FFood is much more than mere sustenance. It is an expression of love; for a culture, and for those who eat. Venba is not so much a cooking game as it is a game on cooking – a narrative puzzle about restoring an old cookbook that came into the hands of the main character. Venba is a Tamil woman who left India for Canada with her husband to start over; they are already thinking of leaving when she receives the news of her pregnancy. The first dish you make in the game, a tasty rice cake called an idli, becomes a way for Venba to break the news to her husband, a clever way to show how food can be a part of any memory.
“Regardless of what happens on a particular day, the kitchen is always busy in South Asian homes,” says the lead designer, who goes by Abhi. “When children grow up and assimilate [into a new culture]they may forget their mother tongue, but they never forget the food that is cooked.”
Venba’s mother’s old cookbook is the key to every 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 up to you to figure it all out. It’s an approach that fits better with the story Visai Games wanted to tell than following a step-by-step recipe, says Abhi. “Venba feels a lot of guilt about moving in the first place, and as her son quickly grows assimilated, she doubles down on her roots.”
The food in Venba will introduce many players to the Tamil culture, so the recipes should be representative, but accessible even to people who are not familiar with them. “At first, we had a hard time making a good puzzle out of these recipes,” says Abhi. “[South Asian] the recipes are usually quite long and complicated and, although it was technically possible to make puzzles with them, it was not very fun for the game. After much research, I discovered that some recipes already had puzzles built in; we just had to discover them and contextualize them properly.” Abhi uses the idlis as an example: in the game, Venba gets some tools, like 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 up to the players. figure out.
For Abhi, the key to a good food puzzle is finding a balance between accurately representing real recipes and making them easy enough to understand and fun enough to play for a wide audience. “Trying these puzzles out with the game is also very challenging, as people who have cooked these recipes before come up with knowledge that makes solving them trivial,” she says. “But if I design it to be hard even for them, it’s going to be much, much harder for players who have never cooked like this!”
As fun as these recipes are to discover, Abhi emphasizes that cooking is work, and the juggling act between raising a child and the immigrant experience is central to Venba’s narrative. “Cooking in media is often fun to watch, and at Venba we’ve also tried to really capture and impart how satisfying cooking can be using art, sound and visual effects. But sometimes cooking is a chore and we also want the players feel that.”
Visai Studios aims for an enriching experience that chronicles the struggles of its characters and teaches players about Tamil culture. It’s a little sweet, a little tart, but full of flavor.