CBC Radio Specials7:27Indie game Venba serves up Tamil cuisine and family’s heartfelt story of life in Canada
If you imagine what a video game about cooking would be like, you might think of cooking competitions popular with reality television: a fast-paced, nail-biting series of challenges with a ruthless panel of judges.
But for Toronto-based developer Abhi, his new game Venba was a way to tell a story about love, loss and heartbreak while exploring his Tamil immigrant culture and history — while not strictly adhering to an autobiographical playbook.
Venba is named after the titular character, a woman who moves from India to Canada in the 1980s. Each chapter focuses on one or more dishes based on her mother’s cookbook — a handwritten tome lovingly written and illustrated with instructions, but whose pages have been smudged and torn over time.
While she and her husband, Paavalan, are familiar with the dishes, Venba is initially trying to introduce beloved foods to their “rapidly assimilating” son Kavin, who is more familiar with Western culture than their Tamil roots.
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“When she starts a family here, she has a much harder time assimilating to the Canadian culture than her son,” Abhi, head of Visai Studios, told the CBC Radio special Connect to Play.
“So for her, it becomes even more important to pass on these recipes. And she sort of uses food as the last remaining bridge to connect her and her son.”
Lovingly rendered Tamil cuisine
The game includes a series of cooking challenges, each based on a certain dish or dishes, and each has a different approach based on the story.
In an early level, for example, Kavin insists on ordering pizza for dinner. Venba instead suggests making puttu, a dish made of ground rice and coconut shavings, then steamed in a cylindrical cooker. She tells her son it looks like a rocketship when prepared properly, piquing Kavin’s interest.
Ingredients are laid on the screen with a hot plate and cooking instruments at the centre of the screen. Players will consult the cookbook, as Venba contemplates her own memories to help piece together any missing instructions.
You’ll perform some basic functions like choosing what order to add ingredients to a roiling pot, or carefully spreading dosa batter around a sizzling griddle. It’s fairly straightforward, but each solution may take some surprising logical deductions to piece together.
Visai Studio’s art direction shows us mouthwatering ingredients and their dishes’ final forms. Authenticity was important to the designers, said Abhi, and they put a lot of R&D into the efforts. Team members had to cook every dish multiple times before they were rendered in the game.
And the sound team recorded spices crackling in a hot pan and other sounds of the kitchen because, Abhi says, next to no cooking sound effects suitable for Tamil food could be found in existing sound effects libraries.
Visai Studios’ attention to detail is just as impressive in the narrative scenes between each level. Text is shown in different colours depending on whether characters are speaking in English or Tamil — highlighting Venba’s consternation with her son’s preference for the former.
Their overall direction puts a powerful spotlight on emotionally fraught moments. It’s deft at saying and showing only what it intends to — particularly one slow zoom-in on Venba herself while going out on a walk with Kavin at night.
An immigrant story from parents’ point of view
While great work has been done to infuse the story and dishes with Tamil culture, a great deal of it will be instantly recognizable to any immigrants or children of immigrants.
Both Venba and Paavalan have difficulties finding work. Despite their education, lines like “no relevant Canadian experience” pepper their rejection letters.
Kavin speaks English more often than Tamil at home, and insists everyone call him Kevin, like his classmates do.
Beyond that, Venba strikes upon near-universal notes as parents and their children grow apart. As he reaches university age, Kavin would rather spend more time with his friends than his parents, no matter how delicious his mom’s biryani may look or taste at the dinner table.
Abhi said he wanted cooking to be Venba’s primary mechanic because it’s often the strongest bridge between an immigrant parent and their second-generation children.
“The children might not speak their mother tongue. They may not watch the same movies or shows that their parents did, or even listen to the same music. But one thing that children cannot get past, I’ve noticed, is the food itself,” said Abhi.
“Until they leave home, it’s a huge part of their daily staple.”
For most of the game’s narrative, the story is centred squarely on Venba, as she juggles raising Kavin, both her and Paavalan’s job prospects, and the lingering sense of regret over leaving India in the first place.
It was a deliberate choice, Abhi said, to focus on the parent’s immigrant stories, compared to similar stories that usually centre on the second-generation children.
“When you look at the parents, especially the ones who have come here much earlier, like in the 1980s and ’90s, they have uprooted their lives when they were, you know, 30 or 40. And they’ve moved to a completely strange new country. It’s a huge risk, and there’s a lot of loneliness that comes with that,” he said.
Venba should only take a couple hours to complete, depending on whether you get stuck on some of the dishes you’re asked to make. If anything, its greatest weakness is that it leaves you wanting more, just like a perfectly prepared family meal.
Venba is out today (Monday, July 31) for Nintendo Switch, PC, PlayStation and Xbox.