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Venba: A video game about a South Indian immigrant’s story one recipe at a time

Venba, an upcoming indie game for Nintendo Switch, tries to cast a new spotlight on many Asian immigrant populations' experiences in Canada and the US.

Venba, Venba Nintendo Switch, Venda cooking game, Venba game PC, Venba game release date, Venba game south indian foodVenba is currently in development for Nintendo Switch and PC and is scheduled to launch in Spring 2023. (Image credit: Visai Studios)

When Abhi, the creator behind Venba, started narrating the story of the upcoming Nintendo Switch title, it was clear that there was much more to this cooking game that explores Southern Indian cuisine. It’s a story that centres around Tamilian Venba who left India and made a life in Canada, the sacrifices she made to raise a son in a foreign land along with her husband Paavalan with little resources, and held the family together despite odds. Venba’s story is told over several years as she restores her mother’s recipe book and teaches her young son how to cook.

“Cooking becomes very essential because you are trying to say everything that’s unsaid through food,” Abhi, 28, told indianexpress.com in a video call from Canada. “I thought it would be interesting to explore what if we make a cooking game that had South Indian dishes along with a story about a Tamilian Indian family living in Canada,” he says.

The indie game is currently in development for Nintendo Switch and PC and is scheduled to launch in Spring 2023.

For years, in popular culture, especially in movies and TV shows, immigrants from the South Asian diaspora, were either stereotyped or underrepresented. Venba tries to cast a new spotlight on many Asian immigrant populations’ experiences in Canada and the US.

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The character of Venba is central to the narrative. (Image credit: Visai Studios)

Channelling the personal

Although there have been popular cooking games like Cooking Mama, no one has so far tried to communicate what South Indian food is all about and the local culture on a global map through a video game. Made by Toronto-based developer Visai Studios, the inspiration for Venba comes from Abhi’s personal space and meeting local Tamilian families in Canada while growing up alongside references from movies and music.

Abhi, who was born in Chennai and migrated to Canada with his parents at 12, says he experienced a cultural gap between his generation and his parents while growing up. “In a lot of Tamil households, I found that the kids would forget the language and they would speak English at home. So to me, that kind of inequality in that relationship is what I wanted to talk about in the game.”

The premise for the game is that when Venba immigrated to Canada she brought with her mother’s recipe book which was damaged during the trip. Each time you cook a dish, you see the recipe but you only see part of it. The rest of it is torn apart. As a player, you have to use clues from the recipe to put things together and cook dishes a certain way. “To me, cooking is more like a puzzle and I tried to incorporate the same in the game,” Abhi says.

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Abhi says he spent a lot of time researching the food and recipes, even though he himself cooks local Tamilian cuisine at home. “As I researched this game, I realised how much depth and knowledge there is in our cuisine and how much history attached to it,” he says, adding that a lot of people will be encountering these recipes for the first time so it was very important to get it right.

Venba is different from popular cooking games. (Image credit: Visai Studios)

A peek into Venba’s life

The game frequently boasts narratives that rely on the settings of the home, and as a result, players get a glimpse of Venba’s life whether it’s the calendar hanging on the wall which is a Tamilian thing to have or a room filled with books since Paavalan is a writer. “I didn’t want to show stereotypical items as portrayed in movies. I just looked at what my house was or my friend’s house looked like.”

The story is told from the perspective of Venba, with the most basic plot. Venba was a math teacher before she migrated to Canada. But when she moved to Canada, she felt a lot of guilt for leaving India behind. She couldn’t get a full teaching job and instead had to work as a part-time teacher. After having a son, she started to resent moving to Canada and having a new life far from India. “She had to go to Canada, not because she wanted to, but because there were some circumstances in her life,” describes the lead protagonist [Venba] and her struggles to adjust to a new country.

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Much of the media attention has focused on the younger Asian American population. But Abhi feels his parents’ generation’s struggles were not shown properly or at times completely sidelined. “The game sheds the light on what their struggle might be and what they might be thinking,” he says. “She [Venba] is like an amalgamation of a lot of the mothers we see here in our own families,” he adds.

