After not visiting the cinema in recent years thanks to the pandemic, I've now been eight times in the last three months. One thing that's bugged me, though, is how the duration of your average Hollywood film is now close to a Bollywood film, but with fewer musical dance numbers to break up the experience. Venba, on the other hand, is a lean experience, lasting about the length of an enjoyable trip to the restaurant. This is ideal, given the puzzles and story both revolve around food.
The story begins in 1988, with an immigrant couple, Venba and her husband, settling down in Canada fresh from India, and trying to adjust their day-to-day lives for this new, bitter environment. How is it going? The first scene shows us Venba feeling unwell, lying down on the sofa, looking tired and dishevelled. Her husband keeps asking whether Venba is okay, but she brushes his concerns off, making light of her ordeal. We have to make her first choice here: continue to lie down and rest, or avoid a hungry husband by making him some lunch before he heads out for work?
The gameplay revolves around making conversation choices, and interacting with ingredients and utensils in the kitchen to create food, with an overhead view you'd find in familiar vlogs and cooking tutorials. There's a puzzle element to the way you cook. You sometimes have to get the exact order of the ingredients correct, move your mouse or analogue stick to stir things up, or fill in the gaps of each recipe. It's nothing too demanding, and there are hints you can ask for at the bottom of the screen if you're not very kitchen-inclined.
Venba's nudged towards seeing a doctor for her ailments, and comes back smiling, clearly feeling like an entirely new person. She learns that she's pregnant, and shares the news with her husband. It's a brisk game, and the storyline jumps forward a decade or so into the future, where we see Venba trying to cook for her son Kavin. Kavin is all about pizza, so it takes more than just a nudge to convince him to try an Indian dish. As the story progresses, though, Kavin takes over cooking and gameplay duties, and it's interesting to see how much more meaningful the story feels as he tries to reconnect and remain connected with his Tamil culture.
'Indian food' can sometimes be a lazy term for the food that serves over a billion people in the subcontinent, with multiple countries and distinct regions having their own specific ingredients and cooking styles. This is something I didn't have to remind myself of throughout Venba when I came across both new and familiar dishes.
The Tamil region and community is known for its food, and the most memorable dish for me in the game was the biryani. You've probably had some form of this fragrant rice before, but the variations and cooking styles I've seen in my life vary so dang much. Some heinous folk skip the essential potatoes, others vow that biryani with meat is better than the version with chicken (they're wrong), and some don't add peas. And then there are monsters who either put in too much or too little of the essential spices and chillies essential for this life-saving food.
I was pleasantly surprised the game included the layered form of a biryani recipe, where the boiled rice and meat mixture is added in by, you guessed it, multiple separate layers. For some reason, people in my family ask me to do the honours of adding the layers for this final step. My sister has called me over many times in the past, and once I was visiting my aunt who invited me into the kitchen to do this for her too. I don't know whether it's the time I spent in the lab at uni that's made me adept at getting the layering proportions right, but it's a skill I shall take with me to the grave. I think this is what some folks in minority groups mean when they say they feel 'seen' in narrative media, right?
Some of the recipes in Venba were new to me, or of food I've only seen through screens, as the Indian community close to where I live are from other parts of the country, and not the south. Dosas, thin crepe-like pancakes, are often served with small dishes and chutneys, are yet to take off in a major way in the UK as they have in other parts of the west. But getting the ingredients and its cooking timing right in Venba reminded me of how much of a novice I remain in the kitchen, and how much care even simple-looking dishes from other cultures require to perfect.
The main story of Venba reminded me of Mira Nair's movie adaptation of The Namesake. That story also deals with the issues such as cultural assimilation, mother tongues and feelings of alienation that Venba explores. Given it's based on an acclaimed literary novel, it has greater depth tackling those subjects when compared to Venba, but it's not a game, and only has fleeting moments referencing Indian food.
However, Venba captures something wonderful and mysterious to those of us in the diaspora, which is the real and imaginary conversations our parents and grandparents must have had about moving to the west. Every person or couple moving from one country to another for work or personal reasons still asks the same questions, always wondering whether they've done the right thing or not, balancing their needs and wants with opportunity and fear.
There's a wonderful, relatable moment in the game where a young, western-acclimatised Kavin calls his father's workplace on behalf of his mother, his English already prime for adult conversation. It took me back to a moment in Ocean Vuong's fiction-memoir hybrid, On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous, where the young boy version of the protagonist speaks for his mother, ordering lingerie for her over the phone through a catalogue-order company. The women on the other end of the line would be charmed and ask him about school and his favourite cartoon shows.
The art style of Venba is wonderful. Each frame looks like a crude but intentional painting. I wanted to take a screenshot every few seconds, similar to my experience with Hi-Fi Rush earlier this year. And although the vignette-style story left me wanting more, I knew I was already satisfied after the first couple of scenes. Venba's simple gameplay allows you to enjoy its story more, and though its presence is as temporary as a 90-minute movie, the rarity of such experiences always leave you feeling good once the credits start to roll. The day prior to playing Venba, my sister and I made biryani together. But after this experience, I wanted to do it all over again.