How a Toronto developer made the viral Indian cooking game Venba

Creative director Abhi drew from his own life and many other sources to create a personal immigrant story filled with authentic Indian dishes

In March 2021, MobileSyrup kicked off a monthly Canadian game developer interview series with Toronto-based Visai Games, the team behind a narrative cooking sim called Venba. At the time, the game had relatively little exposure and was only set to come to PC.

Fast forward two-odd years and the game has become far more renowned, netting coverage between indie roundups and editorials on major websites, garnering an impressive amount of attention on social media, and expanding its release to all major platforms. Indeed, there’s something to be said about the virality of the game’s mix of delicious-looking cuisine and relatable immigrant narrative.

“I used to wonder how much of this players would actually get or understand. I started Venba three years ago and back then, the Tamil gaming community was not actually that big. Even now, the Nintendo Switch isn’t available in India officially,” says Abhi, Venba‘s creative director, during a media event. “But now, [after] one month when we put out the demo for Venba, the level of the reaction to that and how much they have shown love and support for this game has been completely unexpected.”

During the preview, Abhi unpacked how he and his small Canadian team have spent the past years building Venba into one of this year’s most unique and promising indie titles.

Telling a story through cooking

Right off the bat, Venba grabs your attention through its novel premise. Drawing inspiration from his own life experiences, the game follows an Indian family over two decades as they move to Canada in the ’80s and settle in. However, Abhi notes that many immigrant stories are told from the perspectives of the children, so he decided to focus Venba around the eponymous matriarch. In this way, he wants to convey more empathy for the parents by exploring the language and culture they try to retain in a new country, especially among their rapidly assimilating children.

Venba familyAs an example of this, he shows a section of the game where Venba wants to make her son, Kavin, a special meal for doing well at school. Thinking of showing him some food from back home, she’s about to prepare puttu, a cylindrical rice dish made with coconut shavings. Kavin, however, demands pizza, so Venba has to sell him on puttu by likening the process to launching a rocket. It’s one of many examples of the kinds of culture clash that Abhi hopes to depict in Venba.

But he also intends to illustrate such conflicts through the gameplay as well. In an effort to deviate from what Abhi says are the more “mechanical” cooking mechanics of games like Cooking Mama and Overcooked!Venba aims to have you reflect on the recipes themselves. This stems from Venba’s mother’s cooking book, which became damaged during the trip to Canada. Consequently, parts of the recipes are missing, giving the game a puzzle element as players figure out how to successfully cook dishes.

“I thought this fit the themes of the game really well,” says Abhi. “A recurring theme in Venba is what culture means to Venba and what culture means to Kavin and what it means to preserve these things, and I feel like the recipe book at the centre of the game is a giant metaphor for all of these things.” Players will receive cues throughout to help them guide them and there is no failure state, so you can simply experiment at your leisure.

Venba cookingAbhi says each level will have a sort of gimmick, with this particular one having visual flourishes inspired by the aforementioned rocketship. A later level, meanwhile, features Kavin attempting to cook himself and, therefore, the recipe is entirely indecipherable to emulate his struggles with Tamil. On the other hand, Kavin later trying to be the translator between Venba and his teacher will result in the colour and speed of text bubbles constantly alternating depending on the language to represent his struggles. “[For] every level, we tried to keep it different with a twist, but more importantly, the mechanics that surface deal with whatever’s going on in the story at the time.”

He adds that the recipes themselves may change to reflect these changes. As an example, he notes that the first level in the ’80s has basic ingredients not only to ease players in but because varieties of Tamil food were more difficult and expensive during this time. By contrast, a later level set in 2006 features more kinds of ingredients, like biryani, because they became much more prevalent in Canada at this time. “It parallels the explosion of the immigrant communities here and how much they contributed,” he says.

“There are a lot of little references in terms of the characters, and there’s even a line about free health care in the India level. And Kavin is very happy living in Canada, and being Canadian is part of his identity, which is something Venba struggles with,” he adds. “The other thing is the in-game radio [featuring Tamil stations.] That option only works if the game is set in Toronto, because Scarborough has the largest Tamil diaspora population, and they worked really hard to create these services for these immigrant communities way back in the 1980s. So the whole radio feature was actually inspired [by that]. If it wasn’t Canada, if it wasn’t Toronto, [instead] somewhere maybe in the U.S., I don’t know if that would have been possible.”

Ensuring authenticity in all areas

As the game got more attention, Abhi admits that this added “a lot of pressure to show [recipes] with a lot of authenticity and to do it properly.” He notes that there can often be many variations on recipes, so the team had to think carefully about the best approaches to take when creating the in-game instructions.

Venba biryaniTo help achieve that, he says the team made it a rule that they’d all have to cook each dish multiple times in real life. “This actually ended up being super useful for the team — it was a huge source of reference and inspiration for the art and the sound,” he explains before showing a variety of side-by-side images comparing how closely the game’s dishes resembled their real-life counterparts.

“One time when a coworker asked me for a list of ingredients because they wanted to make biryani, without even thinking because I had the game open at the time, I was able to just read out the ingredients by looking at the game. And I was only struck later by how cool it is that we’re able to do that because we committed to that level of accuracy.”

Of course, this all aids in visually representing the food, but the actual sounds that spring up from cooking are important as well. Abhi says sound designer Neha Patel was instrumental in this, bringing with her experience and tools from Gujarat that the rest of the team didn’t have. This was essential because, as Abhi explains, there aren’t a lot of sound libraries containing the specific sorts of sizzles and crackles you’d hear while preparing Tamil cuisine.

Finally, he says it was important to add authentic music through the in-game radio while cooking. Venba‘s composer, Alpha Something, ensured that each song sounds like it’s from a specific era of Tamil cinema.

“It’s designed to sound like a specific composer’s song and play like an homage to a specific music director who we were all fans of growing up,” he says. “And depending on the level in the time period, the era will change and the music that will change and the song style and things will change also.” The team even had to go through the trouble of finding performers for each of the unique Tamil instruments, and live recording was made more difficult during the pandemic.

Ultimately, though, he said these homages paid off in a big way. “Towards the end of Venba‘s development, this led to a very, very cool moment because we had one song left, and we reached out to a music director that we were huge fans of and asked if he could sing in the song that we composed that was meant to be an homage to him,” Abhi teases. “And it was a pretty big long shot. But he actually said yes. There are a lot of special things like that throughout Venba‘s development, but that’s one of the coolest things for me.”

Venba will release on PlayStation 4/5, Nintendo Switch, Xbox One and Xbox Series X/S (plus Game Pass on day one) and PC on July 31st.

Image credit: Visai Games