Cultural identity is a tricky notion to nail down and truly make sense of. It seems like ‘Who are you?’ is a hydra-like question that springs up ten more questions for each one it answers. What does it mean to be Indian? What does it mean to be a man? What does it mean to be? (let’s not go there).
advent outbreak of the Internet especially, what once was easier to define has and continues to become exponentially more complex and challenging. The Americanization of the Internet and of pop culture has, in a certain sense, homogenized culture and made it easier for people all over the world to connect, but is it worth it if the cost is the loss of thousands of years of rich culture?
My own experience of living in India amid the Internet revolution has led to a fraught identity. The majority of the media I consume, and the art I appreciate (books, film, video games) originate in the West. Heck, I’m writing in English right now. The diversity of language and culture in India, while amazing, has also in some way disconnected me from the majority of the country (my knowledge of Hindi is limited and the rest, even more so). Plus, on a personal level, my individualistic nature has continually pushed me away from Indian family-oriented values. How Indian am I, then, really?
How about we sidestep that particular identity rabbit hole for now and get to the game, shall we? Venba is a painfully short narrative light-puzzle cooking game developed and published by Visai Games, and tackles a lot of these increasingly important questions of identity, culture, as well as parenthood in a misleadingly simple but profoundly elegant manner. Through food – the one aspect of Indianness I can confidently say I fulfill. Let’s talk about it.
Venba is a narrative game through and through – the cooking/puzzle aspects only serve to tell the story and aren’t the main focus of the game – so let’s delve into that first. Venba tells a heartfelt, authentic tale of an Indian family that has recently immigrated to Canada in the ‘80s, and the cultural challenges that they’re confronted with, especially when it comes to raising a child in a strange new world.
Despite its short length – 90 minutes to 2 hours -, Venba provides a comprehensive look at the immigrant experience through its 7 chapters, each set years apart. Each chapter begins with a calendar, a Tamil quote about the thematic focus of that chapter – individuality, parenthood, etc, and photos framed on the wall, thereby illustrating the time period, the family’s situation, and setting the tone for the chapter in a simple but effective manner. The chapters provide brief snapshots of the challenges the family is facing at that particular time, as well as a cooking section.
The father, Paavalan, struggles to secure reliable employment due to the language barrier, and the mother, Venba, has significant trouble connecting to her students as a school teacher due to their cultural difference and wildly distinct upbringings. Despite occasionally contemplating going back home, they stick through it for the better education and opportunity their child would have. Dealing with the risk of sacrificing specific traditional values in favor of a potentially better life is highlighted in Venba – the dream of a better life, a fresh start, can sometimes feel like just that, a dream.
The most affecting aspect to me, however, was their insecurities about parenting. their process of finding a balance between suffocating protectiveness and being hands-off, allowing their kid to be independent and make his own decisions, even when they may be incorrect, was a powerful aspect that Venba covers beautifully. The difference between making your own ‘incorrect’ choices versus having the ‘correct’ ones made for you, is something I wish traditional Indian homes would try to understand, for the sake f their children.
The principal arc of the story, however, has to do with the son, Kavin’s identity crisis and his battle between accepting his own culture and fitting in with his friends. Kavin’s own cultural journey is an effective one – from being embarrassed by it, to ignoring it, to finally growing to accept and appreciate it. As someone who lived abroad for a little while, the line “I don’t want to smell like Little India anymore, I just want to be normal” stands out. Paavalan’s response to this – “You don’t have to change who you are for us, but just be sure you’re not changing who are for anyone else either” is one that hits hard. I’ll let you discover this for yourself as it’s a powerful story that I’d rather not spoil even through hints.
Another dimension to the story that I didn’t expect, and which I found profoundly fascinating, is the representation of the Indian housewife in the household. Sure, Venba does have a job and isn’t merely a housewife, but she carries that responsibility heavily on her shoulders. The prologue illustrates this well, and through nuanced dialogue – when she feels guilty about being sick and unable to perform her duty of cooking for her husband. “You’re making me choose between resting and letting you starve. That’s not a fair choice to me.”, she says, illustrating how stupid it is that she has to be relied on so heavily because he can’t cook.
The fantastic and defining thing about Venba is that it’s not all gloom and doom – not even a little bit. Venba tackles all these heavy topics not only with grace and nuance but in a highly heartfelt, delightful way. What may come across as heavy subject matter on paper is a beautiful story about perseverance, parenthood, and self-acceptance.
While the narrative sections of the game illustrate the challenges of an immigrant family, the cooking sections work as a brilliant story-telling tool in showing the richness of Indian culture, the importance of one’s heritage, and what’s at stake. Whether it be finessing Kavin away from pizza with the promise of a rocket-launch preparation of ‘Puttu’, or preparing a vast dinner platter for his homecoming from college, each dish holds meaning and purpose behind it and is thus made beautiful.
