Xbox One, PC, Nintendo Switch, PS5, Xbox Series X
July 31, 2023
The sizzle. The steam. The aromas. The anticipation. A home-cooked meal that is made with love by someone you care about can make you feel safe, cared for and blissful. Venba is a short, narrative-focussed, casual cooking game where the protagonist cooks to show love for her family, and their Tamil culture. The main storyline focuses on Venba, the game’s namesake, who with her husband, moved from India to Canada in the 1980s. Though they have left all their family behind, Venba has brought her mother’s recipe book that contains the regional Southern Indian cooking that symbolises her Tamil heritage. However, due to its age, most of the recipes are unreadable, meaning that Venba must rely on her memory to piece together exactly how to make each dish.
The first recipe is cooked by Venba for her husband, just before she realises that she is pregnant. This is the only meal that she will make that isn’t for her son and really highlights how the game’s main focus is on keeping traditions, such as certain meals, alive within a family. Every meal from then is made with her son, Kavin, in mind. However, Kavin isn’t as proud of his culture as his parents are and sees Southern Indian cuisine as a barrier between himself and his Canadian friends. There is a constant aversion from Kavin that extinguishes some of the pride that his parents have for their identity.
The story is engrossing and heart-wrenching at moments. Watching as the son slips further and further away from his culture, even though there is a constant presence of it within the household, proved to be a moving storyline. As I cooked meals for Kavin, I hoped that this would finally be the meal that would make him see how important and rich his culture is and how it is up to him, as the next generation, to make sure these traditions aren’t lost.
Venba’s narrative runs alongside its gameplay, which works as a combination of cooking sim and puzzle game. When the game kicks into cooking gear, it turns from a third-person narrative perspective to the first person, with all the ingredients and equipment in front of you, ready to piece together. Usually, you will have Venba’s mother’s cookbook that provides clues in ways of cooking instructions, but also diagrams as a number of the meals need to be made using special cooking equipment. The food has largely been prepped for you, leaving you to piece together the final steps of the process.
One of the ways the game makes the cooking experience wonderfully immersive is through its atmospheric sound design. Whether you are frying, slicing, or pouring, the inclusion of these soundbites makes the sim part of the game more enhanced. I wasn’t surprised to read that the game’s sound designer, Neha Patel, actually cooked the dishes and recorded the sounds that make up the soundtrack for each meal. Not only that, but the soundtrack is all original songs inspired by Tamil movies, that include Tamil lyrics, which obviously adds to the atmosphere of celebrating Venba and her family’s culture. It’s all lovingly and beautifully implemented.
Venba’s gameplay is also very easy to master. The game is generous with its instructions and offers hints if you find yourself stuck. Playing on the Switch, it was mainly point-and-click actions to pick items up and combine or fry them with other foods. One small problem I did encounter was whenever I had to stir anything with the Switch’s joystick, the actions lagged quite a bit. I had to press down pretty hard for the wooden spoon to continue to stir, with moments where I couldn’t stir at all and thought it was a gameplay decision.
The art style of Venba is bright, with art designer Sam Elkana being influenced by the stylings of Samurai Jack and Dexter’s Laboratory, whilst also making sure each ingredient looked authentic. Every recipe is true to the Southern Indian recipe it is based on, with the devs handpicking each. That means that the puzzle you are completing actually rewards you with an authentic Tamil dish. Visually, the combination of placing sliced onions into a pan and watching and seeing them sizzle and change appearance due to the cooking process shows how well all the elements of Venba work together to create a realistic cooking experience.
Other than the cooking sim mechanics, you are sometimes tasked with picking from two dialogue options for the characters. I found that both were very similar and picking something different didn’t seem to have an influence on the game’s narrative. It does, however, have an impact on the way that you see the character and their motivations.
At the heart of it, Venba is a story about the power food can have, especially for immigrants, to remind us of our culture. Outside of these meals, Venba and her husband struggle to find their place within Canadian culture and struggle even harder to find purpose. There is an undeniable sense of racism that simmers under the surface of the game, especially when you see the multiple rejection letters that Venba receives from Canadian schools. However, throughout all their hardship, there is something that cannot be taken away from them – their culture and the amazing food that is one of the last connections with their Tamil identity.
- A thoughtful narrative that pulls on the heartstrings
- Fun and easy gameplay mechanics
- Gorgeous, colourful art style
- Original music inspired by Tamil film, adding an extra layer of authenticity
- Immersive sound design enhances the cooking experience
- Some of the controls can be a bit laggy on Switch
- Dialogue choices don't seem to matter too much
Venba is a love letter to many things, not just food. It beautifully depicts the story of two immigrants and their struggle to keep their culture alive in a Western society that does not seem to understand or appreciate it. Venba brings together incredible art, sound, narrative, and gameplay that is magnificently entrenched in Tamil customs, leaving the player with not only a deeper understanding but also a deeper respect for this underrepresented culture.