fully check it out, you won’t be disappointed.