“Venba is all about discovering your roots, understanding why, and where we come from,” Abhi says when asked about the biggest takeaway from the game.

The story of Venba follows her and her family.(Image credit: Visai Studios)

Researching the right way

Abhi and his team talked to professional and home chefs and researched the history of the recipes to understand why they are cooked in a particular way and to make sure what dishes make for good gameplay. “I also had to research what makes sense to cook in Canada because [Venba] came here in the 1980s. As each decade goes by, it becomes easier and easier to source these ingredients but in the 1980s, it was probably much harder to cook something like biryani. It could have been way harder back then compared to today,” he explains. “Our recipes are very complicated…they have plenty of steps and ingredients. I thought it was also a really nice way to tell the story,” he says.

Abhi feels he has a responsibility, as a Tamilian, to represent the people, the culture, the music, and the food in the game in the most authentic way, serving as a veracious voice through which India can tell its varied and compelling stories.

“When you make something into gameplay, it’s not like cinema, because we can’t just capture it exactly as it is. Since a game is interactive, you also have to keep in mind, if the players find it engaging and fun. So, it’s a balance for me, without sacrificing accuracy,” he says.

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You never feel as if you are playing a video game, instead, you feel as if you are watching the lives of real people unfold before your eyes. Venba presents the player with a glimpse into the life of a local Tamilian Indian family in Canada through a love for cooking. Very reminiscent of how a Tamilian family navigates a day, it creates a visual link between Venba’s aspirations and her reality.

Players in the US and Japan are much more open to indie games, says Abhi. (Image credit: Visai Studios)

A dash of Ilaiyaraaja, a pinch of A R Rahman

From the music to the look of Venba’s home, nothing seems strictly forced and unauthentic. “The music in the game has been set in a way that every time Venba starts to cook, she turns on the radio. For me, cooking at home was very similar… There’s always a TV or the radio or something in the background,” says Abhi.

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Abhi relied on traditional Tamilian music that combined metaphors to describe the emotions of Venba and her family. He and the team have composed the background music that reminds us of each era since the game starts in the 1980s and goes all the way back to the 2000s. So in the 80s, the songs played on the radio reminded players of Ilaiyaraaja songs and by the 90s, the music changed its tunes and songs sounded like A R Rahman music played on the radio. “Not only we showed Tamil music and culture but also how it’s changed throughout the years,” Abhi says.

For Abhi, Venba is a global game at heart that can be played by every age group of players. It’s a casual game that can be completed in just two hours.

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“Venba is all about discovering your roots, understanding why, and where we come from,” Abhi says when asked about the biggest takeaway from the game.

Visai Studios is a Toronto-based game studio. Abhi (centre) alongside his team. (Image credit: Visai Studios)

Ready for the world

Before Venba, Abhi and his team were working on an action platformer but put the game on hold after working on it for six months. Instead, they turned their attention to Venba and started working on the game.

Venba was first announced at the WholeGames festival over a year ago and earlier this year in June, the first look of the game was unveiled at the Tribeca Games Showcase. It was initially a PC game but the big moment came when Venba was a part of Nintendo’s Indie Showcase World event in November.

“We are not the ones who reached out to Nintendo but they reached out to us very early on when they saw the first trailer for the game, and they wanted to help us bring it to their platforms,” an elated Abhi says, adding that Nintendo has been pushing for games that are fresh, unique and interesting. Before Venba, Raji: An Ancient Epic appeared on Nintendo Switch, a testament to how lately games with Indian characters and narratives are going global.

Abhi agrees, by and large, local Indian game developers aren’t still convinced to tell their deeply rooted stories to a global audience and that is working against them. “I haven’t seen too much change here. There is a lot of resistance to saying the game is from an Indian culture or context,” he says. But he hopes things might change in the future. “I feel like game developers in India and Pakistan should focus on doing small stories from their own houses. I think the world is ready for that.”

First published on: 04-12-2022 at 11:44 IST
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