A Little Short but Sweet
Memory is our only real defense against loss. Moment to moment, we scramble to capture whatever imperfect little snapshots we can of the people, places, and things that threaten to pass us by. Venba is a game which explores cooking and eating as rituals used to form and access our memories.
As the domestic culinary world is traditionally a matriarchy, it makes sense that the game would center mainly around the life of a woman. This woman is the titular protagonist, Venba. Across seven chartered vignettes, the game follows her from the 1980s to the present day. During this time, Venba grows into many different identities: she is a daughter, a teacher, a wife, and a mother. She remains most closely connected to her identity as a Tamil. Despite moving to Canada for greater career opportunities, Venba is fiercely determined to maintain her link to her culture through her appreciation of South Indian art, music, fashion, and most crucially: food.
Cooking with Mama
It’s Venba’s engagement with her culture’s cuisine that forms the backbone of the gameplay. Through dragging, dropping, clicking, scrolling, and encountering very light logic puzzle elements, the player guides Venba in the kitchen. She uses her mother’s damaged recipe book and her gappy recollection of childhood memories to recreate the dishes she most cherishes for her family.
The cooking segments in Venba are a sensorial treat. The meals that Venba prepares evoke a reaction in me similar to food in anime. While not wholly realistic or representative, the stylized art somehow manages to perfectly capture appetizing details like the gloss of oil and the texture of char around meat and veggies. Added to this, the foley work is excellent. Rather than relying on a generic library of sound effects, the team at Visai created their own, and this specificity is a really valuable addition. This game sincerely had me googling “Tamil restaurants near me” hoping to experience some of the deliciousness I was seeing on-screen.
All this said, the bareness of the actual gameplay does let Venba down somewhat. Even when you fail, you’re met with gentle and appropriately maternal correction before being set on the right path once again. There’s no real way to fail so the stakes of these basic mini games are incredibly low. However, it might be worth noting that for this review, I played on PC with a keyboard and mouse. I imagine the tactility of say, the Switch’s touchscreen would have really enhanced my experience with these simple mechanics.
Cutting the Apron Strings
Venba is a very short game — one that can be played through in around an hour — but it fills this time with a concise and thoughtful narrative. It offers a sentimental story about navigating the conflict of growing up and away from where you started in life. It follows the anxiety of Venba and her husband as first generation immigrants struggling to integrate and the parallel experience of her second generation son fighting to reconnect to his heritage. From grief to displacement, there is a lot of pain in Venba. However, it’s pain that is counteracted with humor and charm in a way that keeps the tone hopeful overall.
Outside of cooking segments, the game consists of cutscenes and visual novel elements. The experience of Venba is akin to an interactive animated short film, as there are some branching dialogue options but these are largely superficial choices. Though in Venba’s defense, the tight linearity of its narrative is likely an intentional move to maintain the clarity of its themes and messaging. There’s a really intriguing meta-dialogue in the latter half of the game surrounding your creative obligation to represent yourself and your background authentically in a market that is so keen to distill you into an easily digestible commodity. It’s interesting to imagine how much this came into play for Visai as they developed this game for an international audience.
The details in Venba are where it truly shines. Tamil artist Alpha Something contributes an original soundtrack of ‘Kollywood’-inspired numbers that play over the in-game kitchen radio. It’s sweet to imagine Venba joyously singing and shimmying along to these tracks as she cooks. While I’ve mentioned the foley work in cooking segments, the sound design beyond that is superb too. For example, with each step Venba takes and every dialogue choice you make, you can hear the little metallic jingle of her bangles. It’s a whimsical touch which has added significance given the importance of ornamentation in traditional Indian women’s fashion.
Venba’s art direction is another high point. There is a rough, waxy crayon-like texture to the edges of objects and figures. Whereas, between the lines, shapes tend to have one flat fill of block color from the game’s lush, vibrant color scheme. The proportions of characters’ bodies are slightly exaggerated and cartoonish in a way that contributes to their visual characterization. You can really see the shape language at play.
The game’s menu seems to be laid out in the format of a spice box or anjarai petti, and as you click a container labelled ‘options’ or ‘new game’ an off-screen hand picks them up with knowledge and intention of a skilled home cook. Additionally, this menu contains a chapter selection feature which is a nice little quality of life addition for those wishing to trial alternative dialogue options or collect all of the game’s achievements. Each of these chapters starts with a venba (a haiku like poem) from Tamil philosopher Valluvar which thematically aligns with the chapter’s content.
Despite the wealth of these and other references to Tamil culture that no doubt went over my head, the universality of Venba’s story means that any player can engage with it on a multitude of levels. Whether you’re a South Indian person rejoicing at the lovingly wrought representation of your culture; an immigrant intimately familiar with the complicated balance between embracing your new home while maintaining your relationship with your old home; or just someone who recognizes the love and nostalgia found within the family recipe book, Venba shows that the way to the heart really is through the stomach.
Disclaimer: Popagenda provided the game used for this review.
This review is the critique and thoughts of one writer. If you want to see how other critics felt then check it out on OpenCritic.
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