While there has been no shortage of cooking games over the past decade, few have sought to surround that core mechanic with an emotionally resonant narrative. It’s exactly what Visai Games does with Venba, a narrative journey that follows a pair of Indian immigrants in Canada, and their struggle to forge a new life while still holding onto their heritage and traditions.
To build a better life
The titular Venba has immigrated from India to Canada alongside her husband, Paavalan, in the late 1980s in hopes of building a better life and finding new opportunities for themselves. While the couple struggles with integrating into western society, their problems are exacerbated by the arrival of their son, Kavin.
Venba gives an honest depiction of what it’s like to be an immigrant trying to fit into North American society, from losing job opportunities due to language barriers and struggling to transfer skills across hemispheres, to colleagues and friends butchering their foreign name (or outright deciding to give them a new one), further suppressing their connection to their culture and ancestors. The story even tackles the violence, both physical and verbal, that minorities can experience when immigrating to North America.
During conversations, you’re frequently given the option to choose Venba’s response, creating a branching dialogue effect. That said, the options weren’t too different from each other, and I rarely felt like I was impacting the story by making one choice over another. The game does that thing where you select a dialogue option and the characters says the words, and then continues to say more words that you maybe would have preferred them not to. I found myself quickly clicking through some of the dialogue decisions, not putting much emphasis on which one I chose.
Despite the hardship, Venba is able to hold onto her roots with a book of recipes that her mother, or Amma, used to make. As the narrative jumps through the various eras of the family’s lives, the story breaks are divided by segments in which you cook one of Amma’s meals. Each meal is a staple of south Indian cuisine, from Idlis to Puttu. Every cooking segment is also directly tied into a story beat, giving a nice cohesiveness to everything happening on-screen.
While Venba has a book of recipes to follow, it’s been damaged over time, conveniently obscuring certain parts — or sometimes the entire thing. It’s up to you to deduce what should happen next based on the information you have. As someone who can barely cook generic American foods, let alone foreign meals, I shamelessly asked for tips on multiple occasions. Luckily doing so doesn’t give the entire solution away. The game will help you with the current step, and then leave you to your own devices to figure the rest out. You can experiment with moving items around and trying different combinations, and Venba will politely inform you that you’re doing the wrong thing before resetting the section.
The recipes get more complex as you progress through the story, and I enjoyed being overwhelmed with spices, herbs, and meats to juggle, constantly referencing the recipe book as my bible. While I hadn’t previously heard of any of the foods featured in Venba, I still got the sense that they were faithfully recreated due to the sheer amount of detail. The sound design alone had me smelling phantom scents and getting hungry.
These elements extend outside of the cooking sequences, too. Venba’s warm and colorful art style lent itself well to the quieter scenes and emotional conversations, while the music and sound design subtly amplifies the emotion throughout. The slow notes of the piano and echoey winds only made me more stressed out during the park sequence. There’s also a different song that plays over the cooking portions, each inspired by an Indian musical.
Food for thought
Venba beautifully depicts the struggle of the first-generation immigrant experience — fighting to give your family better opportunities while holding true to your roots. It’s a golden example of how games can give players an authentic peek into underrepresented cultures when the right people are in charge. With the game being beatable in a sleek two hours, it’s impossible not to give Venba an incredibly high recommendation.