What meaning does traditional food hold for people intergenerationally? How can migration to a new culture influence the relationships between parents and their children? And how can cooking bond people? These are just some topics covered by Venba, a much-anticipated narrative cooking game by the indie studio Visai Games. It was released for the Nintendo Switch on July 31, 2023. You play as the eponymous main character Venba, a Tamil lady who migrates with her husband from India to Canada in the 1980s. Although the couple are struggling to get by, they decide to stay in their new home so their son Kavin has more opportunities.
Along with being a fun, puzzle- and memory-based cooking game, Venba touches on many struggles commonly faced by new migrants, and by children born and raised in vastly different cultures from their parents. Recommended for fans of character-driven narratives, migrant stories, cooking sims, and Indian food (of course!).
One of the most attractive features of Venba is its uniqueness in focusing on Indian food, particularly Tamil food from the south. I don’t know of any other game that does so. Many cooking simulators involve a wide assortment of traditional cuisines (The Sims 4 does a good job of including so many diverse dishes from around the world), or other Asian food such as Chinese or Japanese. So, if you love Indian food, then Venba is definitely worth checking out for that factor alone.
Rather than just follow a recipe, you’ll use your noggin to decipher the bits of Venba’s mother’s cookbook that got smudged on her journey to Canada. But if you get stuck, the hints will help guide you. The developers carefully selected the foods and crafted the mechanics so that they would appeal to both those familiar with Tamil food and those completely new to it. You can just imagine what those dishes would taste like. To learn more about Indian food varieties, check out Master Chef Answers Indian Food & Curry Questions from Twitter.
Also, for two reasons I thought it was great that Venba centres on the experiences of the titular character. The first reason is that our protagonist is a 30-something mother and, later, a middle-aged mother. The game opens with a sick Venba deciding whether to cook idlis for her husband Paavalan or not, thus touching upon the gendered aspect of household cooking and chores.
And now, the age thing. Maybe it’s because I’ve dabbled with plenty of JRPGs in my time, or perhaps it’s because I’m 35, but I’m kind of getting bored of playing as a teenager or 20-something saving the world with a rag-tag group of allies around their age. Nah, it’s still fun, e.g., Master Detective Archives! But as with many domains in contemporary society, such as marketing in general, the video game industry seems to be obsessed with youth. Don’t middle-aged and older people use tech, too, for example?
The other reason Venba is a great choice for the lead role is that she is a migrant living in a vastly different society. As I played, I realised the game could have easily centred on her son Kavin (Kavin, not Kevin!), highlighting instead the circumstances of second-generation individuals – those born in the new land. The focus on Venba and her relationships with her husband, son, and mother allow the gamer to appreciate not only the realities of first-gen migrants – valuing their original culture while also valuing, negotiating, and assimilating to a new one – but those of their children.
These experiences will likely be familiar to many with “Global South” to “Global North” backgrounds. Topics addressed include language and cultural barriers and differences, discrimination and harassment, employment opportunities, acculturation, stereotyping, and feelings of cultural loss and discontinuation, the latter especially examined by Venba’s and Paavalan’s relationships with their son.
In a Eurogamer interview, Venba designer and programmer Abhi (who moved to Canada at age 12) commented that media relating migrant stories tend to focus more on second-generation kids. He believes their parents have a “cooler story to tell,” adding that “Venba is more about exploring that relationship between these assimilated children versus their non-native parents.” The protagonist and narrative use cooking to connect, and to express emotions that are sometimes difficult to give words to otherwise.
Lastly, the music while cooking adds to the atmosphere (lots of us love some background tunes while whipping up some grub), with the OST “inspired by Tamil music [the developers] heard while growing up.” I loved the sprinkling of the Tamil language throughout the game. And the colour palette is vibrant and appealing.
- Focuses on Indian/Tamil dishes
- Venba is a much-needed game protagonist
- Explores first-gen migrant/second-gen lives
- Celebrates Tamil culture; beautiful music and colours
I appreciated Venba for its enjoyable gameplay and heartfelt portrayal of the relationship between a mother and her son. But at times it felt as though there was a disconnect between the lively, fun cooking segments and the often very serious issues and sad experiences explored in the dialogue and the rest of the narrative. Even the cover art is very cheerful! Not to say the plot is a downer, it’s not, and there are heartwarming and funny moments.
Another thing is the game is quite short. Indie studios may not have the budget to create longer works. But because Venba is a quick play, for some gamers it might lack the length for them to really get invested in the characters or plot (it’s more like a short story than a novel, I guess). Importantly, it covers a wide range of issues and experiences faced by migrant families, but a longer narrative might’ve allowed these discussions to be fleshed out in more depth via the characters. However, I felt the developers did a good job of addressing these realities without needing to expand the story much.
Further, we have to factor in the medium: Venba is a video game. The studio also had to consider how to thoughtfully and authentically incorporate Tamil cooking into the gameplay, not to mention designing and creating the artwork, visuals, music, etc. They’ve got more on their plate (pun intended) than novelists and other writers who can examine sensitive topics and themes in greater detail through the written word alone.
Finally, I often drop in this last comment when I don’t have many criticisms: there wasn’t any voice acting.
- Lively cooking disconnected at times from serious topics?
- Short game
- No voice acting
Final Score: 8/10
Venba tells the tale of a migrant mum’s relationship with her family, particularly her son. The gameplay involves crafting traditional Tamil food and holding branching dialogues revolving around the experiences of first-gen migrants and their children. While making the dishes is fun, as it is in many cooking sims, Venba expands on the genre by underscoring the lived realities of many families from migrant backgrounds. It also demonstrates how traditional food can be used to bond people, and to respect and keep alive culture across generations.
Thank you for checking out our Venba Switch review, thank you to Visai Games (via Popagenda) for providing the review code and thank you to our Patreon Backers for their ongoing support: