Toronto-made Venba is a short but moving immigrant story

Come for the delicious food, stay for the heartfelt story of family and culture

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Early in Venba, the eponymous lead character wants to celebrate her son Kavin’s latest success at school. Her idea: cook him a signature South Indian dish called puttu. As a six-year-old, though, the boy is adamant about having pizza, much to Venba’s chagrin. It’s yet another instance of him resisting her efforts to introduce him to her Tamil culture, which saddens her. Ultimately, she convinces him to give it a shot by likening the preparation of the cylindrical rice dish to a rocket launch, but still, it’s just one small victory in a larger uphill battle.

On the surface, this is a relatively small-scale parent-child argument, but it’s one that I’ve been thinking about a lot. In the new Toronto-set narrative cooking game, local indie developer Visai Games pays tribute to the life of immigrants through such relatable slice-of-life moments over the course of roughly two decades. But unlike a lot of other media, creative director Abhi, drawing inspiration from his own immigrant journey, commendably chose to centre the story around the parent rather than the child and, rarer still, offer the perspective of a mother instead of yet another “sad dad.”

Because often, we get the sort of “intergenerational trauma” stories about how parents pass their baggage onto their children, so I adore the desire to explore something different. Through Venba, Visai exhibits a strong amount of empathy for immigrants, from the initial frightening decision to move to a completely different country for a chance at a better life to the fears they have for how their kids will fare in a completely different environment. In fact, the core conflict of the game is the loss of culture — in this case, how an Indian woman laments her Canada-raised son’s rejection of his heritage and tries to address that.

It’s something I suspect many children of immigrants, myself absolutely included, don’t often think about, if at all. We’re often so focused on ourselves that we forget what our parents went through — everything they sacrificed — to get us here. Over the course of Venba‘s campaign, we see this all exemplified in many ways, like Venba and her husband Paavalan’s efforts to translate their Indian certifications into Canadian careers, the married couple discussing how to best parent Kavin and Venba remembering her mother back home. It’s a nuanced, touching, and deeply relatable tale that speaks to the immigrant experience and also had me reflecting on my own lineage and the ways in which I’ve fallen out of touch with it.

Venba game familyVenba also succeeds in representing these themes through its gameplay. From a cooking game perspective, Venba is admittedly fairly basic at its core. As you prepare each dish, all of the ingredients are laid out for you on the table, and it’s your job to figure out how to use them all. In a clever blend of narrative and mechanics, though, Venba’s recipe book, a keepsake of her mother, was damaged on the trip to Canada, so the instructions have become faded, torn and, in some cases, are downright illegible.

As a result, you have to figure out the correct way to use all of the ingredients, giving the game a fun “trial and error” puzzle element. These sorts of obstacles become even more prevalent depending on where you are in the story, such as in a later scene where Kavin, whose grasp of Tamil is minimal, attempts to cook by himself. At the same time, the stakes are incredibly low; messing up a dish simply lets you restart, there’s an optional hint system and you can even reset ingredients midway if you catch yourself making an error. As someone who hasn’t traditionally played cooking games, I appreciated how much more approachable this made it.

Venba cooking real foodIt’s a doubly effective decision because this further places the focus on the story being told here. Without having to deal with any busy work, you can truly admire the lovely celebration of Tamil cuisine on display here. Throughout development, Abhi challenged his team to extensively research the best ways to prepare each dish and then cook them all themselves in real life. A quick look at side-by-side images shows that work, recreated through Sam Elkana’s vibrant and stylish aesthetic, resembles the real deal.

But audio is a big part of this authenticity as well, and sound designer Neha Patel took it upon herself to recreate the accurate sizzles, crackles, and pops that you’d hear when cooking these kinds of food items. Enhancing all of that is a wonderful and distinct soundtrack by Alpha Something, which mixes subtle and soothing instrumental pieces with catchy and engaging vocal tracks from Tamil artists. Without having to worry about complicated cooking mechanics, I could really savour the delicious food and equally delightful sound effects and music.

Venba‘s only real issue, ultimately, is its length. At two hours, it feels a bit too short, especially since the sprawling story means we don’t spend too long in any one time period. What’s more, the game doesn’t have much replay value after beating it, such as additional cooking challenges.

But really, my disappointment over the brevity of the experience speaks to how much I loved it on the whole. Even in such a short time, I found myself utterly engrossed in the family’s story, so believable and human as it is, and that’s really why I would have loved to spend more time with them. The strong visuals and audio, meanwhile, only make the moment-to-moment cooking even more enjoyably relaxing. At its best, gaming is a tool for empathy, a means through which artists can use the uniquely interactive medium to further pull you into a story and its characters, and Venba does that remarkably well in its portrayal of an Indo-Canadian family. It’s an experience I’ll think about for quite some time, and I hope it inspires other personal and diverse stories — Indian or otherwise — in games to come.

Venba is now available on PlayStation 4/5, Xbox consoles (and Game Pass), Nintendo Switch and PC.

Image credit: Visai Games