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Venba, a video game about the emotional resonance of food

Food is much more than mere sustenance. It’s an expression of love; for a culture, and for those eating. Venba isn’t so much a cooking game as it is a game about cooking – a narrative puzzle about restoring an old cookbook that made its way into the titular character’s hands. Venba is a Tamil woman who left India for Canada with her husband to start over; they’re already thinking about leaving when she gets the news of her pregnancy. The very first dish you make in the game, a savoury rice cake called idli, becomes a way for Venba to break the news to her husband, a clever way to show how food can be part of any memory.

“Regardless of what’s happening on any particular day, the kitchen is always busy in south Asian homes,” says the lead designer, who goes by the name Abhi. “When kids grow up and assimilate [into a new culture], they may forget their mother tongue, but they never forget the food that’s cooked.”

Venba’s mother’s old cookbook is the key to each recipe you’ll try to recreate. Some instructions are smudged, or don’t make sense to someone unfamiliar with certain utensils or ingredients, so it’s on you to puzzle everything out. It’s an approach that fits the story Visai Games wanted to tell better than following a step-by-step recipe, says Abhi. “Venba feels a lot of guilt for moving away in the first place, and as her son grows up rapidly assimilated, she doubles down on her roots.”

The food in Venba will introduce a lot of players to Tamil culture, and so the recipes have to be representative, but still approachable even to people wholly unfamiliar with them. “We struggled with making a good puzzle out of these recipes quite a bit, initially,” Abhi says. “[South Asian] recipes are usually quite long and complicated and while it was technically possible to make puzzles out of them, it didn’t make for very fun gameplay. After a lot of research, I found that some recipes actually had puzzles built into them already – we just had to discover them and contextualise them properly.” Abhi uses the idlis as an example: in the game, Venba gets a few tools such as cloth and a steamer, as well as a drawing of what everything should look like once assembled correctly, but the correct order of the steps is left for players to figure out.

For Abhi, the key to a good food puzzle is finding a balance between accurately rendering real recipes while making them easy enough to understand and fun to play for a wide audience. “Play-testing these puzzles is also very challenging, as people who’ve cooked these recipes before come in with knowledge that makes solving them trivial,” he says. “But if I design it so it’s hard even for them, it’s going to be much, much harder for players who’ve never cooked like this!”

As much fun as these recipes are to figure out, Abhi stresses that cooking is work, and the juggling act between bringing up a child and the immigrant experience is core to Venba’s narrative. “Cooking in media is usually fun to watch, and in Venba too we’ve tried to really capture and impart how satisfying it can be to cook using art, sound and visual effects. But, sometimes, cooking is a chore and we also want players to feel that.”

Visai Studios aims for an enriching experience that both chronicles its characters’ struggles and teaches players about Tamil culture. It’s a bit sweet, a bit sour, but full of flavour.

  • Venba will be released later this year for PC, Xbox One and PlayStation 4.

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