Aspects like the English-ification of local dishes – Kavin’s realization of the origin of Mulligatawny soup for example – are lightly but elegantly touched upon, as are things like the difference between cultural appropriation and appreciation, and certain people’s tendency to glorify a cultural experience by representing it in a shallow way. The line ‘our lives are more messy than that’ comes to mind.
The only thing that slightly took me out of the narrative was the change in perspective at a certain point, but the multiple character perspectives do create a holistic representation and in the end, worked well for the game.
The battle between tradition and modernity, between staying true to oneself and changing to fit in – this balance is at the core of what makes Venba a genuinely exceptional and affecting tale.
Indian Cooking for Noobs
Most of the storytelling is done in the narrative sections – you click through scenes while occasionally making ultimately insignificant dialogue choices. While I wasn’t expecting a slew of impactful dialogue choices that could alter the story – as that could hamper the point of the story itself – a little more depth and variation in dialogue would’ve been very welcome.
As it stands, each dialogue you choose has maybe a couple of lines of variable dialogue and has absolutely no effect on the story itself. There are also a couple of segments where you can scroll through text messages, which illustrate relationship dynamics beautifully (and uncomfortably relatable).
The cooking sections, for the most part, involve light puzzle mechanics – part of the recipe is missing, and you’re left to figure it out either just from context or through the character’s memory of it. Some of them just involve following instructions. The puzzles are all fairly simple and take no more than 30 seconds at most to figure out, but they’re just enough to make the process engaging.
The device of Venba’s mother’s recipe book itself is an interesting one – if the old tattered book represents the rich tradition that’s at risk of being lost, Venba’s filling in the missing gaps then, is her effort in keeping it alive for her son and the next generation. Each dish also has dialogue that provides context for non-Indians – either about the ingredients, what the dish tastes like, or its significance to the character.
All of this is great but I would have just liked much more of it. More dishes, and more information/anecdotes about them in the Indian context. In dialogue too, words like ‘Ayyo’, ‘appa’, and ‘kannan’ are used, which help with authentic representation. While of course their meaning can be deduced through context, a glossary would’ve been excellent for them as well.
There’s also an entire chapter in which you cook a bunch of dishes really quickly but without any context or even names of the dishes provided (only in Tamil). Sure, narratively this makes sense, as at this point Venba isn’t using her mother’s recipe book anymore, but this causes a dissonance between the character and the player as the player may have no idea what they’re even cooking. For the most part, though, this isn’t a problem.
Still, I can’t help but wish there was a glossary included providing the list of dishes, ingredients, their significance, and local context for those interested, as that would add a whole lot to the game and make it much more accessible as well. On the other side of it, support for Tamil and other Indian languages would be splendid as well and would add that much more to the authenticity for Indian players.
Venba’s narrative is authentic and powerful, and its gameplay – while not complex by any stretch – serves the story well. Venba’s inarguable selling point though, is categorically its style and presentation. You’ve seen the trailer, you don’t need me to tell you how beautiful the art style is, and how great its soundtrack is! Venba practically drips desi style – like sambar from a spoonful of idli – from start to finish.
Right from the start menu, the music and animation are top-notch. The music spans from melancholic piano to playful tabla tunes to head-boppers from composer Alpha Something and notably from director Pa. Ranjith’s ensemble band Casteless Collective.
Most of these tracks are played diegetically through the old-timey radio that Venba turns up before every cooking section – providing a great tune to get you into it and accompany the cooking. I only wish the lyrics for these songs were featured as well, as I’d love to know what the songs are about. Nevertheless, they certainly create a great atmosphere to cook in!
The art style is fantastic and it all works thematically – cohesively with the story. The mouse pointer is a hand with bangles for example. The dialogue is written in chalk accompanied by chalk-on-blackboard sounds mimicking Venba’s schoolteacher occupation.
The framed photographs on the wall and the calendar – from Muthu’s travel agency – scream authenticity. The backgrounds are rich with recognizable details. From the tiny table fan, the comb in front of the vertical mirror to Venba’s detailed attire – complete with bangles, saree, the red bindi and earrings – the details serve to set a strong sense of place and time, one very recognizable to Indians.
Venba is a gorgeous-looking, sonically-rich game with minimal gameplay but a heartfelt and nuanced story about cultural identity, parenthood, and self-acceptance that more than makes up for it. A couple of omitted accessibility features and the short length aside, Venba is a beautiful representation of the immigrant experience, messiness and all, thus cleverly avoiding glorification in favor of authenticity.
Final Rating: 85/100
A landmark in Indian video games. A must-play for Indians and highly recommended to anyone else!